The NZ Commerce Commission made an important and courageous decision this month when it declined a proposed merger between Fairfax and NZME. Had the proposal been approved, the merged entity would have controlled nearly 90 per cent of the daily newspaper circulation in NZ and an overwhelming majority of traffic to online sources of NZ news.
So what, you might ask? For starters, one large media entity in NZ would produce opportunities for powerful and ambitious lobbyists to use their advertising muscle to have their interests protected and promoted. It would also dilute the range of editorial opinions which inform community debate, not to mention the impact it would have on the quality and breadth of news coverage. Small independent newspapers, like the one you are reading right now, could find themselves squeezed out of the market by a sustained assault on their advertising streams, which they could neither counter nor survive.
The Commission’s decision recognises that “the media” is not just a business in the narrowest sense. Yes, media companies must be viable, but they must also be guided by the founding principles of the press – newsrooms must be well-resourced so they can investigate and write their stories without fear or favour. They must remain the watchdogs of society, holding the powerful to account and providing the voiceless with a place to tell their stories. Newsrooms that are continually gutted to balance the books, while company executives and shareholders cream off the profits, threaten the very fabric of a fair and healthy democracy.
We applaud the Commerce Commission for a decision that steers NZ away from the concentration of media into the hands of a few and towards a diverse landscape of voices and opinions.