kiwi karoshi and the death of new zealand journalism

What are ya?

comment by jason brown | editor | avaiki nius agency

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New Zealand journalism died in 1987.

Somehow, though, no one ever called time. Like a doctor losing a patient, wandering out the doors and not bothering to check the clock. Not bothering to come back at all, actually.

Stunned like the rest of the country by the 1984 Rogernomic blitzkrieg, journalists were left in total disarray, by 1987 failing to hold the annual general meeting of the long lost New Zealand Journalists Association.

rousing speeches

Failed again the year after. And the year after that, 1989, two decades ago. Right through the years, to 2007, when a historic conference was held in the hushed halls of Parliament, marking two decades of not having conferences. Rousing speeches were made, doubters mocked, innocents encouraged.

Afterwards, independently, journalists and media workers gathered in various spots around the country to work out strategies based on what they’d heard in Wellington, and to guess what might happen next. What happened was the EPMU declaring a union review of New Zealand journalism.

Ahead of the follow up conference in September 2008, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union promised to have the review out by August last year.

no answers

August came. Went. So did September. In fact it’s a whole new September now, two years after the historic meeting in Wellington. No review. No follow up conferences. No answers either.

Email questions from Avaiki Nius Agency to the EPMU over the last 12 months have gone ignored. New Zealand journalism has, once again, returned to deathly slumber.

So, to date, there is still no dedicated journalism union. No registered society to fuss over corporately correct notions like “professional standards” and “training”, not even a media social club or sausage sizzle committee.

seventy dollars

Here in Auckland, a dozen began meeting regularly after the landmark 2007 event at Parliament. Lacking a national body to refer to, the group set up its own; MDM, the Media Democracy Movement, modelled on similarly named efforts overseas. MDM set up a blogsite, got its own Facebook page, raised an astonishing $70 from membership fees.

Like so many other attempts MDM dwindled and died. The $70 is still in the MDM bank account, by the way.

Compare this mournful situation with what’s happening next door. In Australia the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance issues an annual State of Press Freedom report, all 32 pages of it. 

quantifying crisis

All things being equal, a population of 20 million producing a 32 page annual report, should mean a nation of 4 million printing an annual press freedom report with six pages.

Six measly pages. Can’t do it. Maybe a lack of funding. By comparison, in 2006, latest available figures I could find for MEAA refer to A$2.9 million. Again, on a straightline basis, this might suggest a similar New Zealand effort of around $600,000.

laugh themselves sick

Yeah, right. Try suggesting to New Zealand journos they should raise 600 hundred grand towards union representation and watch as they laugh themselves sick. An embarrassing lack of transparency and accountability from the very same profession demanding both on an hourly basis.

Imagine the scenario if doctors and lawyers decided to do away with their annual conventions. Annual registration. Annual refresher training. Tradies like gas fitters and electricians are required to recertify on occasion.

Journos generally are not.

‘job market worst in 25 years’

There are a fairly decent selection of journalism education organisations. This is where we get the endearingly acronymed JEANZ, or the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand.

Online, buried at the bottom of their front page, next to a small subhead is this comment called “jobs” by someone named “JT”.

“The job market has been the worst in 25 years, but there are still jobs out there. All but two of the 17 who graduated in March have found employment of some sort (two non-media), although in some cases it has been temporary, such as one student who got a three-month contract as a researcher for a TV production company and is now looking for work again. One graduate walked into a reporting job in Yellowknife, Canada. In almost all cases, it has taken a lot of applications and many weeks to find jobs, and Whitireia graduates report there are still a lot of 2008 graduates from other journalism schools out there looking, despite what we were all led to believe from some schools when Radio NZ did a story on this earlier this year. JT”

journalism in crisis?

All of which raises the next question: is there a crisis in journalism?

Overseas, clear concern.

Universities especially have been inviting speakers to discuss what academia has termed “journalism in crisis.” There is a major event happening this month in the US, while next month the UK uni, Coventry, follows up a national debate with an international one, asking “Is world journalism in crisis?”

heavy hinting

New Zealand however appears loath to debate the issue. One trainer pointedly ignored two emails, responding to other matters. Two other academics at the same institution, AUT, similarly ignored questions. Certainly JEANZ cannot bring itself to use such dramatic language, contenting itself with heavy hints.

“In a time of immense pressure on the media, with media managers consulting with editors over their ‘business units’ rather than their publications or titles, when journalists are reduced to ‘content providers’, and with a general lament in media boardrooms echoing in news rooms of how to find a new business model that will get the Internet revenue stream running, journalism needs to be re-imagined and re-invented.”

No talk of crisis there. Or, to be fair, in the 2009 press freedom report from MEAA, either. Highlighting local issues of “secrecy and red tape” but ignoring dark clouds on the global horizon. Sure MEAA refers repeatedly to the “global financial crisis” but does not explicitly link this back to whether or not such events might cause a similar crisis in journalism.

housing boasts, helpless shrugs

Anyway, anytime a so-called profession talks about re-imagining and re-inventing, it’s usually a bit of a giveaway that the plot is not just lost but completely AWOL.

What have journalists found to talk about after the housing bubble bursts?

No idle question. When I arrived in New Zealand in mid 2006 from 30 years in the Cook Islands, I was lucky. I got access to phones and internet at an Auckland newsroom. All the hot, happenin’ talk was of the property market, with journos boasting about active play. Journalism development issues, or debate surrounding journalism development issues, not so much. Conversation dies away, eyes glaze over. Helpless shrugs. Change of subject.

mattresses and ladders

What has all this done to New Zealand journalism?

Morning TV offers some answers. New Zealanders now know more about magnetic mattresses and extendable ladders than they dreamed possible, thanks to unmarked advertorials day after day after day. In fact, wall-to-wall ads are a fact of life for Kiwis. Eight or so free-to-air channels are on offer, but patchy media infrastructure means reception for three or four.

Most days, all four main channels will be playing advertorials. Mornings especially, all at the same time. On endless half hour loop.

stalinist consumerists

Naturally enough for a socialist leaning country, New Zealand has applied almost Stalinist levels of consumerism propaganda over the last quarter century.

New Zealand is right up there for length of ad breaks. They hum and they thrum endlessly in the background, evolving Kiwi society into an alarmingly crass and shallow shadow of its former self. One early sign: the 2000 millennial editions of two magazines, both airline in-flight publications.

One in Australia, the other, New Zealand.

no ads, no pictures

Ansett chose a bravely wordy approach, eschewing layout razzle-dazzle for words, lots and lots of words. No ads. No pictures. Just page after page of carefully crafted type, cleverly presented, a credibly cautious homage to new millennia.

Air New Zealand? All ads. Interspersed with advertorial on where to go and what to buy at various Air New Zealand flavoured destinations.

One article debated, seriously,  the aesthetic merits of a nz$600 retro toaster, all glossy chrome and 50’s pastels.

colossal corruption

What has the death of New Zealand journalism meant for the wider public, in terms of, say, hidden costs to society? Is there a downside to pioneering the most open free markets in the world?

Turns out those hidden costs are hiding in the safest place – plain sight. This is what colossal corruption looks like.

Let’s start with the massive corporatisation and privatisation ‘programmes’ of the eighties and nineties. Hundreds of millions ended up in the hands of well connected businessmen. Mostly men, anyway. Some of them needed somewhere to put those millions, which is where now fading memories of the Winebox tax haven inquiry comes from – involving, funnily enough, hundreds of millions more.

more corruption

From the Cook Islands, we return to New Zealand, where a national computer system is going nowhere fast. Found years later to be a multimillion dollar rort, the national police network was especially embarrassing, happening as it did right under cop noses.

Fast forward through ongoing scandal about links between political parties and big business to the brave new millennium, and national computer networks are still a joke, lagging comically behind first world stakes.

Hundreds of millions in profit flow overseas to foreign owners,  costing hundreds of millions more in lost business opportunities due to slow, under-funded internet and mobile services.

leaky house ‘syndrome’

As a free market champion, New Zealand has zealously applied markets as the best deciders of economic and social prosperity.

Reality? The new millennium dawned on what would become known as Leaky House Syndrome. Cunningly branded as a disease, as if it could be caught like a common cold, LHS has real, bottom-line, cold, hard cash issues.

Leaky House Syndrome also ups the ante, conservative estimates running into the billions, from a lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement. For one reason or another, building inspectors in free market systems just don’t do their job.

good excuse

Just to cap off a quarter century of free marketeering, a brace of New Zealand ‘finance’ companies used the global financial crisis as a good excuse to collapse, taking a few billion more down the tubes.

Add up a few dozen hundred million here, a few billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Examples, all, of the consumerist paradise bubble New Zealanders live in, day-to-day, dimly aware, squinting through the soapy lens of Kiwi corporate media. A bubble that has yet to pop.


Leaky House Syndrome is only a symptom of the real disease which is of course corruption. Massive corruption.

But, dulled into conformism by endless advertising and economic propaganda, kiwis don’t see examples like these as a problem, much less corruption.

Evidence of this comes from kiwis themselves. According to Transparency International, New Zealand is first equal with Finland on its Corruption Perceptions Index.

no prizes

First equal! This index compiles answers to questions from residents of each country – a kind of self-review.

So, like other countries, kiwis basically get to rate their own country.  Apparently, despite billions – trillions? – being wiped from public and private accounts over the last two decades, kiwis don’t perceive themselves to have any serious problem with corruption.

No prizes for guessing where that perception – or it’s lack – comes from.

no equivalent

Kiwis are pig ignorant. An editor at a major book publisher told me, “Mate, kiwis are not interested in their own current affairs, let alone anyone else.”

Interestingly, there is no SBS equivalent in New Zealand or even an ABC because state broadcaster TVNZ is by law run on corporate lines, required to make a profit and pay dividends – to government. Fat dividends, over $250 million between 1989 and 1999. Twice that, probably, since then. Hovering on the brink of privatisation for a decade or so, thoroughly thrashed into corporate correctness, TVNZ this year stripped NZ$30 million from its operations, blaming a plunge in advertising revenues on the global financial crisis. Books must be balanced.

Questions were raised, briefly, over ‘deferring’ the dividend.  A ‘drop the dividend’ campaign sparked and sputtered under heavy media criticism. TVNZ led a chorus of fait accompli drowning out such free market heresies.

no investigations

A dozen or so journalists were shed. Don’t really need them. There are almost no investigative or current affairs programme on free to air public channels, apart from mostly formulaic international disease-of-the-week franchises like 60 minutes.

In Australia, Four Corners has grown into a national, homegrown institution, a bastion of investigative journalism. New Zealand pumps and dumps a number of current affairs ‘shows’, shedding titles over the years like used condoms, the latest labeling itself inoffensively as possible, “Q+A”.

At the same time as saving pennies at TVNZ, government was passing out pounds of corporate welfare to privatised airline and rail operations. More accurately, hundreds of millions of kiwi tax paid dollars. The new government continues to do so.

media reaction

Kiwi journalists accept all this in good humour.

An official at the EPMU opened one eye to cough about cutbacks, returning quickly to deathly silence.  Compared with now, media operators were unable to advise how many journalists they had ten years ago. Nor was the union.

Finding accurate figures is difficult, comparing them harder. EPMU claims 3,500  news media workers to its books. But EPMU does not say how many of them are journalists, while MEAA estimates an overall national total of 7,500 journalists, down 13 percent from 2001 estimates of just under 8,500, but not how many of them join the union.

That’s roughly one journalist per 2,500 people.

twilight zone

All this renders New Zealand as the twilight zone of Pacific journalism.

One example is MEANZ, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance of New Zealand, an apparent sister body to MEAA . Registered as a union last year, MEANZ still exists on paper only. Fifteen supporting signatures were entered, but not one word has appeared in public since then.

No questions from media either.

‘catastrophic failure’

Less inhouse, the Science Media Centre of New Zealand launched a report on September 3 from a think tank. SANZ, Sustainability Aotearoa New Zealand, warns against “catastrophic” failure for the country if it does not radically alter economic approaches.

Apparently missing significance of the word ‘science’, mainstream media in New Zealand also missed an opportunity to debate deaths of millions around the world in coming years as climate change bites and global trade collapses in the face of ever increasing severe weather events. SANZ offers a sobering yet still guardedly optimistic forecast from imaginative perspectives of the near future. No one interested, apparently.

Only one mainstream newspaper carried the report, the country’s last surviving independently owned daily, the Otago Daily Times. Everyone else?

the federal connection

Scientists are not well known for free use of words like ‘catastrophic’ but somehow the newsy angle slipped by Australian giants Fairfax and News Corp.  Strange, coz the SMC actively issued media alerts featuring use of the word “catastrophic” quite prominently. Two smaller channels owned by interests from Canada also opted to opt out of covering the report.

Another example, this time across the Tasman. Yawningly received, this month’s announcement by Australian Federal Police they were dropping an investigation into a $300 million Iraq bribery case. Murdoch daily The Australian is usually eager to put a dollar sign next to the word ‘million’. Just not this time, proffering a short six or so sentences. On the federal media side, the ABC, equally terse coverage of the Australian Wheat Board scandal. End result of all this free market excellence in the news media industry?

Seemingly scared off big public issues, ‘private sector-led’ media over both sides of the Tasman. Prognosis? Increasing episodic, corruption-fuelled crisis resulting in consecutive systemic failure. As in, society in general, not just media. As in, like, y’know, higher ‘mortality’, stuff.


Where to start? Finding solutions might first start with admitting there is a problem to apply solutions towards. So far, no sign of that, from journalists themselves or even educationalists supposedly casting an independent eye over the industry.

New Zealand is not in a state of journalism in crisis. New Zealand is beyond a state of journalism in crisis.

Unlike Australia, there is little public broadcasting outside of radio in New Zealand, even that stripped beyond recognition over the last quarter century. State funding for state broadcasting in New Zealand is well below OECD averages.

“funding boost”

Compare then the Australian situation earlier this year, marking their own quarter century in quite a different way, thus: a “funding boost” for SBS and ABC.

“This is the biggest injection of funds that our public broadcasters have received in more than 25 years. This will allow a significant increase in the creation of Australian content to promote our culture and our stories, not only at home but on the world stage.”
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance federal secretary, Christopher Warren, March 2009 media release

Funding boost? WTF ?

comparative solutions

How do state broadcasters in Australia get a historic “funding boost” but suffer massive cuts in New Zealand? 

How can New Zealand journalism be raised from corporate zombie land, Qantas awards notwithstanding?
New Zealand journalist must relearn their craft, their trade, their profession, and, more importantly, the lobbying skills to resource it.

kiwi karoshi

To achieve that New Zealand journalists must revisit events of 1984 onwards, and assess collective trauma to their industry. And society.

It’s not ‘airy fairy’ or ‘touchy feely’ to talk about psychological impacts of economic restructuring. More ‘ouchy bleedy’ for a population that, according to the ILO, works near longest hours in the world, second only to people in Japan.

There, costs of karoshi, death from overwork, are well debated. Quantified. They even have a word for it. In New Zealand, by comparison, no word, little debate. Yes, rugby star John Kirwan did man up to front a depression campaign against the wisdom of telling depressed friends to “harden up.”


Counselling services reported being “overwhelmed” by the response to the Kirwan hard man campaign.

But still no hard linkages are being made between the human and economic costs of overwork. Or acknowledgment of a kiwi karoshi.

In contrast, mainstream media fuss obediently over corporate expectations of ever more ‘productivity’ along with sneeringly dismissive editorials against the so-called “nanny state”, a corporate chimera designed to distract public attention from the brutality of  New Zealand society.


Japan is heading the other direction, taking tougher stances against over exploiting workers. The Economist:

“In 1988 only about 4% of applications [for karoshi compensation] were successful. By 2005 that share had risen to 40%. If a death is judged karoshi, surviving family members may receive compensation of around $20,000 a year from the government and sometimes up to $1m from the company in damages.”

It seems highly unlikely that the company that became a country, New Zealand, will listen to anything less than similar legal assault. 


To declare journalism in New Zealand dead some 20 years ago is of course somewhat insulting to a generation of reporters who have slaved away on all sorts of controversies.

Most admirably, perhaps, the Winebox story and another TVNZ expose about the links between big business and political stories.

This last linkage is key. 


Globally, journalism has been in a state of retreat since the Watergate scandal of 1974.

A relatively minor incident, exposure of the Watergate cover up awoke the corporate world to the true power of the media - and its ability to interfere with fatly profitable connections to political parties. By 1983, for example, 50 corporations controlled the "vast majority" of news organisations in the US. 

By 2004, that total had dropped to just five companies.

big business

A similar process of consolidation and amalgamation has taken place in New Zealand, with just one daily newspaper surviving independently.

As noted above, the SANZ report stands out as an example of what that means for freedom of information.

Kiwi journalism is, literally, big business.


Back in the day, Kiwi journalists used to have more mongrel in them.

Then, mob journalism often defended the status quo, and could be misogynist, homophobic and racist. But it could also shake the trees and cause interesting things to fall out.

Today, the question must be asked of Kiwi journalists - what are ya?

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cartoon via cafepacific

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Goddess of Savaii said...

wow. thats amazing stuff Jason.
I did wonder why some morning tv programmes were promoting products in their 'news' items, and then i realise they prolly dont need to abide by any codes of ethics or whatever....anything goes,,,good luck!

avaiki nius agency said...

. . .

Thanks Goddess , )

And credit where credit due - you and your sistas' fearlessness is inspiring!

God bless at this heartbreaking time for Samoa.


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Spurwing Plover said...

The kiwi and the moa two flightless birds luckly the kiwi is still around and popular with new zealanders too bad we cant bring back the moa

Anonymous said...

Just read opening comments on this - couldn't agree more. I worked as a financial journalist in the early & mid-80s and was utterly horrified by what was going on - but unfortunately too young to really put it in context. Ended up leaving the industry, and now work for a union (and also in arts and heritage sector). With all the research coming out now about inequality, etc (The Spirit Level, 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, etc etc),and how it all began in early 80s, have to say I feel a bit relieved that I wasn't just a crackpot who couldn't handle the pressure - but in reality a big crack was starting to appear then in society.