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Tom Frewen: NZ on Air Spooked by Political Interference

NZ On Air Independence Under Threat Over TV3 Child Poverty Doco

By Tom Frewen
NZ on air, beehive, goldfish, broadcasting, political interference
Click to enlarge.

A move to censor television programmes likely to embarrass the government during election campaigns is being considered by the broadcasting funding agency, NZ on Air.

The minutes of the NZ on Air board’s December meeting reveals a decision "to seek legal advice on whether NZ on Air could require an additional clause in the broadcast covenant requiring broadcasters not to screen programmes likely to be an election issue within the Election Period as defined in the Broadcasting Act".

A reaction to TV3’s screening of Bryan Bruce’s documentary on child poverty four days before the general election on Saturday 26 November, the proposed ban on television programmes "discussing topics likely to be an election issue" during an election campaign would be an extraordinary first for a western democracy, giving total control over television current affairs to a government agency run by political appointees and bureaucrats.


A publicity photo for Bryan Bruce's Inside Child Poverty : A Special Report

The alarm at TV3’s decision to screen the documentary on Tuesday 22 November at 7.30pm, a slot normally occupied by "reality" genre programmes such as "Drug Bust" and "Kalgoorlie Cops", was first raised by a board member, Stephen McElrea, who also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman.

"Was NZOA aware that this doco was to be scheduled 4 days before the election?" he queried on Thursday 17 November to NZ on Air board chairman, Neil Walter, and chief executive, Jane Wrightson.

"If not, should we have been? To me, it falls into the area of caution we show about political satire near elections."

After 20 years with TVNZ as a producer, director and manager, McElrea should be able to distinguish the difference between documentary and satire. Or is there a more sinister interpretation of his admission, as the reason for the disappearance of political satire from out screens in recent years?

Certainly, the panic his email sparked at NZ on Air would make a good script for "Yes Minister".

Next day, Neil Walter, a former secretary of Foreign Affairs appointed by Labour, emails his fellow board members, informing them that, to avoid the delay in canvassing their opinions, he’s already given the minister (Jonathan Coleman) "a heads-up [and] decided after talking with Jane (Wrightson) that we should register our strong disappointment with TV3 and put that in front of the Minister today."

Warning them that "we could attract some flak", he says "Time will tell how badly we have been dropped in it."

The chairman’s fear of being "dropped in it" was echoed in his chief executive’s email to the Minister’s Beehive office and fellow broadcasting bureaucrats at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. "We consider that we have been dropped in it on this occasion" Jane Wrightson told them, attaching a copy of a letter she’d written that day to Sussan Turner, managing director of TV3’s owner MediaWorks.

Complaining that TV3’s scheduling of " Inside Child Poverty: A Special Report " in the week before the election had placed NZ on Air "in a difficult position", Wrightson wrote:

"We are jealous of our reputation as a politically neutral and impartial agency and put considerable effort into protecting that reputation. We take pains to ensure that we do not put ourselves in a position where we can be accused of political bias."

Wrightson told TV3 that NZ on Air was "deeply disappointed" by the scheduling decision which risked "damaging NZ on Air’s reputation and calls into question our political impartiality."

Fears of having caused embarrassment to themselves and their political masters, evident as the main concern for Walter and Wrightson in their emails, proved groundless. NZ on Air didn’t rate a mention in comment on the programme in the days after it was screened. Wrightson’s relief is evident in an email to McElrea and other board members on Thursday 24 November. Noting that public debate had been confined to the views on the appropriate political response to child poverty "rather than party-specific", she added: "And thus far, no serious criticism of NZ on Air thankfully. Mainstream press more interested in tea party."

McElrea, however, believed his fellow board members should read a blog by Karl du Fresne who saw the documentary as further evidence in support of his belief in TV3’s editorial bias against Key’s National-led government.

Apart from a passing reference to NZ on Air in du Fresne’s blog (initially 23 November then a follow up December 7), the only other criticism appears to have been in one email from Alastair Bell. Although not included with documents requested under the Official Information Act, a response to it from the chairman says: "I categorically reject the suggestion that New Zealand on Air was in any way involved in the broadcaster’s decision to screen the programme at that time."

Alastair Bell’s email was sent on Tuesday 6 December, two days before the NZ on Air’s board meeting on Thursday 8 December to which Sussan Turner was summonsed to "discuss" the scheduling of documentary. "Although we were not party to the scheduling decision, we now stand accused of political bias," she was informed in a letter from Wrightson.

In fact, the only accusation against NZ on Air arising from the scheduling was in the one email which, if it was from the same Alastair Bell who is on the National Party’s board, manages media and public relations for political conferences and was a senior adviser to Jenny Shipley, would confirm just how little respect the Key government has for its broadcast funding agency’s supposed political neutrality and independence.

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