The impending media coup in New Zealand and big media control over the internet

Atlas Monitor | 12 May 2016

It was recently announced that media companies operating in New Zealand; APN News & Media and Fairfax Media, would “divest” from their NZ operations effectively separating the NZ branches of the organizations from their parent companies.

APN, the parent company of NZME includes the NZ Herald and Newstalk ZB; Fairfax currently owns Stuff.com, The Sunday Star Times, The Dominion Post and The Press (Christchurch).

This so-called divestment will make possible the merging of these two entities into one consolidated media behemoth. The merger proposal must first pass  regulatory scrutiny  including the Commerce Commission before the deal can be approved.

Should the merger go ahead it will result in an enormous overhaul of the media landscape in NZ by the consolidation of the vast majority of commercial media into one entity which raises the spectre of a media monopoly in this country.

A major implication of such consolidation of media will be a reduction in local-community  content as well as the loss of diversity and plurality of voices which could seriously impact the integrity of NZ’s democracy. If this new media entity favours a certain government policy such as a trade deal it can present predominantly favourable commentary and exclude any critical analysis skewing coverage in order to help arrive at a predetermined outcome. Government would be able to rely on an enabling and facilitating stakeholder in the shape of a media partner for manufactured consent for government proposals and initiatives.

On top of the concentration of media into fewer hands, it seems inevitable that the merger will bring about more job losses through redundancies and ultimately fewer jobs for journalists. There will also be implications for advertisers who will presumably see fewer competitors for their marketing budgets in the print and broadcast realm. However, a shift to digital will pit local media up against the global platforms of Google and Facebook who seem to be commanding the new media business model with their complex algorithms.

The impact on consumers, according to former editor of the NZ Listener; Findlay MacDonald, will be the potential for the introduction of paywalls for any ostensibly serious content. MacDonald predicts the transformation of Stuff.com into more tabloid-esque gossip and trivia and the NZ Herald into something more resembling hard news for which punters will have to pay … or not.

Should MacDonald be prescient in his predictions, it is an entirely open question as to whether or not this media gambit will pay off. Literally.

What is perhaps certainly likely is the abandonment of print media for online-digital. Already there is speculation that the metropolitan daily broadsheets will reduce publication to weekend only. The logical conclusion is the ultimate demise of print.

This rasies the issue and the big question over who will control access to internet news?

According to Russ Baker, from website WhoWhatWhy, Google and Facebook want to control the content you see. Baker notes that:

As we move away from free-speech-friendly windows toward proprietary, closed platforms, our online experience will be managed by gatekeepers motivated to raise revenue, and disinclined to worry about information’s central role in nourishing liberty and democracy.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently asked to respond to the Chairman of a Senate Committee to answer as to whether Facebook had been manipulating the news. This follows a report that Facebook actively censors and suppresses conservative views.

These allegations come from former Facebook employees who allege they were directed to manage and curate “trending topics” by targeting stories with politically conservative angles for exclusion.

Google has been known to manipulate search results. According to a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation, Google’s search engine algorithm pushed up search results for its products despite much lower click-through rates than others.

The FTC decided not to pursue action against Google despite there being a bona fide case to answer to. This favourable treatment by a US government agency towards Google suggests a special relationship.

The revolving door between Google and the US government is well documented. Google executives who left the company to go work in the White House include President Obama’s chief technology advisor. Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s new startup aims to get Hilary Clinton elected.

Google’s big data sweep across over 60 platforms, which constitutes upwards of 90 per cent of all internet users, now gives it the power to actually predict the outcome of elections.

At the heart of the issue is this mutually constitutive relationship between big media and government and the erosion of the Fourth Estate and its proper function of speaking truth to power.

The potential consolidation of NZ media and a shift from print to digital is one part of a bigger development which is the ultimate control of the internet and its content by media giants such as Facebook and Google.

The control grid matrix this sets up, unprecendented in all of human history, portends a brave new world.

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