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RNZ’s Magna Charter – Part 4

The parliamentary inquiry into Radio New Zealand’s Charter Review is significant for several reasons, not least of them the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) select committee’s decision to proceed with it against the wishes of the Government and the indifference of the public broadcaster’s board of governors.

Parliament is required by law to review the charter every five years. The last review was incorporated in the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill which was enacted on April Fools’ Day 2016. The next review could have started on Thursday 1 April this year but the Government wanted to put it off. The Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) Committee had to resist government pressure to have the review postponed.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage and the funding agency New Zealand On Air began working on a delay in February . Letters were written for the Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi to send to Radio New Zealand’s board chairman Jim Mather and Parliament’s Speaker Trevor Mallard. They were advised that the minister did not think it would be “efficient or practicable” to have the review until after the Cabinet had decided, later this year, on the viability of his new public media entity.

The key word was “practicable”. The law requiring Parliament to review the public broadcaster’s charter states that it must be done “as soon as practicable” after the fifth anniversary of the previous review. The minister said the review would not be “practicable” because legislation to establish his new “public media entity” would include a charter defining “its purpose, function, and principles that will govern its operation.”

Like Noddy building his house in Toyland, starting with the roof, the minister’s experts were writing a charter for the new entity in the hope that its purpose and functions would become clear as they went along.

Receipt of the minister’s letter was merely noted by Radio New Zealand’s board. It came as no surprise. Their chief executive, Paul Thompson had told them about it three weeks earlier.

The letter to the Speaker was referred to the House’s Business Committee which authorised Mallard to write to EDSI’s chairman, Jamie Strange, inviting his committee to conduct the charter review on Parliament’s behalf. “In undertaking the inquiry,” Mallard wrote to the committee’s chairman on Tuesday 9 March, “the Business Committee would encourage the (EDSI) committee to request that the Minister of Broadcasting and Media brief it on his plans for public media.”

It’s not known whether the committee was briefed by the minister before placing the inquiry on its order paper on Tuesday 6 April, or before its meeting on Thursday 24 June where it agreed on its terms of reference and decided to invite submissions from the public.

The minister wasn’t so keen on hearing from the public. “I am intending that public consultation to inform the development of a new Charter be undertaken over the next few months,” he informed the Speaker on Monday 22 February.

But he wasn’t talking about Radio New Zealand’s Charter. Nor did his idea of “public consultation” actually involve the public. More accurately called “targeted consultation”, it was to be managed by the new Governance Group of “experts”, chaired by former NZ First deputy leader, Tracey Martin. Submissions would be by invitation only from selected media “stakeholders”.

The EDSI committee has just five members. Three of them are Labour MPs. They include the chairman, making their decision to proceed with the inquiry against the wishes of their Party’s broadcasting minister all the more remarkable. The other two are National MPs and include their spokesperson on broadcasting, communications and digital media, Melissa Lee. A former television reporter and producer, her political experience and standing after 13 years as a List MP would have been an important influence on the committee’s decision.

This inquiry will be the public’s first chance in 15 years to contribute a view on the public broadcaster’s charter. The first review in 2000 produced minor amendments requiring Radio New Zealand to cater for all age groups, hold regular listener surveys and have regard for religious and ethical issues. The second five-yearly review in 2005 attracted 165 submissions. Again the proposed amendments were minor but Helen Clark’s Labour Government failed to get them through the House before losing the November 2008 General Election. The third review, due in 2010, was missed completely after National froze Radio New Zealand’s funding and put its charter legislation into cold storage. It then took six years for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and NZ on Air to figure out how the imternet could be used to extend the taxpayer-funded public broadcasting model from radio and television to pay for publishing video and text on web pages.

Kicking off the second reading of the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill on Tuesday 19 May 2015, National’s Broadcasting Minister in its third term Amy Adams said the Government had changed the Charter “to futureproof our public broadcaster for years to come.”

Radio New Zealand received Crown funding of more than $35 million a year (increased by 36% to $47.6 million in 2020). In order “to thrive and get the best value for money in the decades to come,” she said, “it must undergo a transformation from a traditional broadcaster to a multimedia organisation that connects with diverse audiences in a range of ways.”

Ms Adams said “The new charter contains a new obligation to take advantage of the most effective means of delivery, including its website.

“The provision will help make Radio New Zealand technology-neutral so that it can reach audiences beyond the traditional listener at home to those using smartphones and other devices anywhere and anytime.”

At the same time as National’s broadcasting minister was hi-jacking public radio’s Charter to enlarge its output to include streamed video and the printed word, her Party’s board appointees, chaired by former political editor Richard Griffin were hiring a new chief executive. With over a decade’s experience as a senior newspaper executive for the Australian Fairfax (now Stuff) group, Paul Thompson was an unusual choice to fill the top job in a public radio broadcaster. Within months of his appointment in September 2013 he was predicting that radio was on its last legs.

“Our preferred method of content delivery — radio — is in long-term decline,” he wrote in speech notes published on Radio New Zealand’s website in May 2014. “As a radio broadcaster, we lack visual journalism and digital story-telling skills,” he said. “Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on. The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social. To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multi-media organisation.”

The select committee inquiry into the Review of Radio New Zealand’s Charter provides an opportunity for listeners to give their view of Radio New Zealand’s transition from traditional radio broadcaster to futureproofed, multi-media platform.

The committee lists several key questions for its inquiry, among them: “Is RNZ utilising its platforms and modes of delivery effectively?” For instance, is online video and text taking precedence over traditional radio broadcasting?

Submissions to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/make-a-submission/document/53SCED_SCF_INQ_109806/inquiry-into-the-review-of-the-radio-new-zealand-charter close on Friday 13 August.

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