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Tom Frewen: NZoA Board Members Commission Political Docos

NZ On Air Board Members Involved In Documentary Production

By Tom Frewen

Fresh controversy surrounds Prime Minister John Key's electorate chairman, Stephen McElrea, as documents released under the Official Information Act reveal his involvement in commissioning television productions for screening on TV3.

The documents show the extent that McElrea and fellow New Zealand on Air board member, Nicole Hoey, herself a television producer, are involved in selecting topics and producers for a series of four “popular factual” programmes under the collective title of “The Story” and backed with total of $1.1 million of taxpayer funding.

The money comes from the $15 million originally given to TVNZ by Labour to fund “charter” programmes and renamed the Platinum Fund by National to for use as a production subsidy by all networks on a contestable basis. Intended to “provide special insight and understanding into the workings of key institutions” the documentaries appear to have morphed into the new reality television genre known as “observational reality” or “popular factual”. A recent example is The Secret Life of Dancers which started on TV3 on Tuesday night.

Seeking expressions of interest from producers last year, New Zealand on Air said it wanted the programmes to “explore aspects of the challenges faced in New Zealand's four main areas of public spending – health, education,welfare and law and order.”

From 62 responses, four projects were selected by a committee comprising McElrea, Hoey, TV3's Sue Woodfield and Glenn Usmar from New Zealand on Air. One, presumably the programme about law and order, has been kept secret because it has not yet been “green lit”. The health system is to be examined in a programme about one hospital, in Queenstown. The “inside story of New Zealand education” will be revealed by televising a year in a high school. New Zealand on Air chief executive, Jane Wrightson, insists the programme will not be about charter schools. Nevertheless, part of the programme's synopsis has been censored, apparently on grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Potentially the most controversial of all, the programme about social welfare will be about whanau ora - “a behind the scenes look at the roll out of this new initiative that seeks to deliver positive social outcomes for Maori.”

As well as revealing a surprising level of involvement in individual programme production by politically appointed board members, the documents confirm the potential for perception of political interference when one of the board member is the prime minister's nominee.

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Documents:

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