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Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Is Winston Peters' support for the 'StuffMe' merger a self-serving ploy?

Watch out for Peters reaping the rewards of backing New Zealand media mergers, writes Bill Ralston.

One of life’s small pleasures at this time of year, as I sit in the summer sun in my deckchair, is speculating on who will be the biggest winners and losers in the year ahead. Unfortunately, not a lot of contemplation is required for 2020. The biggest winner will be Winston Peters and the biggest loser will be the country’s mainstream media.

In a superb piece of political strategy, Peters has declared himself generally in favour of some form of “StuffMe” merger, bringing together the rival publishers Stuff and NZME into a single news organisation, and he is also supportive of moves to merge the publicly owned broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ.

The reason for these strange media marriages is that all four are financially hard-pressed. Peters may have a love/hate relationship with journalists, disparaging them at almost every opportunity while soaking up the publicity that they generate for him, but, by appearing to come to the aid of the media, he has rendered himself virtually bulletproof in an election year.

The Commerce Commission has previously vetoed a StuffMe merger on competition grounds, but Peters supports NZME’s proposal that the merger be reconsidered with a Government “Kiwishare” to keep newsroom operations separate and ensure provincial papers continue to be published. The provinces are where NZ First mines a lot of its votes.

With TVNZ unable to provide a dividend and looking for a Government subsidy, and the non-commercial RNZ perpetually standing with its hand out looking for more cash, Peters startled Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi by offering support for his attempts to figure out a way to keep public broadcasting going through a merger.

There can be no doubt that four of the biggest mainstream-media outlets in the country are now deeply indebted to the NZ First leader. Their long-term survival depends on his acquiescence to their planned pairings. How many of their editors will now enthusiastically endorse their journalists doing negative stories, no matter how deserved, about NZ First? Instead, I would expect this election year there will be a lot more news that “accentuates the positive” about Peters and his party. He has neatly executed a stranglehold on the mainstream media.

There are, of course, other sources of news, for example, TV3, or whatever it’s called these days. Oh, no, that’s right, Three’s owner is desperately trying to sell it and warns it will close the loss-making TV network if it can’t find a buyer.

There are private radio stations that run news, but half of those are owned by NZME, which urgently needs the StuffMe merger, and the other half are owned by the moribund company that runs Three. There are other small online news operations such as Newsroom, but their audience is tiny compared to the big four. There is also the Otago Daily Times and Bauer, which owns, among other magazines, the Listener, but they may become almost lone independent-media voices now that the mainstream-media outlets appear beholden to the goodwill of Peters and NZ First.

The timing works brilliantly for Peters. The Commerce Commission works slowly, and any decision from it on a revised StuffMe bid will take months. A merger of TVNZ and RNZ will also take many months as the Government works out its structure and financing.

All of which means smooth waters in the news for NZ First as it sails off towards polling day.

It might help if the National Party had a clear policy on both mergers, but, so far, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that it does.

This column was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.