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Unfinished Business On RNZ Charter

The wheels on Labour’s broadcasting policy could be set to fall off next week when Broadcasting and Media Minister Willy Jackson has to reveal why Parliament failed to complete the final stage of its Review of the Radio New Zealand’s Charter.

The public broadcaster’s charter review had special status as being a statutory requirement of Parliament, written into law in the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016. The review had to be undertaken and completed as soon as practicable after Thursday 1 April 2021.

The House’s business committee delegated conduct of the review to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) Committee. Submissions to the inquiry closed on Friday 13 August 2021. The committee then sat on its report for 10 months, eventually presenting it to the House on Tuesday 21 June this year. The report joined other items that seldom get debated down the bottom of the Order Paper. But being a report on a committee’s inquiry containing recommendations it required a response from the Government within 60 working days. That period expired on Tuesday 14 September. A month later there had still been no response from the responsible minister, Willy Jackson.

The committee's report contains four recommendations of which three would require the introduction of new legislation if adopted by the Government. “Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand” states: "Where a select committee report contains recommendations addressed to the Government, the Office of the Clerk alerts the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office asks the appropriate Minister to report on the recommendations and prepare a response.”

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An OIA request to the Cabinet Office on Wednesday 29 September seeking confirmation that this final part of the inquiry had been completed has apparently slipped between email inboxes. A response is nevertheless due by Thursday 27 October.

Meantime, National’s broadcasting spokeswoman Melissa Lee has submitted a series of written questions to Mr Jackson asking why he has failed to respond to the committee’s report. His answers are due by Monday 18 October and could have wide-ranging implications for him, his predecessor Kris Faafoi, and their officials in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH).

The Government’s Public Media Entity Bill, containing the so-called merger between TVNZ and RNZ, is now with the same committee that conducted the inquiry into the charter review. The committee is being advised by many of the same MCH officials that were involved in the charter review and wrote the report that is now parked in a parliamenary cul-de-sac — which may have been the plan all along.

The Ombudsman has finally agreed to investigate complaints going back to last December about Mr Faafoi and his MCH officials refusing to reveal how or why the select committee’s Charter Review inquiry came to be “limited in scope” — as revealed in a Thursday 20 May 2021 aide-memoire for the minister from the ministry’s Strong Public Media director, Liz Stewart.

Mistaking the Cabinet Business Committee for the House Business Committee chaired by the Speaker Trevor Mallard, she said it had “decided that a review of the current RNZ Charter should go ahead, however with a limited scope.”

Requests for an explanation of how the scope of the committee’s inquiry would be limited were refused under section 18(c)(ii) of the Official Information Act, on the grounds that “making available the information requested would constitute contempt of court or of the House of Representatives.”

The same grounds were used for rejecting a request for removing a redaction from a paragraph of the ministry’s briefing to Mr Faafoi as the incoming minister after the October 2020 General Election. Noting that RNZ’s charter was scheduled for review in April, the next four lines of the briefing have been redacted to protect the confidentiality of communications between ministers and their officials. The reason for refusing to lift the redaction, however, was the more obscure one of being in contempt of court or Parliament.

As neither the ministerial briefing nor the aide-memoire are part of a parliamentary proceeding or are protected in any way by parliamentary privilege, the potential risk of falling foul of being in contempt must lie in the information itself.

Could this be the smoking gun? Bent on getting their Public Media Entity Bill passed by March next year, did the ministry plan to shunt the charter review on to a parliamentary siding, where it could be forgotten, to resolve the timetable clash with its “stronger public media” legislative programe.

Getting back into gear after the 2020 General Election and the long summer break, the minister’s office emailed the ministry on the morning of Thursday 28 January 2021: “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 Mr Mallard and RNZ board chairman, Jim Mather, advising them that the minister did not consider it “practicable for a Parliamentary review of the RNZ Charter to proceed this year.”

The Speaker took his letter along to the House Business Committtee, which he chairs. The committee decided that he should write to the EDSI select committee “inviting it to conduct the review under its inquiry function” adding: “In undertaking the inquiry, the Business Committee would encourage the committee to request that the Minister for Broadcasting and Media brief it on his plans for public media.”

The committee’s report on its charter review inquiry, written by its ministry advisers, makes no mention of the committee being briefed by the minister.

Of the 68 submissions to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) select committee’s inquiry into Radio New Zealand’s Charter, inclusion of the Treaty of Waitangi in the charter was recommended in just two submissions, from Radio New Zealand itself and from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Almost half of the submissions were in support of RNZ’s Concert FM.

The inquiry’s recommendations to the Government, however, called for legislation to amend the charter to “better recognise the need for RNZ to reflect and promote New Zealand’s multi-cultural identity including, but not limited to, Maori language and culture” and “to acknowledge the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi.” An amendment requiring a specific reference to RNZ Concert in the charter was not considered appropriate.

The reasons for the Government’s failure to respond to these recommendations should be disclosed in the coming weeks. If they reveal a deliberate intent to subvert a statutory procedure, the ministry could find itself in contempt of Parliament, raising questions about its handling of the Public Media Bill now in front of the EDSI committee.

In the court of public opinion, though, there can be no hiding its contempt for the individuals and organisations that made submissions in good faith to the committee’s Inquiry into the Review of RNZ’s Charter.

The report, written by officials from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage appointed to advise the committee, was presented to the House on on the inquiry closed on Friday 13 August 2021 and a week after Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s announced the resignation from Parliament of her second broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi. The timing of Faafoi’s departure was no coincidence: his job was done.

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