In 2008 on 16 December, the previous Electoral Commission released its non-decision on the address I used on Chris Knox’s CD “it’s a better way with Labour”. They were embarrassed and buried it in the pre-Christmas dump. This December, I’m waiting for a much more important decision from the current Commission on the RadioLive “Prime Minister’s Hour.” There’s a lot at stake.
Our elections have always kept money out of the broadcast media. In contrast to the billions spent in the US and the millions in Austrlia, parties here can only spend the Commission’s allocation and only then in the period between writ day and election day. Candidates can buy time on radio and TV but have to keep spending within their overall limits.
The significance of the RadioLive offer to the Prime Minister of a free hour on radio is twofold. First it opens the floodgates for brand advertising, and secondly it allows media organisations to determine who gains access.
The issue of political influence in the broadcast media is a live one in the UK, the US, and Australia, what with phone hacking, Fos News and the Murdoch empire. We should not think it does not go on here. In today’s Herald, John Drinnan relates how Key’s electorate manage Stephen McElrea is involved in New Zealand on Air’s efforts to influence the media:
New Zealand On Air was running scared after bloggers criticised a TV3 child poverty documentary it funded, which screened just days before the election. The politically appointed funding agency is concerned the TV3 scheduling three days out from the election had called its neutrality into question.
The alternative view is that the board, which includes John Key’s electorate chairman Stephen McElrea, got the political jitters. When NZ On Air saw the TV3 promos last month it was aghast.
NZ On Air said that around that time there was criticism in blogs and questions over the funding body’s neutrality. Chief executive Jane Wrightson sent TV3 bosses “a stern and strict letter” before the doco screened complaining about the documentary highlighting an election issue so close to polling day.
“We jealously guard our political neutrality and we were distressed it was put under threat by the scheduling,” she said yesterday. “The whole board is concerned about this and so am I. “We had no trouble with the documentary itself which Bryan Bruce describes as a social issues documentary. “It attracted considerable comment from people such as bloggers.”
Comment from people such as bloggers? Did the Standard cause such a reaction? Hold on, it must be the other lot.
Drinnan goes on to raise real questions, about New Zealand on Air’s independence.
The timing of the child poverty doco raised eyebrows. TV3 has maintained solid, serious documentaries while the genre has been abandoned at TVNZ. Admittedly, you might expect such an important topic would run a few weeks out rather than just before polling day. And you could argue that the topic – about the distribution of income and its effect on the weak – would have a left-ish perspective. Bruce did not seem to be heavy-handed with any party political bias.
New Zealand On Air’s “stern and strict reaction” was more disturbing than the scheduling decision. It evokes some of the wider issues about bravery and independence at a time when media are under pressure and turning to the state for help, and particularly for New Zealand On Air being caught up in the Wellington milieu. NZ On Air can’t be taking an editorial line, but it should serve the public and not hide from controversy.
The New Zealand On Air board is made up of political appointees and could look closer to home when it concerns perceptions about its neutrality. It included Labour-friendly people and friends of Helen Clark. Under National the most recent appointee is Stephen McElrea, who has long experience in the broadcasting world, and who is also northern region deputy chairman of the National Party and was chairman of the electorate committee for Key’s Helensville electorate. He would have played an important role in National’s campaign.
The Prime Minister took an active role in his appointment to New Zealand On Air – opening up to scrutiny the funding body’s neutrality. Despite his party political background, McElrea was appointed to a special committee to select a series of three social issues documentaries to screen on TV3 next year.
One will be about education and charter schools, a notion that was unheard of before the election, and most certainly could have done with some exposure in the run-up to the election like child poverty did. The Government and NZ On Air needs to gets its own ship in order before it starts firing off “stern and strict” letters to organisations who rely on taxpayer funding for their survival.
Given its advice to the broadcaster before the RadioLive programme was put to air, the Electoral Commission’s decision on Prime Minister’s hour will be an important test of its independence when it appears. It will certainly attract considerable comment on this blog.