The powerful few: Kiwi media becoming plaything of global shareholders, say researchers

The News International phone hacking saga put the cosy network of media and government in sharp focus and showed how powerful media organisations can extert undue pressure on lawmakers and law upholders. And, according to a report by AUT University’s Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD), similar trends—and their associated dangers—are also evident in New Zealand. 

Local media companies are increasingly dominated by global and pan-regional corporations and are vulnerable to commercial and shareholder pressures and, as a result, they are now economising, digitising and monetising, with dire consequences for those employed in the industry—and consumers.

“There are now three major players that own 80 percent plus of the New Zealand media – APN, Fairfax and MediaWorks,” says JMAD co-director and AUT media studies lecturer associate professor Wayne Hope. “The sphere for public debate is shrinking with fewer voices, fewer journalists and fewer outlets. Every New Zealander relies on mass media for information about the world around them.

“In a situation where we have concentration of ownership into a few hands and profit becomes more important than public interest, the danger is not only that we get less information overall, we also get less variety of information.”

The report chronicles key events and trends which have most recently shaped the media space, including the closure of news service NZPA after 130 years, the closure of The Independent, job losses for journalists, printers, advertising and distribution workers, the end of funding of TVNZ7 and TVNZ6, the expansion of Sky to the internet sphere, and corporates entering the local news markets.

“Within media operations themselves, financial holdings have increased significantly,” wrote author Merja Myllylahti. “During 2011 Fairfax, APN and Sky expanded their influence at the expense of public broadcasting provision and independent, nationwide news services.”

Although Fairfax and APN are fierce competitors, they are also exploring ways to converge their operations, including possibly combining printing operations.

The report argues that news stories are being informed by fewer sources, resulting in fewer voices being heard.

“Broadly speaking there are fewer mainstream content providers and less choice for consumer-citizens,” says Myllylahti.

However, emerging hyperlocal news sites “may encourage alternative public spheres of communication, alongside a growing acceptance of user-generated news-like content and the rising popularity of blogs, social media and alternative news”.

According to the report, one of the most noticeable changes to the media landscape was Telecom’s decision to pull out of Yahoo!Xtra when it sold its stake to majority owner Yahoo7.

“After the sale the Yahoo!Xtra business was rebranded to Yahoo!New Zealand – somewhat of a misnomer since the company is owned by the American Yahoo and Australia’s Seven Network.”

Another shift occurred in the form of the government’s decision to close down TVNZ7 and TVNZ6, something Myllylahti says was beneficial for one operator: Sky TV and its shareholders.

Hope says the relationship between big media and government was “too cosy”.

“We’ve seen that made massively clear with Rupert Murdoch. In that situation a handful of powerful media companies also exert undue influence over government. The $43 million loan to MediaWorks to cover their licence fee and other expenses is a local example.”

Media corporations have also been busy expanding their operations to group-buying sites and other e-commerce platforms. In February, MediaWorks launched its own daily deals offering, Cudo – a joint venture between MediaWorks, Microsoft, Australia’s Nine Entertainment and Cudo Australia. Meanwhile, APN increased its ownership of GrabOne from 50 to 75 percent. Fairfax also bought Occupancy, which operates Australian websites listing holiday rental properties, to add to its portfolio that includes holiday rental site Stayz and online travel operations Holidayhomes.co.nz and Bookit.co.nz.

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