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The Fourth Estate is in Danger: An Analysis of Journalism in New Zealand, Media Ownership, News Quality, and Digression into Infotainment

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As defined by Hampton (2010), when the term ‘Fourth Estate’ was first created by Edmund Burke, it was applied to illustrate how the press mediated between the other three estates and the public beyond parliament. It was designed to act on behalf of all people by informing them of the actions of those in power. This essay will argue that in today’s liberal democratic societies, journalism is failing in its Fourth Estate ideals. A combination of corporate greed and the public’s desire for entertainment has resulted in diminishing levels of representation, accountability and information relevant to the public. This worrying trend both damages democracy, and creates an imbalance of power in society. Campbell Live, a prime-time current affairs TV show in New Zealand will be used as a case study throughout this essay as an example of the Fourth Estate as it was originally envisioned. Its recent demise is exemplary of topical factors in society which have slowly been eroding journalism as the Fourth Estate. The Fourth Estate ideals that journalism today will be evaluated against are three main goals; to inform, represent, and play a watchdog role. In other words, the media should give everyone in society – including minorities a voice, hold the government accountable to prevent corruption, and provide the public with the necessary information to be engaged citizens in a democracy (Hampton).

These are still values the industry holds today, but the extent to which this happens in reality is debateable. Increasingly, it is an industry prepared to exercise and pursue self-interested commercial, political and cultural agendas, says Schultz (2010). The term ‘Fourth Estate’ is now known colloquially as a synonym for the press, and whether this watchdog role is actually carried out is up to the individual media company. Mediaworks, the owners of Campbell Live have decided in favour of profit, rather than acting as the Fourth Estate, as will be shown throughout this essay.

 

Representation is one of three main values that journalists strive for; including all relevant community stakeholders like minorities, marginalised, disadvantaged and deviant peoples within a society. Romano (2010) indicates that coverage of these groups enables inclusive, critical deliberation in regard to the common good, by a society, as it ensures nobody’s opinion or perspective is left out from decision-making processes. In the case of Campbell Live, the value of representation was reported by Edwards (2015), as evident in the many people “he has given a human face, who are now without a voice”. Campbell frequently used his high media profile as a springboard for campaigns, including Food in Schools and to help victims of the Christchurch earthquake (Campbell Live vs Kardashian’s Arse, 2015). The Daily Blog (2015) laments the loss of Campbell as an activist and campaigner for those underrepresented in government. Another media commentator, Brian Edwards quoted by Thompson (2015), said it was a pity that John Campbell was leaving the channel. “He is a sort of advocacy journalist, and what you might call a change agent in New Zealand, for the better. And also been a very fine broadcaster.” Edwards observed that the seriousness of Campbell Live’s broadcasting style and programme was incompatible with Mediawork’s entertainment-driven interests. In Campbell vs Kardashian, it is explained how with the demise of Campbell Live, the only source of timely more in-depth information on television on these important issues is gone. This illustrates the changing role of the media, from an institute of political life designed to act on behalf of the people, to the media itself being an industry prepared to pursue self-interested commercial agendas (Schultz).

Looking to the ownership of media outlets can provide reasons as to why certain voices and not others are heard. As opposed to the commercially driven agendas of private media companies in New Zealand, in the case of Mexico, government censorship of the media resulted in limited representation of the political spectrum, thereby reinforcing the status quo, according to Lawson (2002). When the government controls the media, only those who are in power are represented, meaning that the media is not performing a watchdog role, and cannot be called the fourth estate. The information going out through the media can be censored by the government to justify their regime, however fallible it may be. When the media in Mexico was privatised, this resulted in vastly different coverage of politics, with a greater focus on journalism as the fourth estate, rather than lapdog journalism serving government interests. As Lawson explains “by stimulating competition, media outlets had to take audiences demands into account rather than censor’s preferences. They legitimise opposition forces by covering them, generating support for political alternatives… so increase odds for regime change” (p. 63). In this way, economic liberalisation produces media free from government control. Due to the commercial nature of privately owned media, they have independence through profits and are insulated from the demands of those in power. Schultz illustrates the positive potential that private ownership can have on the media, as opposed to government ownership.

However, just because media is not owned by the state, does not mean that it will not have interests of its own. Mediaworks, the company that owned Campbell Live was private, and had profit-oriented goals that in the case of Campbell Live overrode journalistic ideals of the Fourth Estate. Hampton describes how private actors place profit over news quality, the result being a trend of shows reliant on entertainment, or ‘dumbed down’ news. As Lawson explains, economic liberalisation may produce media independent of government control, but beholden to the interests of private actors. This is a somewhat paradoxical situation, with neither ownership situation resulting in journalism that acts as the Fourth Estate. When government own the media there is the risk of their own bias seeping in, as they have the power to limit editorial and journalistic freedom. This was seen in the case of Mexico before the media was privatised and coverage of the news changed. However, on the other hand, when the market rules, Schultz exemplifies that the media is insulated from demands of politicians, and so forth, but the lure of profits can, and in the case of the termination of Campbell Live, has overshadowed journalistic integrity to the truth.

 

Another cornerstone of journalism is that of providing information to the public. According to Hampton, any concept of fourth estate requires accessible presentation of serious information and an independent perspective. After Campbell Live’s last episode, tv3 replaced it with police reality show ‘Road Cops’ in the interim period until a permanent replacement could be found for the current affairs show. The show synopsis of ‘Road Cops describes it as “a mixture of action, emotion and the downright bizarre.” (TV3 Road Cops, 2015). While the stories shown are true, their main aim is to entertain and shock, rather than inform the public. This is a perfect example of ‘infotainment’, where information is combined with entertainment to increase viewership. The danger of this is exacerbated in New Zealand due to the lack of media diversity, as there are only two main television companies, making choice extremely limited (Campbell vs Kardashian, 2015). As Thompson observes, every healthy, pluralist democracy feeds off a lively, competitive media ecosystem that provides citizens with a range of information and contrasting perspectives.

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Following Road cops is similar programme ‘All New Road Cops’, then ‘Gold Coast Cops’ (TV3 Road Cops). Not only are these infotainment and not news, replacing a current affairs show, but also a poor representation of society. When minorities are portrayed on these shows it is in the negative light of them committing crimes – a very narrow representation, to say the least. This excess of crime portrayal on prime time television is also an example of the media values of sensationalism and conflict. The fact that these values are placed above representation, information and accountability highlights the negative effects of private ownership. Blogger Brian Edwards (2015) explains that the fault does not lie with TV3, a private company who is under no obligation to continue running a programme dropping in ratings and revenue. Instead, it is the failure of successive New Zealand governments to provide New Zealand with a true public service television channel.

The third and final concept is the role of media as watchdog. Ideally, when performing this role, the media will holds those in positions of power to account. The awareness they are being scrutinised will lead them to make decisions beneficial for the public, rather than themselves. Lawson, (2012) indicates that this watchdog role should be performed in a balanced, unbiased manner where voice is given to competing political perspectives, and government corruption is able to be exposed. The domestic market is failing to give information in New Zealand, according to (Zealandia). Also as a result of the media’s commercialisation is the growth of freelance journalists. A study by Hampton demonstrated that in Britain 1969, 10% of journalists were freelance – by 1994, this had grown to around 33%, with similar statistics worldwide. Consequently, journalists are required to churn out more stories with fewer resources – not very conducive to effective investigative journalism.

Bradbury (2015) says “we now have no primetime fourth estate holding power to account. We are officially a one party state with lapdogs for watch dogs”. This is in reference to other current affairs shows like 7 Sharp and the Paul Henry show, which are headed by notoriously right wing (aka pro John key) broadcasters and don’t provide the challenge to power required of a media calling itself the Fourth Estate. The replacement of Campbell Live with ‘Road Cops’ leaves the media’s role as information provider and representative of the public unfulfilled. Potentially solving the dilemmas of corporate and government ownership over news is alternative journalism which has been described by Schultz as a type of ‘fifth estate’, to check the media itself, partly stemming from an increasingly critical attitude of the public towards the media.  Hampton claims, rather pragmatically that the fourth estate is an ideal to aspire to; met often enough to make government and businesses at least consider the public response to their actions.

Campbell Live is described by a New Zealand Labour Party Press Release (2015), as being a bastion of investigative journalism, and a “precious resource in today’s media environment”. In a line seemingly addressed to Mediaworks, the press release also says “if you’re in the business of news and current affairs, regardless of whether you’re privately owned or not, you have a job to keep people informed and call those with power to account”. However, the other side of the political spectrum does not seem to feel the same way. National Party leader and Prime Minister John Key said half-hour bulletins were now normalised in the United States because online news sites and social media meant most people were up to date with the news before 6pm. Seven Sharp, One News’ current affairs 7pm slot follows a breezy and magazine style show because “people want light entertainment”, reports Trevett. It is concerning that the Prime Minister feels that digression of serious news into entertainment is acceptable, merely because the internet keeps people up to date with the latest news. While the internet may solve dilemmas of corporate and government control over news with its democratic and decentralised structure, the issue of news-gathering costs remains unsolved. Investigative journalism like that on Campbell is highly resource consuming, therefore requiring the financial support of institutions like governments of private enterprises.

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As Road Cops is only a temporary programme while a new current affairs programme is produced by Mediaworks, it will be very interesting to see what they come up with for the permanent show. As Schultz says, a Fourth Estate must be independent and accountable to the public it serves to prevent it from being yet another powerful elite detached from the public interest, and to stop the statement “Somewhere along the line the Fourth Estate became just the media” (p. 112), coming true. Sadly, this is coming worryingly close to becoming the case in New Zealand following the end of Campbell Live. Admittedly, the current affairs programme was not perfect, as no show is, but it was one of the last examples of investigative journalism in prime television, and it is a loss to New Zealand to see it go. As discussed earlier, a range of opinions and perspectives on information and authority are needed for a pluralistic and healthy democracy. Perhaps a way to save the Fourth Estate is to increase government funding of public service broadcasters and media outlets, whether these are internet or traditional new sources. For this to be successful, a condition of journalistic and editorial integrity must always remain – whether a media company is owned privately, or by the state, to ensure no bias gets in the way of journalism as the Fourth Estate. Infotainment is fine in moderation, but it cannot be the only thing that citizens are viewing, as this does not truly inform the public, hold the government to account or accurately represent society.

Word Count: 2193

Bibliography

 

  1. Bradbury, M. (2015, May, 31). With the loss of Campbell Live – Our democracy has never been weaker than it is today. The Daily Blog. Retrieved from: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2015/05/31/with-the-loss-of-campbell-live-our-democracy-has-never-been-weaker-than-it-is-today/
  2. Campbell Live vs Kardashian’s Arse. (2015, May, 25). Zealandia Blog. Retrieved from: http://www.cite.auckland.ac.nz/index.php?p=quickcite
  3. Edwards, B. (2015, April, 10). The Campbell Live Debate – A Considered View. Brian Edwards Media. Retrieved from: http://brianedwardsmedia.co.nz/2015/04/the-campbell-live-debate-a-considered-view/
  4. Hampton, M., (2010). The Fourth Estate Ideal in Journalism History. In Allen, S. (Ed.). The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism (Chapter 1). New York: Routledge.
  5. Lawson, C. H. (2002). Building the Fourth Estate: Democratization and the Rise of a Free Press in Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  6. New Zealand Labour Party Press Release. (2015, April, 10). Campbell Live a bastion of investigative journalism. Scoop Independent News, retrieved from: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1504/S00125/campbell-live-a-bastion-of-investigative-journalism.htm
  7. Police poke fun at TV3 Road Cops programming. (2015, June, 3). co.nz. Retrieved from: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/tv-radio/69064330/police-poke-fun-at-tv3-road-cops-programming
  8. Romano, A. (Ed.). (2010). International Journalism and Democracy: Civic Engagement Models from around the world. Australia: Routledge.
  9. Schlutz, J. (1998). Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media. Australia: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Thompson, P. (2015, April, 17). Campbell Live threat exposes seismic change. Radio New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/271437/campbell-live-threat-exposes-seismic-change
  11. Trevett, C. (2015, April, 14). John Key dismisses Campbell Live. Otago Daily Press, retrieved from: http://www.odt.co.nz/node/339045
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About greentea2177

Studying Politics and Writing Studies in Auckland, NZ. Any feedback - harsh or kind regarding my writing is appreciated. I'm not interested in what you have to say about me personally, or my views.

Discussion

One thought on “The Fourth Estate is in Danger: An Analysis of Journalism in New Zealand, Media Ownership, News Quality, and Digression into Infotainment

  1. Well thought out article- I think I saw an interview by David Hedge where he talks about the same. Knowledge sharing has become so easy, with the growth of internet, and it has certainly changed how news propagates as well. I believe it has become important to reassess just how the fourth estate functions.

    Posted by deniseasks | November 5, 2015, 7:50 pm

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