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Media and politics

by Kate McMillan

The media plays a vital role in a democracy, informing the public about political issues and acting as a watchdog against abuses of power. In the mid-20th century the government exercised considerable control over the media – but by the early 21st century media independence and access to government information was protected by a number of laws.

Democracy and freedom of the press

Role in democracy

The news media is central to New Zealand's democracy. Ideally the news media's role is to:

  • provide the public with in-depth, factual information to inform their political decision-making
  • act as a watchdog against abuses of power
  • offer a forum for the exchange of opinions, experiences and perspectives.

These functions assist the public to understand complex social and political issues, from the local to the international level.

Factors affecting the media

The news media’s ability to fulfil its democratic role is affected by:

  • laws protecting freedom of expression
  • regulation and censorship
  • media access to official information
  • ownership of the media
  • levels of funding for public-service broadcasting
  • commercial pressures to increase advertising revenues
  • levels of newsroom resourcing.

Freedom of the press

Freedom of expression, including that of the media, is protected by the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Legal recognition of the media’s crucial watchdog role is found in the Evidence Act 2006, which allows a journalist to protect the identity of a confidential source, although this right must be balanced against the public interest.

Access to government information

The Official Information Act 1982 is an important tool for journalists. This act allows all official information – including cabinet papers and officials’ advice to ministers – to be made available upon request unless there is good reason for withholding it. Many journalists have complained that officials and ministers use a range of methods to delay or refuse such releases of information. Nonetheless, many political news stories are based on information released under the Official Information Act.

Censorship and political control of media

Government censorship of the news media has a long history in New Zealand. It began in the early 1840s, when Governor William Hobson closed down some newspapers criticising his Māori land purchase policies.

In 1923, when radio was first becoming established in New Zealand, the government banned the broadcast of any ‘propaganda of a controversial nature’. They stipulated that broadcasts be ‘restricted to matters of an educative or entertaining character, such as news, lectures, useful information, religious service, musical or elocutionary entertainment’.1

Jamming Uncle Scrim

On the night of 24 November 1935, radio engineers employed by the Post and Telegraph Department deliberately jammed a popular religious programme by Colin Scrimgeour, commonly known as ‘Uncle Scrim’, just as he started to talk about the upcoming election. The engineers had been instructed to do so by their superior, on the grounds that Scrimgeour was likely to urge his listeners to vote for Labour. The postmaster general, Adam Hamilton, who was the minister responsible for broadcasting, denied having given orders for the jamming – which subsequently became notorious.

In 1937 Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage set up an Official News Service, under which all radio news bulletins were to be compiled and issued from the Prime Minister’s Department. Radio news only became largely independent of political control with the establishment of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) in 1962.

During both world wars there was strict censorship, to prevent the dissemination of information to the enemy and to maintain public support for the war effort. Pacifist and revolutionary socialist papers were targeted, with the Communist Party coming under particular scrutiny in the early years of the Second World War. A number of publications were banned and their distributors prosecuted.

In 1951 National Prime Minister Sid Holland imposed strict censorship during the waterside workers’ industrial dispute.

Lange vs. Atkinson

In 1996 former Labour Prime Minister David Lange sued political scientist Joe Atkinson, whose article on Lange’s role as prime minister had appeared in North and South magazine. Lange alleged that the article was defamatory. The case went to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council in London, and then back once more to the New Zealand Court of Appeal. In 1998 and 2000 the Court of Appeal accepted the defence of ‘qualified privilege’, allowing journalists to criticise politicians on the basis of ‘honest belief’. These decisions gave the New Zealand media greater freedom in commenting on politicians’ performance.

Legal restraints on the media

In the 2000s the media had much greater freedom of expression. However, this was restricted by a number of laws introduced to protect other rights. The Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993 had provisions designed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic or national origin, age, gender or disability.

If a person considered that false statements had been made about them through the media, they could sue the broadcaster or publisher of the statement, under the Defamation Act 1992. This did not apply to statements made under parliamentary privilege.

The media were banned from publishing the name of anyone granted name suppression in court.

    • Quoted in Patrick Day, The radio years. Auckland: Auckland University Press in Association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 1994, p. 51. Back

Ownership and regulation


In 2012 each of the major metropolitan areas had only one daily newspaper, although all had previously had both a morning and an evening paper. The market for daily newspapers, local and community newspapers and magazines, was dominated by two companies: Fairfax Media, an Australian company, and APN News and Media, an Australian-registered company controlled by the Irish concern Independent News and Media (INM).

Radio: a tool of democracy?

James Shelley, the first director of broadcasting, quickly saw the democratic potential of radio, arguing in 1936 that ‘[t]he radio, if properly used, should provide a means whereby the sympathetic influence of the actual human voice of ancient Athens can be added to the intellectual facilities of the widespread communication of the printing press. Thus it will form an instrument for real democracy, based on a sympathetic understanding of all points of view, considered in the quiet environment of the fireside.’1


Two radio networks dominated the commercial market: the Radio Network and RadioWorks. The Radio Network was owned by APN. RadioWorks belonged to MediaWorks, owned in turn by the Australian firm Ironbridge.

Non-commercial public service radio was available nationally through the two domestic Radio New Zealand networks: Radio New Zealand National and Radio New Zealand Concert.


In 2012 the main players in free-to-air television networks were state-owned Television New Zealand (TV One and TV2) and Māori Television, Media Works’ TV3 and Four, racing channel Trackside, and Sky Television’s Prime Television.

Pay television, introduced to New Zealand in 1990, was dominated by Sky, controlled by foreign-owned company News Corp.

Public service broadcasting in New Zealand

Radio broadcasting was originally carried out by private broadcasters, but was tightly regulated by the Post and Telegraph Department. In 1936 the Labour government placed broadcasting under direct ministerial control through the National Broadcasting Service (NBS). The introduction of television provided the incentive for establishing a public, as opposed to state, broadcasting system. In 1962 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), a government-appointed board, was established to control broadcasting, giving state-funded radio and television a degree of independence from government control.

Deregulation and the development of private radio and television since the 1980s has meant that public broadcasting now competes with private broadcasters. In 2012 the main public service broadcasters were TVNZ, Radio New Zealand and Māori Television. Radio New Zealand and Māori Television relied largely on government funding. In contrast, TVNZ received 90% of its funding from advertising. This has raised questions over TVNZ’s ability to deliver quality public-service broadcasting, in particular news and current affairs.

Student media

There were a range of student radio stations and newspapers throughout the universities and polytechnics, owned by student bodies. Student media have been active in providing independent comment on political issues, in particular campaigns over the funding of tertiary education.

Regulation of the media

Broadcasting was regulated by the Broadcasting Act 1989. This required broadcasters to uphold standards of:

  • decency and good taste
  • the maintenance of law and order
  • privacy of the individual
  • balance – the reasonable effort to present a range of significant views on controversial issues of importance.

The Paul Henry case

In 2010 TVNZ upheld complaints about breakfast show host Paul Henry’s question to the prime minister as to whether the next governor-general would be someone who ‘looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time’.2 The question was commonly seen as a reference to then Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, born in New Zealand of Indo-Fijian descent. TVNZ said Henry’s comments had breached the standards of good taste and decency, fairness, and discrimination and denigration.

Any member of the public can make a complaint to a broadcaster they believe has breached a broadcasting standard. If the complainant is not satisfied with the broadcaster’s response, they can then go to the government-appointed Broadcasting Standards Authority.

In contrast to the statutorily controlled broadcasting sector, the print media was self-regulating through the Press Council. The Press Council consisted of an independent chair, along with representatives of the publishers, the journalists’ union (in the 2000s the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union or EPMU) and the public. The council heard complaints from people who believed a publication had breached the standards laid out in its ‘statement of principles’. The print media considered its self-regulatory status to be crucial to editorial independence.


Māori and Pākehā media: politics and advocacy

Māori newspapers

The earliest Māori news media were government publications such as Te Karere o Nui Tireni. They were designed to pass official information to Māori in the Māori language. From 1862 Māori published their own newspapers – the first was Te Hokioi o Nui Tireni, produced by the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). Māori newspapers were published by a range of tribal, pan-tribal and religious groups, the latter including Pākehā missionaries. While these publications generally presented a particular political or religious point of view, they also contained correspondence, advertisements, local news, waiata, obituaries and reports of local hui. In the early 20th century, Māori-language newspapers went into decline.

Politics and colonial newspapers

Many of New Zealand’s earliest newspapers were established to advance their proprietors’ political interests. Some aspiring politicians set up papers to promote their careers. Three colonial premiers, James Edward FitzGerald, Julius Vogel and John Ballance, began their careers as newspapermen. FitzGerald was the founding editor of the Lyttelton Times in 1851 and Christchurch’s Press in 1861, Vogel established the first New Zealand daily, the Otago Daily Times, in 1861, and Ballance managed and edited the Wanganui Herald from 1867.

Papers such as the Press were funded by wealthy proprietors seeking to influence public opinion in favour of their political goals. In the days before party politics, newspapers often openly backed particular politicians. During the provincial era (1853–76), papers were also strong promoters of the interests of the provinces in which they were published. Most provincial centres had at least two papers – one supporting the provincial government of the day and the other the opposition.

The emergence of daily newspapers in the 1860s brought increases in circulation and the chance of making profits through advertising. While papers became more commercial, many retained distinct political biases. The Lyttelton Times, under the editorship of William Pember Reeves, strongly supported the Liberal Party. Reeves became one of the most prominent ministers in the Liberal government. Wellington’s Dominion, on its foundation in 1907, declared itself opposed to all forms of socialism, including the ‘state socialism’ of the Liberals. The Dominion supported the opposition Reform Party led by William Massey. Editorials in Auckland’s New Zealand Herald tended to be strongly biased in favour of the National Party until 1969, when its editorial writers stopped regarding the Labour Party as socialist.

A representative in the fourth estate

The belief that their views were not being represented prompted some groups to establish their own newspapers. Bishop Patrick Moran set up the New Zealand Tablet in 1873 to air the Catholic Church’s views on education. The Tablet provided a forum to promote Catholic, particularly Irish Catholic, views of current events. In 1910, militant unions established the Maoriland Worker to balance the perceived bias of the capitalist press. The paper began as a forum for a wide range of left-wing opinions, but eventually became a Labour Party newspaper. The Labour Party also managed the Grey River Argus from 1919 to 1966 and the Southern Cross (a Wellington daily) from 1946 to 1951.

Government control of broadcasting

Most New Zealand newspapers were strongly critical of the Labour Party before it took office in 1935. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage appreciated the power of radio but was deeply suspicious of the newspaper companies, which he feared would come to dominate broadcasting. Labour introduced the Broadcasting Act 1936, which placed broadcasting under direct government control through the National Broadcasting Service. Radio news was now supplied by the Official News Service in the Prime Minister’s Department. Labour also introduced the world’s first regular parliamentary broadcasts, with the aim of giving people direct access to debates before the press could put a slant on them.

Bias in the modern media

Broadcasting has not been directly controlled by the government since 1961, when control of broadcasting passed from the minister of broadcasting to a government-appointed board. Newspapers have become less openly partisan. Despite these changes, public perception of political bias within the media remained widespread.

Māori voice

Māori were consistently under-represented in the mainstream English-language media, with repeated accusations of anti-Māori bias levelled at newspapers and broadcasters.

Censoring the Māori news

In 1960 the ‘No Maoris, no tour’ controversy was at its height, with a campaign against sending an All Blacks rugby team with no Māori players to South Africa. This campaign received extensive coverage in the print media and was mentioned in English-language radio broadcasts. Despite its obvious relevance for his audience, broadcaster Wiremu Parker was told not to mention the debate in his Māori-language news broadcasts.

The first radio news in Māori began in 1942, in the form of a weekly bulletin of war news. Until the 1980s Māori broadcasting mostly consisted of short Māori-language news programmes on non-commercial radio and television. Following Waitangi Tribunal reports in 1986 and 1990, the government reserved a range of AM and FM frequencies for Māori broadcasters, and a number of Māori radio stations were established. The Māori Television Service (since 2022 officially known as Whakaata Māori) was established by statute in 2003. Its primary goal was to help revitalise and promote te reo Māori. Another important role of Māori radio and television is to provide news and political comment from Māori perspectives.

Journalists and politicians: an uneasy relationship

Politicians depend on journalists for publicity, while journalists rely on politicians and politics to provide them with news. Journalists can inflict damage on reputations, with sometimes devastating effects for the electoral prospects of politicians or parties. Disgruntled politicians can withhold information from journalists. The government can also alter the economic, legislative and regulatory environment within which the media operate.

Parliamentary press gallery

The press gallery provides coverage and analysis of political and parliamentary news. Members of the press gallery attend Parliament and select committee hearings, and report on proceedings. The speaker of the House approves membership on the recommendation of the press gallery executive. Privileges include a press gallery seat overlooking the debating chamber, an office in Parliament and access to many restricted areas.

Out, damn Scott!

In October 1980 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon refused to answer a question from journalist Tom Scott during a post-cabinet press conference, before ordering a member of his staff to ‘take him away will you?’1 Muldoon’s reputation for terrifying journalists was bolstered by the fact that none of the other journalists present at the press conference protested as Scott was led away.

Managing public opinion

With the introduction of television in New Zealand in 1960, the media’s power to influence public opinion intensified. Robert Muldoon’s rise to power as National Party finance minister and then prime minister coincided with the advent of television. Muldoon quickly learned to use television to his advantage. He appealed directly to his supporters, while attacking his opponents. His combative approach to interviews and interviewers polarised television audiences but made compelling viewing.

Television’s pervasive power led politicians and corporations to develop increasingly sophisticated image-management strategies. It has become common for senior politicians and government departments to employ press secretaries, often former journalists, to manage their relationship with the media. Richard Griffin, a former Radio New Zealand political editor, became National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s press secretary, while Kathryn Street, formerly a Radio New Zealand chief political reporter, was Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark’s chief press secretary.

The advent of the internet, with the associated growth of blogging and social networking sites, has dispersed the power to influence public opinion more widely across society.

Election campaigns

The news media plays a particularly important role during election campaigns. Voters need information about the parties’ programmes, the candidates and possible coalition arrangements after an election. The media also provide critical analysis of the policies and past performance of parties and candidates.

In the 1950s and 1960s many print journalists were required to measure with a ruler the amount of space dedicated to politicians’ statements, ensuring each party was given equal space. The statutory requirement that the media give balanced coverage of political issues during an election campaign continues to be carefully scrutinised.

Leaders’ debates

New Zealand has broadcast televised leaders’ debates since 1969. There have been at least two of these per election campaign since 1975, with the number rising significantly from the 1990s onwards. Minor-party leaders have increasingly appeared alongside National and Labour Party leaders in some of these debates.

Leaders left out

In 2005 TV3 decided to host a leaders’ debate that was to feature leaders of only six of the eight parties then represented in Parliament. The two excluded leaders, Peter Dunne of UnitedFuture and Jim Anderton of the Progressive Party, sought an interim injunction in the High Court against TV3’s broadcast. Justice Ron Young ruled that TV3 ought to include Dunne and Anderton. TV3 complied, but the judge was criticised for intruding on media freedom.

Election advertisements

The Broadcasting Act 1989 provides for public funding to be allocated for party advertising during election campaigns. It requires public broadcasters to allocate free air time for parties to present their opening and closing addresses. Parties are prohibited from spending their own funds on broadcast advertising. Parties and their candidates must keep their spending within official campaign spending limits.

These rules were designed to ensure that all registered political parties have the opportunity to present their policies and candidates to the public during election periods. They prevent a situation where only the wealthiest political parties and candidates can afford to run for political office. Countries such as the United States do not have these limits on election advertisement spending. This makes the cost of running an election campaign beyond the reach of those without access to large funds.

Concern about the ability of third-party groups such as the Exclusive Brethren to circumvent electoral finance laws led the Labour government to pass the Electoral Finance Act in 2007. This met significant political resistance, being considered by some to limit freedom of expression. Difficulties with the act led to its repeal in 2009.

    • Barry Gustafson, His way: a biography of Robert Muldoon. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000, p. 306. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kate McMillan, 'Media and politics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Kate McMillan, published 20 June 2012