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Joining the Dots on National’s Broadcasting Policies

Joining the Dots on Nat’s Broadcasting Policies

By Peter A. Thompson
Senior lecturer
Unitec Department of Communication Studies

As a strong proponent of public service broadcasting, I was dismayed by the decision by TVNZ’s Close Up to cancel a scheduled interview with the Prime Minister on tax reforms in favour of a tawdry scandal involving a former All-Black. However, it was difficult not to smile at the irony of seeing John Key being denied a platform to explain his policies to the nation. After all, TVNZ’s current affairs priorities were entirely consistent with the vacuous commercial directives the National government’s own broadcasting policies have espoused, despite the Charter remaining a statutory obligation.

John Key was obliged to graciously accept his ignominious deprioritisation by Close Up because politically, he could not afford to be seen to interfering with the editorial decisions of a state broadcaster. Privately though, he must by now have joined the dots and realised that his missed opportunity was largely a consequence of his government’s own policies. The commercial media, meanwhile, were under no such constraint and gleefully took the opportunity to criticise TVNZ’s news values. Unfortunately none of the reports had the perspicacity to draw the link between TVNZ’s abandonment of any pretense of public service and the failure of governments (past and present) to support the Charter and insulate news decisions from the pressure to maximise ratings and revenue.

Our one remaining national broadcaster that does produce quality news and current affairs independently of such pressures is Radio New Zealand. However, despite the election promises that its funding would not be reduced, the RNZ board is now being pressured by the Minister of Broadcasting to ensure its operational costs are constrained within budget. The letter Dr. Coleman wrote to the board (quoted by the NZ Heraldi) is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, he comments that meeting budget targets “ may require a change of mindset on the part of the board and senior management, one that embraces open-minded consideration of alternative revenue models, as well as a thorough examination of options for reconfiguring services.”

Thus the Minister indicates that if the current board does not rein in costs, the government will look at appointing different members more willing to do the government’s bidding. Although the expectation of fiscal prudence in the governance of a Crown Company might seem reasonable, an independent KPMG report commissioned by the government found that RNZ was under-funded in proportion to the services it was providing. In that context, the Minister’s directive takes on a more nefarious import: In effect, it constitutes a demand to cut jobs and services (or else begin accepting sponsorship for content, beginning with Concert FM).

Secondly, Dr. Coleman’s letter claims that, “We have to be prepared for an environment where there may be no new funding available for a number of years”. In subsequent clarifications on RNZ’s Morning Reportii he suggested that he needed to be sure that the board was “up for the challenge” and that RNZ’s board had to deal with the “cold hard facts of the financial environment- that there is no more money”. The Minister’s reasonable-sounding rhetoric suggests that the need for such austerity arises from a tough economic climate and extraneous budget limitations that that are out of the government’s hands and which “we” must therefore face together. This conveniently overlooks the fact that such conditions arise not because of any economic force of nature but as a result of National’s broadcasting funding policies.

There is a curiously prevalent myth in New Zealand about commercially-funded media being free and independent while state-funded media operate under the constant spectre of nefarious government interference. However, as TVNZ’s failure to deliver its public Charter outcomes while depending on commercial revenue for 90% of its income demonstrates, commercial broadcasters operate under significant constraints that make the delivery of quality content and public service largely impossible.

In that regard, the government’s move to restrict the funding of New Zealand’s national public service broadcaster and encouragement to move toward commercial sources of revenue is tantamount to direct interference in its operational decision making. If one joins the dots, it is clear that the government’s refusal to increase RNZ’s funding, even when independent reports confirm current levels are inadequate, will have predictable and deleterious consequences for the range and quality of content the broadcaster can deliver. As several opposition MPs have pointed out, it is difficult to reconcile the Minister’s stance with the public service obligations set out in RNZ’s new Charter.

The few million in savings the Treasury might make are disproportionate to the social cost of slowly starving RNZ to death. One can only conclude that it is not fiscal prudence driving this policy, but National’s ideological hostility towards public broadcasting. Perhaps RNZ could make their first saving by replacing their next scheduled programme involving the Minister with an interview with a former All-Black...

Peter Thompson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Unitec in Auckland. He has written extensively on the government’s broadcasting policies since 1999, and chaired the working party which reviewed public submissions on the redrafted version of the TVNZ Charter. He has also undertaken policy research projects for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (on broadcasting funding-setting mechanisms in OECD countries) and NZ On Air (on approaches to measuring broadcasting quality).

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