You can easily spot the guy who’s been there before. He gets straight back into the business. He knows where to go and what to do. It’s as if he’s never been away. In this case, he’s back to his old tricks.

Of course, we’re referring to the newly appointed, but not so new, Deputy Prime Minister. From day one, he’s been on the front foot. For the most part, his focus has been on the media. He’s been challenging their independence. And that’s ok.

In doing so he’s been referencing the Public Interest Journalism fund, a Covid related $55 million handout to media companies. He’s claiming that, in accepting those funds, the independence of the press was compromised. To be fair, the recipients of those funds did sign up to certain undertakings including a commitment to support the intentions of the then government’s interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. And so it is partially fair at least, to suggest that in accepting those monies, the independence of media may have been at risk.

Of course, the media organisations are quite rightly pushing back, and making it clear that their independence has not been impacted or compromised in any way.

It should go without saying that the media are balanced and independent. The problem with that theory is that the articles and stories we digest are all put together by journalists, and those journalists are just like the rest of us. We all have opinions and biases.

Historically, highly experienced news editors have sat between the writer and the reader, and have been the arbiters of truth and independence, which in turn has enabled those news outlets to tread the centre line, and hopefully present an independent and accurate position.

However, as the internet robbed the media of its eyeballs, and the newspaper industry in particular of their power and the financial horsepower, the ability of media organisations to hold on to that highly experienced journalistic talent has become more and more compromised over time. In its place the media sector globally, is more likely to research, write and present through younger, less experienced and lower cost people. As a result, quality has been compromised.

Of equal importance to an independent media is the ‘appearance’ of an independent media. And herein lies New Zealand’s problem. The Covid induced daily press conferences over-exposed both journalists and the ministers presenting to them, in particular the then Prime Minister. That exposure highlighted a level of “chumminess” between the Prime Minister and her supposed inquisitors, the political editors of the major television news networks.

This overly friendly atmosphere became known among many people as the ‘ Jessica and Tova show’, and with it’s creation the appearance of independence between the media and the political establishment was crushed. The arrival of the Public Interest Journalism Fund, soon thereafter gave added credence to a supposed breakdown of the autonomy of the Fourth Estate.

“Peters may well be doing us all, including the media themselves, a favour, by forcing the discussion on the independence of the media.”

We are not the only ones. In Donald Trump’s USA, the refrains of “fake news” gave further momentum to claims of bias and contributed to a renewed distrust of media around the world.

These claims imply that the role of the mainstream media today is at a critical point. The reasons are there for all to see. Firstly, in the aftermath of Covid, they have to win back the trust of the readers and viewers. And secondly, their obligation to inform the populace in a timely and accurate manner has become more critical than at any other time in history.

That’s because, thanks to social media, there is more unofficial, openly biased and highly inaccurate reporting than ever before. So much so that, those readers or viewers who rely on Facebook or Twitter for their news and current affairs need to accept that they are largely uninformed.

With the social media landscape generating so much incorrect information, the onus on the trusted and traditional media to present in a manner that is unbiased and accurate is more important to our future democracy than ever.

In our little country there are signs that the media are taking such challenges to heart. Due in part to the comments made by Mr Peters, the new government have seen their ‘media honeymoon’ terminated and replaced by some aggressive media questioning in their first few days. And that’s ok too. Compare that with the arrival of the Ardern government some six years ago, and a lovefest between the media and the office of the Prime Minister that went largely unchallenged here and overseas, until the magic fairy dust finally blew away after four or five years. Which would we prefer?

A media landscape, with a renewed sense of vigour and rigour is OK. In fact it’s essential. To hold a government to account we need a media that is pro-active, trusted and unrestrained. The media need to understand that, whether or not the current public view is well reasoned or deserved, there is a perception out there about their independence or lack thereof, that needs to be recovered.

To get that trust back, the media need to double down on what’s important. Quality, independence and accuracy. To do that with a new generation of journalists who have not been subject to such standards in their young careers to date, will be tough.

But that doesn’t make it any less desirable. The Covid era is now behind us and in the aftermath of such a period it is not a bad thing to see media companies having to come out and defend, and perhaps re-prove, their independence credentials. In that regard, Winston Peters may well be doing us all, including the media themselves, a favour, by forcing the discussion on the issue

This article was first published on Newstalk ZB Plus, 30th November 2023.