RNZ Magna Charter Part 6 – Govt Meddling With RNZ Review
The Parliamentary Inquiry into the Review of Radio New Zealand’s Charter heard its first public submissions on Thursday 26 August. With Parliament shuttered under Covid-19 Level 4 restrictions, three people made submissions via Zoom to the five MPs on the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) Committee.
Their submissions are among 60 published on the committee’s web page. It is not yet known how many submissions were received in total.
Meantime, as the committee’s Inquiry continues, a Ministry for Culture and Heritage document, released under the Official Information Act, raises more serious doubts about Radio New Zealand’s future as an independent public radio broadcaster.
An aide-memoire for Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi from the ministry’s Strong Public Media (SPM) programme director reports that “the Cabinet Business Committee has decided that a review of the current RNZ Charter should go ahead, however with a limited scope.”
The five-yearly review of Radio New Zealand’s Charter is a statutory requirement. It is in the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016 — clause 8C. It is Parliament’s responsibility to initiate and conduct the review. It doesn’t need — and shouldn’t involve — the Cabinet.
Of even greater concern, though, is the fact that the scope of the review has been limited, presumably by the Cabinet.
The document reminds the Minister of the letter, asking for the Charter review to be delayed, that it wrote for him to send on Monday 22 February 2021 to the Speaker who referred it to Parliament’s business committee which forwarded it to the EDSI committee. The Minister is asked to recall that: “The letter to the Speaker said a review of the current Charter would not be efficient or practicable until Cabinet has made final decisions about establishing a new public media entity.”
The development of a business case and charter defining the shape and purpose of this protean public media entity has been in progress now for over two years at a cost of several million dollars. Starting with RNZ+, a vague plan promoted by Faafoi’s predecessor Clare Curran for a Radio New Zealand with pictures and print on the internet, it morphed into a proposal to merge TVNZ and Radio New Zealand which may, or may not, have since been abandoned.
Since Labour took back the Treasury benches from National in 2017, the mainstream state broadcasters — TVNZ, Radio New Zealand and Maori Television — have fallen under the control of their executives and a small circle of public servants in the funding agencies, NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho, the Treasury and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Also inside the policy tent are several Wellington consultancies and contractors providing administrative support and policy advice on charge-out rates of $1200-$2000 per day.
Together they have been trying to find a way to transfer taxpayer funding of radio and television to the internet, under the guise that “public broadcasting” is much the same as ”public media”. The three main beneficiaries of this move are journalists, their employers in both the public and private sectors, and government funding agencies led by NZ on Air which will control the money on which private and public media outlets will become increasingly dependent. With so much riding on the Minister eventually unveiling the “public media entity” at the heart of the government’s “Strong Public Media” project, it’s not surprising that there has been virtually no critical scrutiny of it in the media. No-one wants to upset the Minister’s apple cart.
The obsessive secrecy in both the private and public spheres that all parties deploy to hide their discussions and decisions is compounded by the loss of a consensus on public broadcasting. Understanding of its purpose and practice have been erased after three decades of profit-seeking and ratings-driven commercial radio and television focused solely on increasing audience numbers to generate more revenue from advertisers.
Adding to the confusion is the invention by a new generation of government policy-makers of their own new language with a vocabulary of technical jargon, much of it borrowed from the internet and misapplied to broadcasting, studded with acronyms like the truly weird SPMBCGP (Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Group).
It has reached the point where people literally have no idea what they’re talking about. The Treasury, which has had a disproportionate influence over broadcasting policy over the past 30 years, now thinks about public radio as a chemist might describe a tree, by its elements on the periodic table. Treasury anlysts say the reason for failing to fit their report on Radio New Zealand’s draft Statement of Performance Expectations for this financial year into their template is because the public broadcaster is a “multiple objective entity”.
Whatever that means, at least it hasn’t been acronymised — yet. A couple of blocks away from the Treasury up the other end of The Terrace, Radio New Zealand still thinks of itself as a single objective entity. Its Statement of Performance Expectations 2021-22 states its mission as being simply “to deliver the RNZ Charter and to support a connected and informed Aotearoa.”
In a click-and-collect world, describing a public radio’s charter as something that can be delivered is to liken it to the assembly instructions for flatpack furniture without the furniture.
Barely a year has passed since Radio New Zealand’s board and management used the Charter as their reason for removing RNZ Concert from its national FM network, which would have effectively ended its life as a radio station. Their goal of increasing Radio New Zealand’s audience share to an incredible 50% was based on their misinterpretation of the sixth in the Charter’s list of 15 required services, namely the provision of programmes “that stimulate, support and reflect (my italics) a wide range of music, including New Zealand composition and performance.”
Radio New Zealand’s management, however, turned this charter requirement on its head, changing its focus from defining the type of programmes required to increasing the size and composition of their audience.
“As a public service broadcaster RNZ has a duty to engage (my italics) with ALL New Zealanders . . .” ran one line in a Q&A sheet issued to support the decision to dump RNZ Concert. It continued “ . . . RNZ cannot meet its Charter obligations without broadening the diversity of its audiences.”
(For the record, the Charter makes no mention of the size or composition of the public radio’s audience.)
A new music strategy was needed to achieve the goal of engaging with the whole country. Management just happened to have one on hand, developed since late 2018 when, as recorded in another confidential consultation document, Radio New Zealand’s Head of Radio and Music, David Allan, “talked about the need to conduct a full review of all RNZ Music outputs, and created a managerial structure to enable us to do that.”
The management’s new music strategy had been formally approved by their board of governors and tacitly by the Minister. The rest, as they say, is history which, as they also say, has a habit of repeating itself. Stay tuned as more documents released under the Official Information Act reveal that the mistakes of the past are going to be even bigger in the future.