Rachel Stewart: Can the noble cause of journalism be restored?

Rachel Stewart: Can the noble cause of journalism be restored?

Former editors and journalists of certain illustrious Bauer titles have quickly utilised the shock of its sudden closure to rabidly reminisce, and positively soak in nostalgia.

Understandable to those in the industry – there’s a period of piercing pain to work through – but not so much to the public. The Listener, or Metro, or North & South holds the hook of history for mainly older New Zealanders, but not the personal. In general, they really don’t care.

So, this longing for earlier times will continue for a short while. The idiosyncratic industry of journalism loves nothing more than hearing its own worth repeated back to it by other designated ‘worthies’. To say that egos are small in the media world would be to perjure oneself. That’s just how it is.

Which is not to say that journalism is far from a noble cause. It can be, it should be, but it mostly isn’t.

New Zealand’s modern mainstream media outlets have, generally, become a deeply disappointing panoply of factions, tribalism, and cabals. Kind of like Twitter but with more power. Indeed, such is their respect for Twitter they’ve been using it as a source of non-stories for what seems like an age. But, in the scheme of things, is really just five minutes. Nay, seconds.

Yeah, yeah. I know these endless screeds braindead non-stories help to employ all the journos and columnists that you love – in other words, personally agree with – but revenue gathering by any amoral means as a modus operandi was always going to come at the expense of ethics. The more readers are hotly pursued, the worse the content they’re expected to consume.

Which brings me to my point.

Is the current state of journalism worth saving? Covid-19 news aside, is it really worth the pixels it’s written on? In between the tears and wails and jarring jingoism, should we be all socialist about saving it when the media we’ve been lumped with of late has been the fount of everything market-based? Or has all that suddenly changed overnight?

The fact is that if advertisers bail then the market rules, right? Yet, without the independent media, how do we get the truth? Ask the un-taxed Facebook. Ask the un-taxed Google. It’s all a writhing, knotted mess. How ‘independent’ is any journalist anyway? What even is this thing we call the ‘truth’?

Even designated opinion writers are hung, drawn and quartered for expressing, yes, an opinion.

Everything’s upside down and inside out. And it was before Covid-19. This was coming, and we all knew it.

In terms of Bauer, the market totally ruled and we all sat back and allowed it. It was purchased by offshore interests and, as expected, the clock ticked down with extreme precision. The free market is nothing if not efficient. And haven’t mainstream journalists been the biggest proponents of the invisible hand? Yep, I think they have.

Where to from here?

Well, free speech in all its historic glory must be front and centre again. Democracy can’t exist without it, and never has. That’s a given, despite what the de-platformers will yell in their shrill, high-pitched voices.

Quality versus quantity has to make a comeback. Celebrity culture must die. Appeasing the powerful must end. I mean, isn’t holding their feet to the fire the whole point? You know, everything else is just PR, and all that.

Instead we have cheerleading sections for successive governments from newsroom journalists who should know better. How do we recognise this? If their published work doesn’t make it obvious, their Twitter feed invariably does.

In fact, late-stage capitalism and tribalism must surely embrace its own slow, tortuous death by exiting stage anywhere, and preferably via a gracious, dignified dance. Maybe then it’ll be worth having.

Short of that I have no answers.

But, please, enough of the good, old days. They were great, but we need to look ahead now. Virtually everything’s changed. And the media is not immune.

Rachel Stewart is an award-winning opinion columnist and former chapter president of Federated Farmers.