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RNZ’s Magna Charter – 2

The words “charter” and “charter obligations” are prominent in Radio New Zealand’s 2019 strategy document “The Music Opportunity” in which the public broadcaster unveiled its staggering ambition to almost double its total weekly audience to 1 million by 2020 and to 2.5 million, half the country’s population, by 2023.

The ultimate goal was to create “a lifelong relationship with all the people of Aotearoa.” Market research had confirmed that the audiences for the public broadcaster’s two national radio networks were predominantly old and white so the target of 50% audience share could only be met by new listeners who were young and brown.

But there was another reason for adopting a strategy out of a commercial radio marketing fantasy playbook. “The Music Opportunity” concluded that Radio New Zealand was “under-performing with younger New Zealanders and a range of other (non-pakeha) ethnicities” and could “not meet its Charter obligations without broadening the diversity of its audience.”

In a Powerpoint presentation like a cross between a toothpaste commercial and a briefing for a bombing raid, Radio New Zealand’s management asserts “Music is the way to reach these audiences” and “A new music based service is also essential for achievement of RNZ’s strategic objectives and charter obligations.”

The obligation on which “The Music Opportunity” relies as justification for its audience growth strategy — to “reflect New Zealand’s cultural identity, including Maori language and culture” — is the seventh in an equally-weighted list of 15 services which the public radio company must endeavour to provide.

(Of greater relevance for the radio industry as a whole, the 13th item on the list requires the public radio company to “take account of services provided by other broadcasters.” It would be their revenue under threat if their listeners deserted them to form a lifelong relationship with Radio New Zealand.)

Nowhere in the charter is there an obligation for the public broadcaster to broaden “the diversity of its audience.” In fact, the charter is not concerned with audience demographics — they are vital statistics of more interest to commercial broadcasters.

The charter is not concerned so much with the size and composition of the public radio’s audience as with the content and quality of its programmes and presentation. It is effectively a contract between Parliament and the broadcaster that specifies the programmes and programme genres to be supplied in return for payment of a lump sum.

Radio New Zealand acknowledges the paramount role of its charter on its web page: “The Charter is an important document which sets out our operating principles. It defines what we do so that everyone — staff, listeners and other stakeholders — can easily understand our objectives and what we are expected to provide for the New Zealand taxpayer.”

As owners and funders, taxpayers are represented by their elected Members of Parliament who pass laws that can only be amended or revoked after debate in the House of Representatives. Among the Acts of Parliament that secure this relationship between the taxpayer and Radio New Zealand are The Broadcasting Act 1989, The Radiocommunications Act 1989 and The Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016 which contains the latest version of the charter and stipulates that it must be reviewed periodically by the House of Representatives, with the first review to be undertaken and completed as soon as practicable after Friday 2 April 2021.

Given the charter’s acknowledged importance as a set of operating principles and its crucial role as the basis for the “Music Opportunity” audience growth strategy, Radio New Zealand’s failure to prepare for its first review would be surprising were it not for the arrogant contempt for Parliament and the law that has characterised Labour’s broadcasting policies and its administration of state broadcasting assets.

In coaliton with New Zealand First after the 2017 General Election, Labour set about creating a new state agency covering conventional broadcasters and multi-media “platforms” on the internet. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage, where broadcasting and media had been a small policy unit of about nine people, was suddenly required to produce policies for a “stronger public media” — state television and radio broadcasters newly joined by privately-owned print publishers on the internet.

Responding to a November 2019 request to explain the difference between “public broadcasting” and “public media”, Mr Faafoi said: “From the Government’s point of view these two terms mean much the same thing.” From the point of view of the public and the taxpayer, however, they are quite different. “Public media” include privately-owned websites. They receive public funding but are not held to account, by a charter or other means, over the quality of their output.

The challenge of producing a policy that legitimised public funding of content for privately-owned news websites was complicated by New Zealand’s broadcasting system with its state television channels reliant on advertising revenue and its state radio fully funded by taxpayers.

The Government’s response was to start pouring more water into an already overflowing bath. Claiming a need to defend the country’s news media against a threat to their revenue from “global giants” such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, Mr Faafoi unveiled a plan on Friday 7 February 2020 for “a new public media entity”. It followed a Cabinet decision six months earlier based on merging TVNZ and Radio New Zealand, consolidating their news services, and “substantially” increasing funding for NZ on Air. Formally known as the Broadcasting Commission, the funding agency was set to work with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage on writing a business case for the new entity — which should really be called “The Harley-Wrightson” after the broadcast funding agency’s chairwoman, Ruth Harley, and long-serving chief executive, Jane Wrightson.

Getting this through Parliament before the end of Labour’s second term in 2023 then became the top priority for the goverment’s broadcasting policy wonks and their legions of consultants.

With the business case taking less than a year to reach its inevitable destination in the too-hard basket, a hastily-assembled Governance Group of “experts” was left with the cart-before-horse task of writing a charter for the shape-shifting Harley-Wrightson media entity. The minister set them a deadline of October this year, six months after the start date for Parliament’s statutory five-yearly-review of Radio New Zealand’s charter. Obviously, having two charters would not be ideal. So the ministry wrote a “Dear Jim” letter for the minister to send to the chairman of the public radio’s board, Jim Mather.

“Dear Jim,” Mr Faafoi wrote on Monday 22 February 2021, “as you know, section 8C of the Radio New Zealand Act provides that the House of Representatives undertake a periodic review of the Charter provisions governing the operation of RNZ.”

The law required that the review begin “as soon as practicable” after the fifth anniversary of the previous one. However the minister did not think it would be “practicable” to start the review until after his “experts” had drawn up a new charter for his Government’s Harley-Wrightson media entity which, if it ever got off the drawing board, might or might not include a fully-funded prublic radio broadcaster.

He’d written to inform the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, who actually has no role to play in this process. It’s up to a select committee to kick-start a review by holding an inquiry, which is what the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee did on Tuesday 6 April.

(The minister’s office took the full 20 working days to respond to an OIA request for a copy of the letter and any related correspondence, only to extend the response period by another 18 days until Friday 4 June. It still hadn’t arrived by Thursday 10 June.)

Further evidence of the ministry’s incompetence is revealed in the “Dear Jim” letter to Radio New Zealand. If the new entity failed to get Cabinet approval, the minister said he would direct his officials to undertake the review of the broadcaster’s charter “as soon as practicable.” The minister, however, has no role to play in the charter review which has nothing to do with him, his officials or any other part of the government. It is Parliament’s responsibility.

In the words of the charter’s initial proponent in 1993, Steve Maharey, speaking as a Labour MP in the House three years later, the charter embodies “a commitment to complete independence from any interest — whether governmental, political, or that of an advertiser.”

Far from being independent, Radio New Zealand’s relationship with its political masters can best be described as cravenly subservient. Its board minutes merely record, without comment, that the minister’s “Dear Jim” letter was “noted and received”.

It would have come as no surprise, however. Three weeks before the date on the letter, the board met on Tuesday 2 February and the minutes of that meeting record the following:

"Charter Review

“The CEO said the review of our Charter is likely to be delayed. The Minister intends to write to the Speaker to request a delay of the review to synchronise it with the development of a Charter for the new public media entity. We feel this makes sense and will give us an opportunity to build on the Charter as part of the development of the new entity."

Clearly, Radio New Zealand’s chief executive, Paul Thompson, has some explaining to do. The select committee’s inquiry into his public broadcaster’s charter review will give him that opportunity.

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