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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 17 April 2020, 2:11 pm

In this week's update from TechBlog editor Paul Brislen:

What's black and white and red all over? Not so fast newspapermen - you might not be for much longer.

And what to do about hobby horses? (like 5G rollout... oops)

Read all about it

I've been intrigued by some of the debate around the role of media, particularly in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the plummeting advertising revenue and the government's committee meeting to discuss how best to help them out.

Mainstream media (or as I like to think of it, professional journalism) has been under pressure for many years now. Readership hasn't dropped off - far from it - but the medium has changed from print (or broadcast - I'll just say print to save ink) to digital and the advertising has gone from in-house to elsewhere. It's gone of course to social media, in particular to Facebook and Google which between them have roughly 125% market share.

I exaggerate, but not by much. These two behemoths have convinced advertisers that firstly more people using the platform means more reach (internationally, something every small business owner wants) and secondly that because it's digital it's utterly measurable and you can not only turn advertising on and off but you can target your ads at the most important market segments you want.

Selling a product aimed at left handed colour-blind cartoonists with a penchant for booze? No problem, would you like just the north American cartoonists or would you prefer a global sample?

Of course, this has all largely turned out to be rubbish - people no more look at ads online than they did in the paper, but we have so convinced advertisers (agencies and in-house people) that it works that they're desperate to keep their own jobs and won't shout "the emperor has no clothes".

But that ship has sailed and there's no getting it back in the bottle. Advertising, as far as professional journalism is concerned, is dead.

In the cold light of the day this shouldn't be a problem at all. Let the market decide - if it wants professional journalism it will pay for it. Largely I agree with this position. Journalism is a lofty goal - selling newspapers (digital or otherwise) is a commercial operation and should be treated as such.

But of course professional journalism isn't just a commercial deed. It's not entertainment. It's not sport. It actually matters whether someone is covering politics, crime, social matters and yes even the odd tech piece. Journalism at its best holds those in authority to account and makes sure justice (in all its forms) is seen to be done. From Fair Go chasing down dodgy tradesfolk to the Washington Post uncovering Watergate, these issues matter and should be shown in the full glare of public scrutiny.

Newspapers haven't always covered themselves in glory on this front. Overegging stories, being as much about personality and opinion as about fact and reportage. The sinking lid policy in most of the world's newsrooms means less coverage, less quality control, less diversity of thought, more polarisation of opinion and it's a slippery slope.

At the bottom sadly waits the cavernous maw of social media. Facebook doesn't care about news, it cares about clicks and as we've seen it will publish anything it likes in order to chase that dollar. As a money making venture there's nothing like it. As a media house it is beneath contempt.

Of course, Facebook insists it isn't a publisher but is a platform for anyone to publish on, and once that was true. When it started Facebook allowed posts to appear in chronological order with ads dropped in between.

That all ended some time ago when Facebook decided to introduce "the algorithm" and actually push content to users. At that point it ceased to be neutral and passive and became an active publishing company, choosing what would be promoted and what would not. The moment the company started making editorial decisions it became a publisher and should have taken on the mantle of the laws and requirements such a position entails. Instead Facebook said no, and the judiciaries of the world let it go. Who cares, they said, it's only cat videos.

Today we have fake news and hate speech. We have lies and propaganda, advertising dressed up as independent news and all the rest of the social media world's tricks. Want the answers to the crossword? Just give us all your demographic information and we'll let you see. Are you interested in business news? Here, take these stock tips created for you by a company that wants to sell you something.

It's not acceptable that the rules that make journalism worthwhile, that make it the Fourth Estate, are cast aside by the juggernaut that is the purveyor of cat videos and hate speech.

The Spin Off - Journalism in crisis: NZ media bosses at the Covid-19 committee

RNZ - News bosses grapple with the collapse of their funding model

The Spin Off - A note for new (or newish) readers of The Spinoff

Stuff - The future of NZ media: What now for Government media policy


5G Tower


The charge of the light brigade

I like a good hobby horse. I've been known to mount up and canter around the playroom myself from time to time. Regional economic development was one. Rural broadband and international capacity were two more. I even bravely tilted against the windmill that is "New Zealand can't have a tech sector because we're too far away from everyone else" and lived to tell the tale.

But one hobby horse has dominated my time for the past few months and it is the deployment of 5G mobile networks.

For some the reason I harp on is obvious. I'm in the pocket of Big Telco and I'm a paid stooge.

Allow me to be the first to say I do not work for any of the telcos and while I have in the past I never let that stand in the way of me picking on them and telling them to do the right thing.

No, the reason I harp on is because it's so bloody stupid. This argument that cellphones (and wifi) are dangerous to our health has held up deployment and has wasted time and effort better spent elsewhere and yes, has cost lives. People who crash in cellphone blackspots don't get that welcome voice at the other end of the line saying "help is on its way". Instead they get "your call is important to us, however the nice loon at number 27 doesn't want the bees to die so we can't connect your call right now."

But never let it be said I don't admire a good attempt at bluffing your way through and making other people jump through hoops.

The Outdoor Party (yes, they're a real political party) laid a complaint to the Standing Committee of the House about the Resource Management Act requiring an "urgent inquiry" into the Act and its use in allowing cellphone towers to be built.

The short version (the complaint does waffle a bit and use obscure terminology) suggests that because the EMA has a section in it about national standards and the way they should be rolled out around the country.

In effect the EMA allows for one standard to be applied across the board for building projects of a similar type. This way the same rules are applied in every local area.

You can see where this is going. The National Environmental Standards for Telecommunications (NEST) says so long as the cellsites being built meet the standards required by the Ministry of Health and other parts of the government, they can go right ahead and build them.

The Outdoor Party is outraged by this because of course cellphones are evil and must never be used by people in any way shape or form.

The complaint alleges that the NEST breaches Parliamentary Standing Order 319 (2) and that's bad.

The Ministry for the Environment was tasked with responding and respond it did. So long as the equipment in question don't exceed 25% of the allowable maximum, they're good to go.

This allows for a very large margin of error because I don't know of any cellsite in New Zealand that operates at more than around 4% of the maximum allowed and the highest number I've ever seen was 6%.

The complaint went on. The legislation uses regulations that are out of date (the Ministry points out they were updated in March this year) and that they rely heavily on input from thee International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). ICNIRP is, according to the complaint, "sponsored by vested corporate interests" and its advisors are "selected through opaque processes to suit its objectives and appear to be limited to scientists whose views are consistent with the short term Telco interests."

Of course, ICNIRP is nothing of the sort and as the Ministry points out, "ICNIRP is an independent non-profit organisation that provides scientific advice and guidance on the health and environmental effects of non-ionising radiation to protect people and the environment from detrimental non-ionising radiation exposure. ICNIRP's members cannot be employed by industry and ICNIRP does not accept funding from individuals or businesses related to non-ionising radiation. ICNIRP's recommendations are based on  reviews of health effects research. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises ICNIRP for its independence and expertise in this area."

The Ministry report says the research is up to date, there is no new evidence to suggest there are health impacts, the regulation is fit for purpose and can we please just all get down off our high horses and stop worrying about radio waves when there are much bigger fish to fry.

I may be extrapolating somewhat towards the end.

The committee is somewhat busy at the moment but no doubt will meet to discuss the matter. I can only say our Ministerial staff have probably spent quite a bit of time and no doubt money on the reply. It's a good, detailed response that addresses all the points raised and should be the end of the matter.

Of course, we're still seeing towers burnt down, Facebook groups pretending to be "educational" and fake studies being waved about as proof that something Should Be Done, but at least for this outing I would hope we can draw a line under it and move on.

\I'll put my hobby horse away for now.


Ministry of Environment - Response to complaint


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