One fascinating development this week has seen the long-running concerns about undisclosed interests in the media finally burst out into the open.
First, it was revealed that a commentator on Radio New Zealand, supposedly an ‘independent’ PR consultant, was actually working in the Prime Minister’s office. Then, even more strikingly, the NBR column of prominent lobbyist Matthew Hooton was abruptly cancelled. When asked why, NBR publisher Todd Scott told journalist John Drinnan: “It’s time to draw clear lines, mainstream media is murky enough. We need to respect the power we yield [sic] and protect its abuse by those who are funded to sell a point of view.” (Hooton has subsequently been hired to write for the Herald.)
For a long time, there have been concerns that the commercial interests of people writing in the media have not been adequately disclosed. This is particularly true now that there are probably fewer ‘pure’ freelance journalists and writers operating.
In the new gig economy, many people combine writing with PR and other paid work for companies and other organisations, even if they would rather just be straight writers. That heightens the need for strong and clear declarations of their interests, so that the public can see what might be influencing them and supposedly public spirited arguments cannot be used to disguise the promotion of private interests.
These are complex issues, affecting many people, myself included, as I have previously had one of those gig economy type existences. I’ve always declared possible conflicts on my own personal website, but I think there needs to be more rigorous disclosure, and for it to happen on actual pieces of writing, not just on personal websites that the average person may or may not read.
That would ideally require some kind of coordinated disclosure standards across the media – something I think we will hear more about in future.