Editorial: Eroding the foundations of democracy

My first job in publishing was at Fourth Estate, the then Wellington-based publisher of the National Business Review, run at the time by Reg Birchfield.
The job was hardly upholding the sanctity of free press – I was student lucky to score holiday gig working on the NZ Business Who’s Who directory. I was however, profoundly influenced by the company’s maxim emblazoned on the exterior wall of its premises in Blair Street off Courtenay Place, Wellington; Edmund Burke’s “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
And it wasn’t just that in those days, spelling out your company’s founding philosophy vertically up the full height of its exterior wall was little ‘out there’, company that stood for and was guided by an ethical position was rare.
I’ve been contemplating the Burke quote again since the debate has heated up about funding for public broadcasting in the wake of ongoing cuts (or staff ‘attrition’) to Radio NZ and the Government plan – in the likely event National is still calling the shots – to cease funding and close down TVNZ 7. It’s not just the closing down that’s problem, it’s the dumbing down.
This following is not an extreme example, but it epitomises the danger of insidious gradual deterioration.
I realise you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know there’s certain sporting event holding the nation in its thrall right now, but recent Radio New Zealand news item graphically illustrated for me how fast we’re sliding into mediocrity – the dumbing down of much of our ‘news’ content.
The item was the lead story in midday broadcast. It described the ‘horror’ for group of overseas rugby fans, spending $6000 on tickets only to discover they were fakes, but getting possibly better tickets as compensation. Maybe I’m out of touch with the contemporary lexicon but I thought ‘horror’ related to mass starvation such as that unfolding in the Horn of Africa; or the scene at multiple car accident with number of fatalities and serious injuries. But buying counterfeit RWC tickets for $6000, discovering the rort and being given potentially better tickets as compensation? I don’t think so.
South Pacific Pictures’ John Barnett is leading bid to blend two of our most valuable public services; Radio NZ and content now aired on TVNZ 7, into ‘radio with pictures’. I hope he succeeds in preserving the best of what those services offer. In television landscape populated by majority of dross, TVNZ 7 has some gems like The Court Report, Hindsight and others. And RNZ, despite the constraints, generally provides good service for the three main centres although regional coverage has suffered from funding cuts in recent years.
It’s not hyperbole to fret that important tenets of democracy are threatened by such cuts and closures. well informed populace is most fundamental prerequisite for healthy democratic state.

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