Fair Go kept businesses honest for five decades – who’s watching now?

Opinion (Note: this piece originally appeared on The New Zealand Herald)

A phone call from the team at Fair Go has spiked the cortisol of communications professionals and business leaders for the better part of five decades.

It has always been a sharp reminder that the misstep a business had made would not remain hidden indefinitely and that someone would be held accountable.

The decision to cut this show would no doubt have come down to a combination of declining ratings, the expense of making the show and the drop in advertising revenue. All those things are easily measured and can be placed on a spreadsheet to inform the commercial conclusion that the show is no longer viable in the current market.

What we haven’t measured as effectively is the increased heart rate businesses and PR practitioners have felt when they heard those seemingly innocuous words: “Hi, I’m a journalist from Fair Go and I’m currently working on a story…”

The question that should accompany these discussions is: How much is that worth to society?

It’s easy to argue that in a capitalist society, struggling businesses sometimes fall over, but there are also some institutions that carry value beyond what we can see on a spreadsheet.

The media has long been signified by the old English phrase ‘the fourth estate’, but a more fitting modern expression of this in New Zealand is perhaps borrowed from the Spanish (cuarto poder) or the German (vierte gewalt) which refers to the fourth power in society. The idea is that the press serves as the unofficial fourth branch of power in society, holding the legislative, executive and judiciary to account.

It has become common to hear people condemn the media for bias, mistakes or for chasing eyeballs with soft stories, but take a moment to imagine New Zealand with a diminished press.

How many businesses would never have to face those awkward questions? How many politicians would be given a free ride? And how many victims would not have any place to share their stories?

Again, you won’t see any of this quantified on the spreadsheets that have informed the recent commercial decisions, but some things carry meaning beyond the quantifiable numbers.

It’s also worth noting that the best stories covered on traditional broadcast media aren’t just limited to those broadcasts. They often trend on social media and are also picked up by other news organisations and turned into far bigger stories. You need only look at the fallout from former Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson’s performance during his interview with Jack Tame on Q+A last year to know that strong stories go far further than their broadcast ratings might indicate. Losing a strong broadcast news and current affairs show will invariably mean that important New Zealand stories sometimes don’t even make it into the online zeitgeist.

In his excellent poem Resurrection, writer Dylan Garrity observed: “The spotlight isn’t about the light. It’s how it makes everything around it dark.”

Without Fair Go, Sunday and Newshub, the news spotlight in this country is thinner than it has ever been in modern history.

How many faces and stories will be left in the dark at a time when our population is growing and there are in fact more stories than ever to be told?

You can’t count something if you don’t even know it’s there.

Suddenly, a long time coming

The current plight of news media feels like a sudden on-set calamity as unexpected as a trainwreck.

But trainwrecks don’t always happen suddenly. They’re sometimes the product of the rails being worn down year after year until catastrophe seems to strike randomly.

There’s been nothing random about this.

Mass job losses at TVNZ, the closure of Newshub, restructures at NZME and Stuff, and deep cuts at MediaWorks may have all come in quick succession, but newsrooms have faced an incremental decline that has seen the number of New Zealand journalists halve in the last 15 years.

Incremental cuts have been part of the modern news experience and that was only paused, momentarily, because market conditions shifted so dramatically during Covid.

What we’re now seeing is a sharp correction in employment numbers, which essentially brings the downward trajectory in news teams around the country back to the mean.

It’s notable that this is in line with trends we’re seeing elsewhere in business. In 2021, Bryan Williams of BWA Insolvency warned that corporate insolvencies would spike off the back of Covid because markets would start to return to normal off the back of Government assistance during Covid.

During Covid, we saw large news companies hold steadier than in earlier years. This was driven by eyeballs turning to the trustworthy traditional news media when they needed to be sure of the information they required, and it was supported by wage subsidies and an increase in Government advertising to inform the public.

It comes with little surprise that the Financial Times reported in December last year a significant rise in corporate bankruptcies in most advanced economies as borrowing costs rise and governments unwind pandemic-era measures to support businesses.

The news sector has not been immune to this impact and we’re now re-entering a phase of business as usual, which means that the old trends are returning with full force.

The vacuum cleaners

This brings us to the issue of the tech giants (Google, Meta and more recently TikTok), who have plugged giant vacuum cleaners into the New Zealand economy and sucked out billions of dollars of advertising revenue.

Successive Governments have failed to heed the warning of the negative impact that this would eventually have on our democracy and we are now on the brink of paying the price for that.

But this issue isn’t solved easily. Even in Australia, where new legislation saw Google and Meta sign deals worth around $200 million with news providers, the wheels recently came off when Meta declared that it would not be renewing any of those deals because news was no longer a priority.

New Zealand lawmakers are currently working to get the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill across the line, but, as the Australian example indicates, there’s no guarantee that this will have the desired effect.

If the news sector isn’t stabilised through some form of commercial funding or increased government backing, then the mirrors to our society will increasingly be held by tech giants far removed from our islands.

This means fewer and fewer of our stories will be told in a way that reflects who we are.

Already studies have shown that language use and even the Kiwi accent are becoming more Americanised among younger New Zealanders under the growing weight of international media influence.

Instead of asking how much value there is in a news programme, perhaps we should instead start asking how much the Kiwi accent is worth.

Damien Venuto is a senior account director at One Plus One Communications. He previously worked at the New Zealand Herald as a business reporter and podcast host between 2017 and 2023.