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Hobbs Speech: On Direction In Broadcasting

Speech Notes: Hon Marian Hobbs, Minister of Broadcasting.

Opening Seminar—Directions in Information, Culture and Economy

Victoria University's School of Architecture, Vivian Street
Friday 18 February, 9am

Thank you Dr Opie for your very warm welcome and may I welcome you all, especially our overseas guests, to Wellington Central, an electorate of which I am very proud. It is a wonderful city and, if you haven't discovered it already, provides plenty of cultural stimulation.

Firstly I must congratulate the Humanities Society of New Zealand Te Whainga Aronui for organising this seminar and in its continued work in promoting and supporting the humanities. In particular I must thank the principal organiser, the President, Dr Opie.

I am aware that HUMANZ is concerned that ‘cultural’ policy for our country should recognise that the benefits that flow from cultural development and research are as valid and significant as those that flow from research into technology or the natural sciences.

Many of you will be aware of the range of my portfolio responsibilities that could be described as ‘cultural’; Minister of Broadcasting, including responsibility for Radio New Zealand, Television New Zealand and New Zealand On Air; Minister responsible for the National Library and for the National Archives.

I thus speak with a number of hats. Each of these areas impacts on and connects with the others within a broader cultural sphere and they should not be seen as completely distinct areas. They all, in different ways, have the potential to enrich the lives of New Zealanders.

Of the three areas, Archives could be seen as the least overtly cultural, in the traditional sense, as at its core lies its constitutional function - it is the record of government. Together with the Official Information Act, the National Archives can be seen as a citizen's tool of accountability.

The uses of the Archives, though, are highly varied, from the booming genealogical industry, to assisting in the research of historical publications, or, as all New Zealanders have come to appreciate, establishing that property transactions were, or were not properly conducted. The Archives have proved crucial in the investigations in Treaty of Waitangi grievances.

When the National Library was established in the 1940s it had at its heart a strong belief in the value of ongoing education for the citizens of New Zealand. The Library was created unabashedly for the public good – so that knowledge could be made available to all New Zealanders, so they could have access to print material for whatever needs and desires they had.

With this mandate it was firmly embedded within the Department of Education. The National Library was also to be a library of last resort, the library that would house those materials that were not commonly available from the relatively limited resources of public libraries.

The Library also includes the Turnbull Library, and at the core of this are the collections that were gifted generously to the nation by Alexander Turnbull. The Turnbull is a large repository of books, papers, documents, photographs, drawings, paintings, and so on, which invite scholarship, scrutiny and contemplation.

This collection acts as a record of part of the nation’s cultural production, and so becomes inextricably connected to the national memory.

Institutions such as national libraries or archives, are generally regarded as having accepted roles and responsibilities that are taken for granted - a sort-of backdrop of ‘civilisation’ against which other cultural activities can occur.

It is interesting to note, however, that neither of these institutions has been without controversy - decisions pertaining to their structures and funding have continually aroused fiery debate.

Both have large groups of citizens passionately interested in their futures – and both have been involved in restructuring programmes, which have spurred the interest and commitment of these interested citizens.

With the Archives and the Library I am in fact responsible for two highly contested and controversial institutions!

The concern that many people have demonstrated shows that they carry real meaning for many people. They are valued, and people become most concerned if they think that their institutions are going to be undermined or threatened.

It may be that, following on from two decades of essentially monetarist policies, people are particularly nervous of their assets, their heritage, being quietly disposed of or being expected to conform to a corporate mould.

The interesting thing is that these institutions exert a considerable purchase on the public imagination. The Library in particular has a symbolic value that is indicative of the power of cultural institutions.

My third ‘cultural’ portfolio area has already proved to be highly controversial, Broadcasting

Broadcasting, and television in particular, is without doubt an immensely powerful medium.

Not that the Government is wanting to direct the messages it transmits; it is wanting to supplement the diet of game shows, infotainment and easily digested sitcoms.

As the ageing protagonist of Maurice Gee’s novel Live Bodies, Josef Mandl states, “…American sit-coms with smart young people in apartments wise-cracking endlessly. I can’t take more than two or three minutes of that – or of the endless advertising. I did not invite these hucksters into my living room.” (p.159)

We want a broadcasting system that offers a range of programming to suit a range of communities, not only those that have the funds or inclination to buy the products featured in the advertising breaks.

We were elected on a policy which states that the reasons why the state has a role in the provision of a public broadcasting service fall under two headings:
 democracy, and
 cultural identity and diversity.

Broadcasting is potentially a very important tool when nurturing a society’s sense of itself and providing it with opportunities to hear issues debated.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Television enjoys a de facto monopoly on what goes into the heads of a significant part of the population and what they think. So much emphasis on headlines and so much filling up of precious time with empty air – with nothing or almost nothing – shunts aside relevant news, that is, the information that all citizens ought to have in order to exercise their democratic rights.” (On Television 1996 p.18).

While Bourdieu is writing of the French situation, this observation is equally relevant to New Zealand.

The current structure, with the emphasis on commercial return, has obviously led TVNZ to perform in a particular manner, but there is room to change. A major reconstruction of the Board is under way and I will be seeking to influence TVNZ’s ‘Statement of Corporate Intent’. This document is essentially a strategic document indicating the future direction for the SOE in question.

We are also proposing a Charter for TVNZ, similar to the one that measures Radio New Zealand's performance. Some of the principles were outlined in the Labour party manifesto.

In short we want a television service that is innovative, comprehensive, independent and of a high standard. Quality broadcasting should be available to all ages and sections of our population. It should provide a diverse range of programmes that meet the needs of diverse New Zealand audiences.

We need to see and hear New Zealand stories and issues, New Zealand programmes for children, New Zealand faces and accents, New Zealand sport, New Zealand landscape and New Zealand music. It is an integral part of our cultural identity.

The introduction of quotas is obviously another area that is of particular interest to the Government. New Zealand content quota on free to air television will be phased in after consultation with the networks and the production industry to reach a reasonable formula. Particular regard will be given to New Zealand programmes for children and young people, and for drama and serious documentary.

Quotas are the cost of doing business in New Zealand. They operate successfully in Australia, Canada and Ireland as a cultural protection mechanism.

The concepts of democracy and cultural identity and diversity that the Government sees as summing up the reasons for state involvement in broadcasting, equally underpin the Archives and the Library. These institutions also have a role of fostering the capacity of individuals to act effectively in a civic role, as citizens in a participatory system.

They also offer resources that can assist in exploring issues of cultural diversity, and safeguarding and exploring cultural identity.

There are various phenomena that influence the future of cultural institutions such as the Archives and Library, and that are inextricably bound up with the various forms of broadcasting. The ones most commonly referred to are globalisation and the new information and communication technologies, with all the potential that evangelists promise they offer the consumer.

The first presents a real tension that is being felt internationally, between asserting a potentially parochial nationalism against being swamped by global, or perhaps predominantly American, culture.

I hope through a variety of means, to strike an adequate balance so that the cultural life of New Zealand can encompass and reflect diverse cultures, and also protect some sort of unique identity.

The challenge for Government is to position all of its various ‘cultural’ elements, and to ensure that an adequate infrastructure is also in place, in order to get the best ‘intellectual and cultural return’ for New Zealand. And to do this while taking cognisance of these energetic and varied trends that are bigger than New Zealand and impact across the globe, such as globalisation and new technologies.

Cultural practice is too important to be sidelined as an indulgence, or seen as the preserve of that often bandied about term, the elite, or regarded as separate from the real business of life, earning money.

The concept of an overall cultural policy remains in its infancy, but this Government, in giving more priority to the various elements of what could be broadly termed the cultural portfolio, has demonstrated that it does take these matters seriously and is aware both of their importance and potential.

ENDS

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