RNZ’s Magna Charter – Part 3
The utter shambles that has developed under Labour’s Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi, a former TVNZ political reporter, is revealed in correspondence between his office and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage obtained under the Official Information Act.
Included in documents released by Mr Faafoi on Monday 16 June, two months after they’d been requested and the minister had given himself an extension that doubled the usual response time of 20 working days, are letters that he sent to the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, and Radio New Zealand’s board chairman, Jim Mather. The letters explain his reason for thinking that Parliament’s five-yearly review of Radio New Zealand’s charter, set to occur any time after April 2 this year, would not be “practicable” until after a Cabinet decision expected in October on the viability of a new “public media entity”.
With the focus on meeting the October deadline in order to get legislation through the House next year and have the structure up and running before the next General Election in 2023, Parliament’s review of the public radio’s charter, a statutory requirement under section 8 of the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016, appeared to have slipped under the radar.
It was not until Wellington resumed work after the long summer holiday that the charter review set off a minor panic up the big end of town.
On the morning of Thursday 28 January, the minister’s office (MO) emailed the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH): “Quick question, Minister Faafoi is going to write to Select Committee re: RNZ’s Charter Review being incorporated into the SPM (Stronger Public Media) programme instead of a standalone process, Is there a timeframe on when we will be doing this?”
MCH replied within 20 minutes: “We were thinking Feb. So a draft letter and cover note in next couple of weeks. Does this work for you?”
Yes, it did. It took just over a fortnight for MCH to knock out an aide memoire and two letters addressed to Mallard and Mather advising them that the minister did not consider it “practicable for a Parliamentary review of the RNZ Charter to proceed this year.”
The aide-memoire, dated Wednesday 17 February, fulfils its function by reminding the minister of his plan to report to Cabinet on the viability of “a new public media entity” in October. It then reveals something new:
“Legislation to establish a new public media entity will also disestablish TVNZ and RNZ. This legislation will also include a Charter for the new entity.”
There had been a change of plan. What had begun as the development of a business case based on merging TVNZ and RNZ had morphed into something else. It had been assumed that a merger of the two broadcasters would extend only to their news rooms, management and governance and that public radio would retain its separate structure, purpose and operations governed by its charter, newly reviewed and good for another five years.
The decision to replace the charter with a new one written for the new public entity was still secret, not set to be unveiled until Wednesday 31 March along with the membership of the imposingly titled “Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Group” which would be writing the new charter.
A reference to the group in earlier drafts of the aide memoire and letters prompted the minister’s office to email the ministry on Wednesday 17 February.
MO to MCH: “This group has not been made public yet, so the Minister may not be comfortable providing that information . . . please get MCH view on whether reference to the GG (Governance Group) is vital or if we would be comfortable to rework the letter to remove the reference, if that is the Minister’s preference at this time.”
MCH to MO: “Yes we can rework the letter, no problem. The mention of the GG was in the context of the public engagement on the development of a new charter. However, we can reference the public engagement but not the GG. Apologies, we’d forgotten the announcements on the GG aren’t till March, post APH (Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee). There are a lot of letters in play at mo! Do you want us to rework that para and send over revised version before putting in front of Minister?”
MO to MCH: “That would be great thanks.”
The Minister’s Office had originally intended to write to the relevant select committee but had since been advised that the letter should go to the Speaker. So the minister’s letter to Mallard on Monday 22 February said: “I am intending that public consultation to inform the development of a new Charter be undertaken over the next few months.”
Unveiling his Governance Group and its role in writing a new charter on Wednesday 31 March, the minister said he expected the group “to undertake broad engagement with the public and to specifically engage with TVNZ and RNZ, Maori, and underserved audiences.” But the terms of reference for the group, published a fortnight later on Wednesday 14 April, stipulated that it “‘undertake a targeted public consultation process to inform the development of a draft charter that would define the role and purpose of a new entity and principles to guide its operation.”
A “targeted consultation process” is code for limiting input to contributions from so-called sector stakeholders which inevitably favour the status quo. Also, it keeps the selection of contributors within the control of the group’s “experts” who are dominated by television interests and have limited experience of public broadcasting let alone in radio.
On the other hand, from the Government’s point of view, its group’s controlled consultation process would avoid any embarrassment for the government from public submissions to an open select committee hearing that touched on the RNZ board and management’s interpretations of the charter in relation to shunting Concert FM off its dedicated frequency
Welcoming the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) committee’s decision to conduct an inquiry into the review, National’s broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee said on her Facebook page: “I believe this session will be absolutely vital to understand what is going on in the Government's Public Media plans. We want to get to the bottom of the myriad of issues that surrounded public broadcasting policy in the last Parliament from the attempt to decimate RNZ Concert, to the actions of the former Broadcasting Minister as well as the current Government's plans to disestablish RNZ & TVNZ to replace them with a new Public Media entity.
“It will also be an important time for discussion about the future of New Zealand's media sector.”
Ms Lee is one of two National MPs on the EDSI committee which has had the review on its order paper since Tuesday 6 April. She now needs to persuade the committee’s three Labour MPs including its chairman Jamie Strange to hold hearings and invite submissions from the public so that Radio New Zealand’s listeners can also have a say.