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The political intent behind the Public Interest Journalism Fund

By: Democracy Action

The Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) drew controversy when it was introduced by Labour in 2021 to support news media through a COVID-19-induced downturn. With the task of allocating $55 million over a three-year period “to help sustain at-risk local news and journalism,” state funding agency NZ On Air was entrusted with the responsibility of designing, setting up, and managing the fund. To initiate this process, NZ On Air engaged with the media industry, consulting with Crawford Media Consulting, as well as Te Amokura Consultants who led the Māori Media consultation. Collaboration also took place with Te Māngai Pāho, the entity responsible for funding Māori-language programming, to shape and implement the fund. The uniqueness of the PIJF’s design, diverging from NZ On Air’s traditional funding structures, was noted in their Public Interest Fund Interim Report: “While NZ On Air is eminently experienced, having funded content for more than 30 years, the design of the PIJF was unique in the world and had to step beyond NZ On Air’s traditional funding processes and models”.

The fund was available to all eligible New Zealand media entities, with many mainstream outlets, including private sector giants Stuff and the NZ Herald, receiving substantial support.

However, access to the funds came with political conditions attached. A key directive for the PIJF recipients involved promoting principles of partnership, participation, and active protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, acknowledging Māori as a Treaty partner. The requirement to adhere to the Treaty partnership ideology sparked controversy among those who do not see the Treaty as establishing a partnership. This stipulation, necessitating a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, raised concerns about compromising media integrity by aligning with a contentious political interpretation.

The $55m fund, which is in addition to the normal funding activities, was split across three years, with the final round decisions announced in April 2023. A further $9m was added to the fund for legacy journalism projects it already funded. NZ On Air admitted the fund will have ‘a long tail’ as funded roles will run on for some time. Several projects will continue to deliver content until at least 2026.

To help news organisations develop their own Treaty of Waitangi strategy, NZ On Air published ‘Te Tiriti Framework for News Media’, a report authored by ‘Kupa Taea,’ a group associated with the Treaty Resource Centre. This document sheds light on the political motives behind the PIJF, stressing the importance of news organisations to prioritise Te Tiriti o Waitangi in their policies. It urges a shift from mere impartial reporting to actively contributing to Treaty relations and the promotion of social justice. The Framework outlines various reasons to justify the actions recommended by ‘Kupu Taea’ to enhance the media’s role in these efforts. These include the following:

• “Te Tiriti o Waitangi responsibilities and accountabilities apply across the news media sector and extend into the community”. • “As tangata whenua o Aotearoa, Māori have never ceded sovereignty to Britain or any other State”. • “As a result of colonisation, we live in a society that perpetuates racism and inequities”. • “………. our society has a foundation of institutional racism.”

Although NZ on Air advised that the Framework was offered only as guidance, any media organisation hoping to tap into the fund’s millions would have been under no illusions about the stance they should take towards the Treaty.

It is no wonder there is growing public mistrust of mainstream media. The Auckland University of Technology research centre for Journalism, Media, and Democracy (JMAD) published its fourth ‘Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand’ report last year This is authored by Dr Merja Myllylahti and Dr Greg Treadwell. The report shows that, nationwide, trust in the media has fallen from 53 per cent in 2020 to 45 per cent in 2022 and declined further to 42 percent in 2023. Dr Myllylahti concluded that some of the drop could be attributed to the widespread perception that the media “is an extension of the government.” She also admitted being taken aback by repeated criticisms of the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

We can never know exactly how much the Public Interest Journalism Fund helped control the narrative and stifle criticism of the Labour government’s expansive Treaty policies. But by complying with the funding conditions of the PIJF, the media sector has risked undermining its fundamental principles of trust, credibility, and independence, potentially affecting public perception and trust in the media.


Public Interest Journalism Fund: General Guidelines. https://d3r9t6niqlb7tz.cloudfront.net/media/documents/220221_PIJF_General_Guidelines_updated.pdf Public Interest Journalism Fund Interim Report 2021 – 2023 https://d3r9t6niqlb7tz.cloudfront.net/media/documents/NZOA_PJIF_Interim_Report_FINAL.pdf

Te Tiriti Framework for News Media 2022_03_Irirangi_te_Motu_NZ_on_Air_Te_Tiriti_framework_only_for_News_Media.pdf (d3r9t6niqlb7tz.cloudfront.net)

Trust in news in Aotearoa New Zealand https://www.jmadresearch.com/trust-in-news-in-new-zealand

NZ on Air is supposedly an independent Crown entity, but is this the case? It appears it is heavily influenced by the Labour government’s policies on the Treaty of Waitangi.

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elocal Digital Edition – March 2024 (#275)

elocal Digital Edition
March 2024 (#275)

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