Many Pieces, Loosely Joined: Independent Media in the Digital Age


Danyl Strype challenges the vision of state-controlled broadcasting presented by Chris Trotter, and offers an alternative vision of a diverse range of public-interest media organisations, their work freely available under CreativeCommons licenses.

Yesterday, Chris Trotter laid out a vision for taking control of broadcasting back from the corporate media, in a post on theDailyBlog entitled 'The Opinion of the People: Some Thoughts on Labour’s Non-Existent Broadcasting Policy'. Presenting the evolution of modern broadcasting as a national scale "public square", Chris wrote:

Over more than two centuries, the functions of the (formerly quite literal) public square have migrated: firstly, to the output of the rotary press; and then, from the 1920s, to the airwaves carrying radio broadcasts; and finally, from 1960 in New Zealand, to television.

Chris does tip his hat to the rising influence of the net, but it's essential to the rest of his argument to downplay this:

Since 1992, the duopoly of influence over the public square which the print and electronic media enjoyed has been challenged by the Internet. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, for the overwhelming majority of citizens, the news of the day still arrives via a newspaper, the radio and/or television.

If Broadcasting were still as important as Chris suggests, why did newly-elected Labour leader David Cunliffe toss it to a junior colleague, while taking the ICT portfolio for himself? I'd say it's because he knows that regardless of the statistics on where most people currently get the "news of the day", most people my age ("Gen X") rely on carefully chosen sources on the web to inform us about the world. For our children, going to the Net for information is as normal as watching the TV news was for us as children. In the coming decades, television will still have its place, as radio did during the reign of television, but particularly as the UFB kicks in, Broadband will continue to replace Broadcasting as the virtual public square.

Even the news carried on the Internet is (mostly) still drawn from “traditional” media sources.

Really? I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the ComPost and the Herald quoting FarceBook as a source. However, the real point here is that Chris fails to distinguish between a medium and an organisation. Corporate media organisations like MediaWorks and Fairfax have done their best to see that the same "news" appears on all media; print, radio, television, and internet. What he calls "traditional media sources" are now merely trademarked brands, used to convince people that this corporate propaganda is balanced and objective.

Neil Postman, in his seminal work on television as a medium, 'Amusing Ourselves to Death', offers a biting critique of the whole concept of "news of the day". Postman's insight is that television news is based on the logic of the telegraph, where information is broken into a series of chunks, valuable mainly for their novelty, and isolated from any context or analysis. YouTube conspiracy videos provide the same kind of one-sided visual "bite" as TV news items, but at least there is a comments area where context and critique can be posted, and a range of other viewpoints of the subject are a few clicks and a web search away. Most importantly, being on the web, these videos are seldom accepted as gospel truth in the same way as the propaganda served through the "evening news", despite being no more or less reliable or useful as a source of information.

Turning to solutions, Chris talks about this history of public radio and the Listener under "Mickey Savage", and contrasts this with the monopoly power currently vested in Sky TV, which he wants Nationalized. He then proposes to merge RadioNZ, TVNZ, and NZ on Air back into a unified, not-for-profit, state-controlled corporation. I can easily imagine what a future government could do to a centralized NZBC. Exactly what Labour/National governments did through the 80s and 90s to the old one; break it up and commercialize it Remember what Einstein said about doing the same thing and expecting different results?

Besides, I can't imagine why Chris thinks having a Labour/Greens government nationalize a large chunk of the country's media under a single, groaning bureaucracy could help matters. For one thing, I can't think of a better way to hand the corporate media a stick to beat the new government with. I can just see the headlines, "Labour/Greens Governments Abolishes the Freedom of the Press".

More importantly though, I can't see how such a unified state corporation could do any better at maintaining editorial independence than its privately-owned, ad-funded counterparts. What we actually need is a plethora of independent, publicly-funded media organisations, whose news and current events works are licensed under CreativeCommons. This would allow them to be freely reproduced in whatever media people wish to receive them through, and allow the organisations to freely quote, analyse, and critique each other's work, whether it is in print, audio, image, or video. While we're on the subject, the same applies to publicly-funded music, television series, films etc. There's just no argument for giving private production companies, first broadcasters, or even the creators themselves, a commercial monopoly over works which have been subsidized or even fully paid for already by the public. CreativeCommons the lot of it and let the public who paid for it decide how they want to access, transmit, and store it.

Waxing lyrical about radio and television broadcasting at this point in history is like being concerned about the fate of the telegraph in the 1960s. It's a sub-issue of a non-issue. The real questions are how public-interest journalists, social critics, artists, scientists etc get funding to live, and create and publish their work, without having to self-censor to remain commercially viable, and how the public gets access to their work.


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