Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 4. 22 March 1972
This is Monopoly
This is Monopoly
Wellington's two daily papers can expect and indeed deserve widespread public contempt for their proposed merger. Neither paper reflects much credit on the capital at present anyway. The Dominion is blatantly a commuter's paper. Its tabloid size means that news must be presented in Reader's Digest style. The Evening Post may indeed print news but does so without discrimination, so that it is difficult to decide what is important. With the possible exception of Dunedin, Wellington has the most inadequate newspaper coverage of any major New Zealand city.
Two mediocre papers are not likely to be improved by a monopoly situation. This manipulation of shareholdings is not intended to improve service to the public.
Both Blundeli Bros, and the Wellington Publishing Company-have been suffering lower profits, and presumably see the monopoly situation as a way of escape.
Directors of each company may well be sincere in their desire to preserve editorial freedoms. The fact remains that by merging managements, they are providing the potential for abuse.
In an effort to justify its intended merger the Evening Post has been throwing up smokescreens. It is nonsense to claim that what might have been termed monopoly back in 1870 is not monopoly today, because of competition from the electronic media Newspapers are still the most effective means of recording the life of the community. Layout can help show the relative importance of events, and only the press has the space and divided audience to be able to carry serious background investigations. The impact of print is less fleeting than that of radio and television.
For the privately owned press to turn and criticize the near monopoly of the N.Z.B.C. is ludicrous.
No-one imagines the shareholders or directors are in the business to perform a public service. They would probably be most happy if their papers carried only profit making advertising.
The industry's recent moves towards monopoly control reveal the hypocrisy of its defence of private enterprise. Indeed as the Evening Post bemoaned, in a different context, times have changed. And the changed times require more responsible control than private profit for what is an important public service.
Maybe instead of sitting back and wailing when economic pressures force newspapers to merge, the Labour Party should propose a government - sponsored newspaper corporation similar to the N.Z.B.C..
This latest in a series of takeovers mergers is particularly obnoxious because it threatens the news outlets of a whole region. The public could at least feel confidence in a public corporation that had service as its aim.
One can only surmise about the consequenses of newspaper monopoly. The two papers will be in a strong position to increase their advertising rates. For instance, when the Dominions property guide started about a year ago it offered reduced rates for the real estate agents. What will happen when present contracts expire?
Was it just coincidence that both papers raised their price from 3d to 4c to 5c to 6c at the same times. When can we expect the next rise.?
Between them, the Evening Post and Dominion have the major printing presses in Wellington. There would be little hope for the smaller companies in the event of a price war.
Journalists of both present companies are justifiably concerned about their future roles. There will be little motivation for reporters to compete. Worse, there is the monopoly control of employment. Both papers may offer guarantees of tenure at present but future economic reasons may mean reductions of staff. The case of the Waikato Times (which the Wellington Publishing Co. bought last year) provides a disturbing indication. Some of its top journalists have been brought to Wellington with a consequent weakening in Hamilton, and less diversity of news comment.
The proposed merging of the Evening Post and Dominion is plainly not in the public interest, and calls for a more thorough appraisal than the directors and the government seem prepared to give.
A final word should come from two Directors of the Wellington Publishing Company. J.H. Dunn and A.L. Mason, directors of Truth, who have objected strongly to the proposed merger:
"The advocates of the merger claim that it is necessary for the protection and the resuscitation of "The Dominion". We believe that if the preoccupations of top management are diverted for a year or two from the succession of take-overs which have consumed their energies in the past few years and are directed to the achievement of internal efficiency and the re-organisation of management in "The Dominion", it can quickly, and at much less cost than is involved in this proposal, be restored to a satisfactory degree of profitability."
Diary of a Merger
Tuesday night; Evening Post carries hews of the 'merger' proposals in its leading story. A low key announcement emphasising the reasonableness of the economic argument. Written in such a legalistic way that it makes dull reading.
Wednesday morning; The Dominion judges the news as worthy of no more than third page treatment.
Wednesday evening. The Evening Post carries the comments of Warren Page, president of the New Zealand Journalist's Association, under a small headline towards the bottom of its front page. Beside it, in large print is an explanatory editorial seeking sympathy from readers for the cold economic facts of newspaper life. And on page 12 somewhere is the story 'Labour sees Planned Newspaper Merger as 'Real Unholy Alliance'.
Thursday morning. Mr Page's statement warrants coverage only on the Dominion's television page.
Friday morning. The Herald, afraid for its status as New Zealand's second biggest company has asked Mr Marshall if the government intended to take any action. True to form, Mr Marshall replies that 'the Government has not at this point of time considered that the public interest is affected to an extent which would justify legislation to deprive people of their rights to conduct their own businesses in this way.'
The proposed merger between the Dominion and Evening Post means that Salient will be one of only two papers in the Wellington area not controlled by the new combined company, points out. The monthly Western Suburbs News would be the only other independent paper.
Notwithstanding the assurance of containing editorial independence of both the Dominion and the Evening Post, the public must be very concerned that news and opinion outlets are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Not only must editorial independence be retained; it must be seen to be retained, if the public are to have any faith in the newspapers as a source of news and comment. The public will obviously realise that in the ultimate, editorial policy is controlled by the Board of Directors and not the editorial staff.
In stating that the Government does not intend tend to interfere, as the Companies are under no obligation to inform the Government of their intentions, Mr Marshall has shown the Government at its laissez faire best.
There is clearly no intention on the part of the Government to ensure that newspapers operate in the public interest. Public interest requires that the public should receive a variety of views on issues, and control should be appointed by the Government, which would have powers to forbid any takeovers or combinations of newspapers it considers to be against the public interest. This would be a necessary and desirable interference with "their freedom to conduct their own business... and dispose of their property as they see fit" which Mr Marshall has elevated to a holy principle. The Government is also being inconsistent here since in 1965 it passed legislation to prevent control of the Dominion passing into overseas hands, even though it was quite likely based on the experience of other newspapers taken over by that overseas interest, that editorial independence would have been maintained.
There are two other significant points concerning the merger. Firstly both companies say that the merger has been decided on because of the financial advantages of combining their printing operations. However if this really is the main reason the purposes of both companies would have been just as well served by some other approach. They could simply have agreed to combine their printing plants and established a holding company to run the printing plant, keeping editorial control completely separate.
Secondly, only the shareholders in the Evening Post, nearly all of whom are members of the Blundell family have any say in the merger. This is because in fact the Dominion is taking over the Evening Post and not vice verca and offering shares in its expanded company to shareholders of the Evening Post. Undoubtedly [unclear: v s] is because the shareholders of the Dominion (which is a public company whose shares are traded on the Stock Exchange) would be more difficult to persuade than the fifty odd family shareholders in the Post, each of whom will receive a very handsome cash payment in addition to shares in the new combined company. The Dominion shareholders have no say in this matter since their directors have made the offer to the Post shareholders. This therefore prevents any worthwhile debate amongst the Dominion shareholders as to the questions of public interest involved.