Media storms

I am surprised the print media haven’t made more of the Salient vs Victoria University case. Remember the interminable, day-after-day bellowing about which and how many TV cameras should be allowed into the Parliamentary debating chamber? Remember all the hand-wringing about the High Court’s decision to force TV3 to include Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne in its leaders’ debate?

Why hasn’t there been the same outrage from newspaper editorial writers and columnists and media freedom organisations (e.g. Commonwealth Press Union) about the Salient case, which was undoubtedly a much more serious assault on media freedom than either of those previous cases?

Matt Nippert, a former deputy editor of Salient, explains exactly what was at stake in an op-ed in the Herald this morning:

In New Zealand, those who have a beef with the press normally resolve it in one of two ways: a letter to the editor, or a complaint to the Press Council. Other regimes use prison cells and bullets.

Victoria University’s actions fell somewhere in the middle. Inevitably, such heavy-handedness garnered calls of overkill, and immediate sympathy for the underdog. What was essentially a student issue became a national one. A story about university operating in secrecy became an issue of media freedom.

A hypothetical example should suffice in illustrating how worrying a precedent this case may have set.

Imagine if Michael Cullen, beavering away in Cabinet, produced a document proposing that all tax rates be raised by a uniform 10 per cent. Imagine if these papers were leaked to the Herald, and a justifiably outraged front page was drawn up. Then imagine Government agents arriving at the printers and locking all 230,000 copies of the paper away in a mysterious vault (that presumably also houses the surplus).

Well, were this to happen, I’m sure that the Government would be toppled in a fiery media storm. Yet reaction by the mainstream media to the Salient case has been muted. Sure, they’ve covered it. But there have been no indignant editorials intoning about a grave threat to freedom of the press, and there haven’t been prominent stories in the papers, day-after-day, in an effort to ratchet up the pressure on those responsible.

Had Salient lost to the university in court, then all stories based on leaked documents would have become potentially illegal. That’s a fundamental assault on the freedom of our press, yet our finest papers appear to have hardly noticed.

7 Comments Posted

  1. yep, knew that Matt,
    comment still stands, editorial has gone wwwwaaayyy beyond barbieland into some kind of existential hell for feminists, complete with Bran & Geoff doing too much info on their respective balls (no castration fantasies there….ewww)
    however, I do understand that as well as the ace journo school, NYC has a shortage of single men (of any gender) so it’s understandable that you would stay there
    Salient will just have to recover in the usual way, by pulling up it’s bootstraps!

  2. One reason why Big Media didn’t take up the case is self-interest. Keith Ng approached the Commonwealth Press Union during the battle for support (they have a New Zealand Media Freedom committee).

    Ng was rebuffed. Why? They had spent all their money on backing TV3 over the Dunne/Anderton case.

    They had a direct financial stake, so they dove in wholeheartedly. While that had a direct professional stake in the Salient case, apparently this doesn’t hold the same amount of weight.

    PS: Katie, I applied to be editor of Salient in 2000 and 2001. And was rejected. Neh.

  3. RMC –
    there’s a third option that’s even worse, and more likely:

    3) Vuwsa settled badly with VUW, both my course fees and my levy are paying the lawyers, and VUW uses the cost of legal expenses(non-specified) to justify raising fees to the maximum that they have been considering ie: 10%, which is 5% more than the Fee Maxima limit imposed by law.

    Their attitude is that students are just an excuse to print money with “fees demand” on it, when all other associated costs are not rising at that rate, and students are not seeing any rise in the amount of funding available for exceptional performance.
    Secondary students can still qualify for Scholership, but at $200 per year, it’s hardly going to help them pay first year tuition; A & B bursaries were a generally irrrelevant joke by 1995; these exams were still highly promoted as drafting gates for restricted-entry courses, but in terms of offering students any financial reward for scholarly ability, they are dead ducks.

    All of these are issues around the fee-setting issue, which restrict access to tertiary education for those whose families are not in the 25% of the population earning over $45,000 pa. Our national indebtedness is heavily driven by the numbers of student-loan dragging employees who have little or no private savings, while they try to tackle their own personal share of the debt monster, now totalling $8 billion after 13 years of the Student Loan Scheme.

  4. Katie, you had a clear option if this went to court:

    1) If VUWSA lost then you (as a student) paid money to VUWSA which it paid to the university so the university could pay some of its legal bills;

    2) If VUWSA won then you (as a student) paid money to the university which it paid to VUWSA so VUWSA could pay some of its legal bills.

    Net transfer under option 1 – money goes from you to lawyers.
    Net transfer under option 2 – money goes from you to lawyers.

    Neither option is good. What I can see might bloody annoy you might be if you found it next year that both VUWSA and the University spent tens of thousands of your money on lawyers when they both could have settled and saved you money.

  5. Yes, Graeme, despite the fact that the student’s association is carrying the cost of lost advertising, and legal expenses, thanks to it’s castrated legal advice, costs which were created by the VC’s legal action and should have been awarded to Salient in court. I’m glad I’m not a Salient journo, but I’m bloody annoyed about being a student whose levy is going towards paying those costs in the next academic year!
    Matt, come back, your editorship is required!

  6. Yes… I am just as concerned about it as you, Frog. Very worrying. A charitable interpretation maybe they were keeping their powder dry to see what happened in the High Court and then helping to fund an appeal if that became necessary? A less charitable one would relate to foreign ownership of New Zealand’s media and slow channels of communication in transnational corporations…

    What slightly concerns me about the settlement reached between Salient and VUW is that the magazine has apparently agreed to return the leaked documents. I’m not sure about the journalistic ethics of doing this, since it may lead to the identification of the person who sent Salient the document in the first place, and possibly their sacking. If Salient had not come to this settlement and had lost in the court case, the dilemma might have been slightly different, as these two articles from the Guardian discuss:,,1562579,00.html

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