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The title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.
A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.
Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.
The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.
But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press