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On Fast Track Powers, Media Woes And The Tiktok Ban

Feel worried. Shane Jones and a couple of his Cabinet colleagues are about to be granted the power to override any and all objections to projects like dams, mines, roads etc even if:

  1. said projects will harm biodiversity, increase global warming and cause other environmental harms, and
  2. even if an expert panel and/or the courts have previously said th projects in question should not proceed and
  3. even if the projects contravene the terms and conditions of New Zealand’s trade agreements and other international conventions inn which we’ve pledged to protect biodiversity and
  4. even if said projects are being promoted by corporate donors to the National Party, ACT or New Zealand First.

Hey, if you give ultimate power to Shane Jones, Simeon Brown and Chris Bishop, what could possibly go wrong? As yet, we don’t know which projects will end up getting the go ahead from this trio of rubber stampers, so it would be premature to cry “corruption.” However, the coalition government’s Fast Track Approvals Bill is throwing the door wide open to it.

Putting Down The Watchdog

Sorry to add to the doom-posting about the state of the media, but in an Ipsos poll late last year, journalists came in seven points below bankers on the “trusted professions” scale. Yikes. And if you can believe a recent AUT study, trust in the media has dropped “precipitously” from how things were the last time the academics looked in that direction.

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As the nation’s CEO well knows, the centre right would win no votes at all if it launched a rescue mission to save the bottom feeders in the media industry from extinction. In fact, the day that Stuff threw a lifeline to Newshub, it was amusing to see Media and

Communications Minister Melissa Lee assure everyone that the rescue deal had nothing to do with her efforts, or with those of the government.

Why is the public though, so lacking in love for the Fourth Estate ? For starters, the media is rarely the bearer of good news. It is the medium through which the public learns about policy changes and outcomes, and it also provides the main lens through which our impressions of politicians get formed. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise therefore, that the public quite often feels like shooting the messenger.

Of late, the reliance of the media on dwindling advertising revenues has come home to roost. By sheer bad coincidence, the cutbacks in the media industry have had to compete for public sympathy with massive public service job cuts across the likes of Education, Oranga Tamariki, the Mental Health Foundation and other institutions. Expertise is also being lost to scientific research and to climate change knowledge via similar job cuts at the likes of NIWA and the Department of Conservation.

In other words, a lot of socially significant areas have come under attack, and they’re competing with the media for public concern. Mike McRoberts and the rest of Newshubs news team may well be a taonga, but – arguably - the public has more immediate losses on its mind.

Maybe, as Colin Peacock noted on Mediawatch, “trust” had also been the wrong metric for the AUT academics to have considered. Cynicism is rife, and getting rifer. Quaintly, the word “trust” implies acceptance on faith. For the past 40 years, that’s not how people have interacted with the media.

Meaning: public attitudes to the media have always been ambivalent. People may not like the content of the news, its priorities, the emotive style in which it is presented and the nightly exposure it gives to polarising political figures. But do people “ value” the media being

there ? They probably do on balance, even if they may not “trust” it much. Personally, I think its healthy hat the audience now starts out from a position of sceptical distrust of the media, and feels impelled to fact check it. So it should.

Ah, but where and how is the public going to do that fact checking? If you believe the pundits, if the public lets go of the hand of the media professionals, they are more than likely to end up on social media in the slavering jaws of something worse. To put it mildly, that’s not often the case. It presumes too much faith in the media, in the face of compelling evidence that such faith is widely felt to be irretrievably lost. To the extent it ever existed, such trust – it could be argued - was always misplaced. ( See below.)

To use a religious analogy, the media audience are almost all lapsed Catholics these days. Only the media priesthood thinks that the credulous trust of yore can be regained by say, dialling back the number of media opinion pieces, and going back to the “just the facts, ma’am” reporting of the good old days.

Such beliefs ignore the chief reason why people mis-trust the media. For the past 60 years at least, the accepted wisdom in media circles – which dictates so much of the selected content and tone of media discourse – has been flatly and consistently wrong. On Vietnam, Rogernomics, asset sales, free trade, health reform, the invasion of Iraq, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and (especially) on climate change and farm-generated water and soil pollution, the editorial line of the day has consistently lagged behind valid public opinion. Eventually, the editorial line has adjusted,and - at glacial pace- has grudgingly embraced the positions it used to shun and despise.

Time and again, yesterday’s radical extremes have become tomorrow’s received wisdom. On any given day though, the media editorial line ( with its “Overton Window” of acceptable terms of discourse) is likely to be lagging hopelessly behind reality. No wonder the public turns to the Internet. It learned from experience that the media is an unreliable narrator.

The Fact v Opinion Phony War

Truth be told, the good old days in the media were not that great. Think of it this way: “facts” presented without context are usually meaningless, and so is “opinion”presented without the evidence to back it up. I would argue that reportage (aka objective journalism) and opinion (aka evaluative journalism) are two sides of the same coin, and the currency is usually pretty worthless unless both elements are present.

Simply labelling “opinion” pieces with a sticker does nothing to address the core problem of objective journalism. Namely, that it hides the criteria it uses to select and edit the stories it chooses to cover, and which it all too often presents in the form of competing and contradictory statements that the priests of objective journalism prefer to leave to the hapless reader to figure out for themelves.

Such are the evils of the “bothside-ism” that has long plagued so much of what passes for “objective” reporting and – again – it is little wonder that so many people turn to the Internet to escape from it.

It would be unfortunate if, in the media’s time of trial, it turned away from the tasks of evaluation, and re-embraced the myths of objective journalism. Historically, that approach mainly enabled the elites in the legislature, executive and judiciary to talk to each other in code, while the Fourth Estate dutifully wrote it all down, and fed it to the plebs. No-one should want to go back to those days.

Luckily, we don’t have to. We keep being told that within a short few years, the media in its entirety is going to be doing its work online. Despite the concerns about society’s digital divide – 10 % of the public can’t afford the access costs, and they risk being shut out – the rest of us should welcome the transition. Mainly because of the potential it offers for greater transparency, via links to the evidence on which media narratives are based.

Similarly, the guest columnists and the opinion piece writers should

be required to provide on the digital page, the links to the supportive evidence for the assertions they’re making. News reportage will have to be just as transparent about its sources, and be more enlightening about the contextual winners and losers of the policies on which it is reporting. It's all good, man.

Footnote One: If the digitalisation process results in a more overtly ideological media in this country, then so be it. Again, as Mediawatch recently pointed out, in those countries where media outlets are far more forthright and transparent about their ideological identities ( eg. Spain, France, Germany) the public’s trust in the media is actually far higher than it is in New Zealand.

Footnote Two: No one really thinks the Stuff supply of a cut-price news service on TV3 is a sustainable way to address the gaping hole in the revenue required to do quality journalism. The reality is that viewing habits have splintered, and broadcast TV channels will continue to lose the bulk of their advertising revenue to foreign digital rivals that can avoid incurring the cost of providing local content, or a local news service.

There has been talk – and tentative moves were made by the previous government – of imposing a levy on the streaming services (eg Netflix, Prime, Disney +) and on Facebook,Youtube, Tik Tok etc. Theoretically, this would create a bigger pool of revenue to finance the work of the production companies that generate local content, and which heavily depend on TVNZ and TV3 for exposure. As the Spinoff recently noted, TVNZ+ (364) and Three Now (81) have almost 450 local productions available for streaming. Netflix, the most popular streamer in New Zealand, reportedly offers only seven.

A reality check, though. New Zealand is far, far too small to bring the likes of Netflix, Google and Facebook to heel. California for example, is said to be the fifth largest economy in the world. Yet Meta and Google are threatening to cut off news items (and searches) about California if the state proceeds with its proposed California Journalism Preservation Act.This legislation would require the social media giants to pay a “journalism useage fee” for linking to news sites based in California:

Google has temporarily blocked links from local news outlets in California from appearing in search results in response to the advancement of a bill that would require tech companies to pay publications for links that articles share. The change applies only to some people using Google in California, though it is not clear how many.

If New Zealand tried something similar, Facebook, Youtube and Google would simply cut off our access to their services.

Footnote Three :Hidden within that recent US military aid bill to Israel and Ukraine was a Congressional Bill to ban Tiktok. That Bill will now advance to the Senate, where Democratic senator Maria Cantwell has been spearheading moves to insulate a Tiktok ban from the expected legal challenge - on constitutional grounds - that such a ban would violate free speech rights. National security will be invoked to over-ride these First Amendment objections, even though no evidence has ever been presented to show that TikTok poses an imminent security threat to the United States.

US President Joe Biden has signalled his willingness to sign such a Bill, despite the lack of evidence of data breaches, and despite his already plunging support among 18-30 year old Americans in general, and amid young males in particular. Some of this collapse in support has been attributed to Biden’s policies on Gaza.

Banning TikTok will probably speed that decline in the youth vote on which the Democrats depend. This is especially likely since Donald Trump has executed a swift 180 degree change of direction on a Tiktok ban, after he met earlier this year with Jeff Yass, a billionaire Tiktok shareholder and major Republican Party donor. Suddenly, Trump – whose presidential Executive Order attempts to ban Tiktok were struck down by the US courts – is Tiktok’s new BFF.

Footnote Four: Americans who feel worried about Tiktok passing on their data to the Chinese Communists should be made aware that the US social media giants are liable by law to pass on such data to the US government, and regularly do so. Meta’s transparency page available here, records nearly 74,000 such requests in the six month period between January and June 2023.

Interestingly, Meta also records that 234 such requests were made to it by the New Zealand government during the same period. That sort of thing explains why the real answer is not a selective ban imposed solely on Tiktok, but a comprehensive law to protect data privacy for all, from all, by all.

Black metal romance

For almost 20 years, the French black metal musician Neige and the varied incarnations of his Alcest project have pulled off an influential fusion of black metal and shoegaze, a niche genre that’s now known as blackgaze. (The US band Deafheaven has been on a similar journey. Incredibly, it has been over ten years since Deafheaven released their breakthrough album, Sunbather. )

Alcest’s new single “Flamme Jumelle” (Twin Flame) is up to Neige’s usual standards. The video for the track also manages to showcase an engrossing five and a half minute piece of creative dance, thanks to dancers Coralie Benard and Aline Lugovskaya. Here’s the link:

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