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TVNZ Should Not Be Sold - Blue Greens

The suggestion by Act leader Hon Richard Prebble that TVNZ should be sold so that tax rates can be lowered further than proposed last weekend by the National-led government needs immediate exposure for what it is. It is an act of commercialism, typical of the thinking of Act which seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It comes at a time when New Zealanders are crying out for the definition of their own culture and the preservation of links with their heritage. It coincides with the final chapter on TV One of "Greenstone", as graphic and gripping a piece of historical New Zealand TV drama as we've ever had, and the commencement on TV Two of a new view of contemporary New Zealand life, in "Jacksons Wharf".

It comes also on the heels of a report commissioned by New Zealand On Air (NZOA) which shows that New Zealand lags far behind other predominantly English-speaking countries in the amount of TV time we devote to our own.

But is it so surprising from Mr Prebble, who was a prominent member of the last Labour Government which passed the Broadcasting Act 1989, changed TVNZ from a "public service" to a strictly commercial broadcaster, operating as an SOE. It is generally accepted throughout our kind of world that reflecting cultural identity is one of the ideals of the "public service" model of broadcasting. It was a statutory responsibility imposed on our own New Zealand public broadcasters until they were converted to SOE's. From 1989 onward, the responsibility for cultural identity was passed to NZOA, funded up to now by the broadcasting licence fee.

In the absence of measures to protect the use of our air waves to protect our cultural identity, we lay ourselves open to "cultural imperialism". This has been defined as "the use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of a native culture."

The cultural imperialism thesis claims that authentic, traditional and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States. This is the same United States which manages to maintain a "quota" of 90 per cent local content in its own territory, compared with our measly 24 per cent. This is not anti-Americanism, in the wake of having the lambs' wool pulled over our eyes in the matter of trade liberalisation. It is simply an attempt to put the matter of local TV quotas into perspective.

It also reminds us that because American TV programmes are made for American audiences they necessarily reflect American cultural identity. It's not that the Americans seek to impose their culture on us via the TV tube so much as a simple matter of economics. Programmes which have covered their production costs within the mass US market can be offered to other small countries like New Zealand at bargain-basement prices which are but fractions of the cost of making indigenous local programmes, and telecasters have to have something to fill the screen in between advertisements.

But back to the protection of New Zealand cultural identity.

The case for protection has been argued with simple but superb eloquence by Dr Michael King in his latest book, Being Pakeha Now (at pp 179-180). The following passage ought to hang on the wall of everyone with an interest in, or responsibility for, the cultural identity of New Zealanders:

"It is difficult to enumerate all the ingredients of a feeling of belonging. But for me they lie almost exclusively in New Zealand. Other people and other cultures have contributed to them, but the mixture and emphases are our own, and they are valuable. They have to be guarded against those who would pollute them, whether they be bullying and insensitive figures in public life; or those who would seek to swamp our fragile culture and sense of identity with the mass-produced and therefore cheaper products of North American, European and Australian cultural assembly lines - especially television programmes, books, compact disks.

"If we want to remain New Zealanders, to feel like New Zealanders, to act like New Zealanders, to present ourselves to the wider world as New Zealanders - then we must be able to listen to our own voices and trace our own footsteps; we must have our own heroes and heroines to inspire us, our own epics to both uplift and caution us; we must persist in building our own culture with our own ingredients to hand, and not import those ingredients ready-made from abroad. We can never shut out the rest of the world, but we must try to greet is as an equal partner - not as a land culturally bereft and waiting to be colonised and exploited a second time."

For the fiercely patriotic, it's difficult to transcribe those words through the fog of tears they inspire. Amen, Michael King, amen, amen!

Those of us non-Maori who are variously bemused, confused or downright offended by the latest Maori claims to a share of the airwaves should reflect that the claimants are doing us all a favour in raising the question of just who does own the airwaves, and for whose benefit should they be used? If it is so easy to deny or restrict access to Maori for the protection of their unique culture, with its richness of tikanga and reo, how easy does it then become to deny or restrict access for the rest of us?

TVNZ is a mechanism through which we express our culture and identity. Through the TV and film archives it owns, and which would presumably be part of any sale, it is the guardian of the greatest part of our visual and aural heritage.

There should be no further talk of any proposal to sell TVNZ for any reason, let alone to reduce taxes, until all concerned New Zealanders have been given an opportunity to consider carefully the ramifications of parting with something which has become so much a part of us. Once it's gone, we'd never get a chance to buy it back, even if we could afford the price. If there are valid reasons for selling, we need to be assured that there will be effective measures to ensure that it remains faithful to New Zealand culture and protective of our heritage.


Terry Dunleavy is chairman of Bluegreens Northern, a new task of the National Party to formulate policies relating to the environment, culture and heritage.

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