The government’s reform of public broadcasting has made Ian Foster’s quest for rugby’s World Cup look like a cinch.
And the way the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill is drafted, suggests worse calamities than home defeats to Ireland and Argentina loom for the public broadcasting sector, according to leading media critics.
The critics generally support reform, they just believe the current proposals are poorly thought through.
Progressive governments traditionally support public media while it is often undermined by right-leaning regimes, ostensibly on the view that public broadcasters unfairly compete with private media companies, but actually because such governments want to avoid close scrutiny.
The sorry saga of this government’s proposed reform of our public broadcasting has over five years been led by three ministers; the first, Clare Curran, clearly dealing with something beyond her level of competence, while the second, Kris Faafoi, showed complete lack of ambition or commitment to the task. The third, Willie Jackson, according media critics, is overseeing loose legislation that eventually will bite Labour on the bum when it returns to opposition.
There is much right about the idea of reforming our state broadcasters. Indeed, the fact that Aotearoa is the only OECD country that does not support a commercial-free public television entity seems outrageous.
Labour’s election platform of 2017 promised to throw $38 million at RNZ in an ambitious plan to turn the state broadcaster into a “fully multiplatform non-commercial entity including a free to air television service” that would have pitted it against TVNZ, Newshub and other media players in an increasingly fragmented and competitive media market.
Through lack of drive and leadership, Curran’s seemingly worthwhile concept of RNZ+ has morphed into an entity, Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media, that still won’t include commercial-free, public television.
Before his departure from politics, then Broadcasting and Media Minister Faafoi, finally announced the birth of this bastard child – an autonomous, not-for-profit, Crown entity subsuming both Radio NZ and TVNZ, funded both commercially and by government.
Giving a hospital pass Foster would be proud of, almost all details of how this beast would work, including its charter and the relevant legislation, were left to an establishment board and to Faafoi’s successor.
It is the lack of detail and the charter itself, that media critics have focussed on.
Former NZ Herald editor and media consultant Gavin Ellis said a consensus of media experts gathered last week under the auspices of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, was that the legislation is not fit for purpose.
As well, because of opaqueness about both the structure and funding, he told RNZ’s Mediawatch there was a perception the new entity may be vulnerable to interference or influence.
“It’s absolutely vital that this new organisation begins with as much public trust as it can possibly generate. If there is a sense that it is in some way open to influence by government, then it won’t have that trust,” Ellis told Mediawatch’s Colin Peacock.
Denis Muller, Fellow at Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University, said there would certainly be concerns about the effect of merging a non-commercial with a commercial organisation although it had been done successfully by newspapers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, on which he worked for many years.
“But you need to go into that with your eyes open to make sure you were protecting both the integrity of the news service and the programme content.”
He told the workshop the legislation didn’t adequately safeguard editorial freedom.
Recent experience in Australia, where the former Coalition government had displayed antagonism towards the ABC, showed that that mattered, he told Mediawatch
The charter requires the new entity to demonstrate that it is editorially independent, “but there is no protection in the charter, or anywhere else in the legislation that I could see, no protection from government retaliation”.
Such retaliation can take many forms but typically includes starving the entity of funds, as John Key’s National government did with RNZ by not inflation-adjusting its funding allocation for eight years. Or, as has happened with the BBC and ABC, launch investigation after investigation on spurious witch-hunts on how public media is affecting commercial media, to sidetrack it.
“If there’s going to be a change of this kind, that’s proposed in New Zealand, it’s an opportunity to shore up the independence of public broadcasting. The legislation, as drafted, weakens it, because the existing charter of Radio New Zealand is actually much stronger,” the kiwi-raised Australian said.
Britain’s Emily Maitlis in the recent James MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival outlined how public broadcasting had been vilified and interfered with by the Tory government in the UK.
“We are seeing politicians moving in ways clearly deleterious to basic democratic governance.”
She said an active agent of the Conservative Party, a former political spin doctor and adviser to BBC rival GB News now sits on the BBC board and acts as an arbiter of BBC impartiality. The Financial Times had reported how he had attempted to block the appointment of journalists he considered damaging to government relations. Labour leader Keir Starmer has labelled it Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC.
Ellis, author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News, said that as proposed, the so-call “autonomous Crown Entity” must have regard to government policy.
“There is a guarantee of editorial independence within the bill, but I think that that guarantee is less than watertight,” Ellis said, adding that “there are many, many, many ways in which influence can be exerted.”
“I don’t believe that it’s proper or appropriate for a public media entity, that is to gain and retain the trust of the public, to have any possibility of government interference or influence.”
“It’s absolutely vital that this new organisation begins with as much public trust as it can possibly generate. If there is a sense that it is, in some way open to influence by government, then it won’t have that trust.”
He said he was not necessarily concerned about the current or even the next government.
“What I’m concerned about is a piece of legislation that may be around for 25 or 50 years and we don’t know what government we are going to have in 10 or 15 years. I call it the Trump factor.””
Minister Jackson downplayed these concerns and said critics would have the opportunity up until September 8 to put their views to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee.
In response to Stuff poll showing two out of three people oppose the reform as proposed, he said: “We have a bit of work to do and once we have shown how this entity can work, I think that might change,” he said.
“I think that once you get your board in place, they’ll work it all out.”
He claimed it was nonsense the government would want to direct and manage the new entity.
“Do you really think that I or the government will be managing interviews or trying to change stuff? We will strengthen up the independence in the Broadcasting Act.’
He said the charter could be tweaked as it would be reviewed every five years.
However, Ellis noted the charter, as drafted, had fewer obligations and was less aspirational than the existing Radio New Zealand charter
“Why should the new entity have a less requirement on its staff and on its board?”
He noted the first article of the current RNZ charter was “to serve the public interest”.
“That is not in the new charter. Secondly, freedom of thought and expression are foundations of democratic society and the public radio company and the public service broadcaster plays an essential role in exercising these freedoms, why was that not simply cut and pasted?”
While the days of silos of radio, television and online had gone, new technology was not catered for in the new legislation.
Ellis said broadcasting should not be defined as it has been in the bill, which is the same way it was defined in the very old Broadcasting Act.
“I would argue that you don’t use the word ‘broadcasting’. We need in this legislation writing that is non-prescriptive in technological terms. In other words, it allows for what we have now and it recognises explicitly that what we have now will be very different from what we have even in ten years from now.
“We shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to second guess what technology may be but to ensure that we lay open the lay for the adoption of whatever technologies serve the purposes of the Crown Enterprise.”
Another complaint about the proposed new structure is that it will be monitored by more state agencies than ever before – at least four and as many as six that will have some form of oversight – and that again will undermine perceptions of independence and interference.
There is also confusion over the provision of state funding with overlap from various funding agencies, such as NZ on Air and Maori Broadcasting.
“There is nothing in legislation that spells out the relationship between these,” Ellis said.
He wanted to be clear that he supports the concept of the restructure and the new entity, he just believed, as proposed, it has been poorly worked through.
“I’m excited by it because it is the opportunity to set up something for the Twenty-first century. It’s like a clear sheet of paper – to really set up the world’s first for-purpose (public) digital media operation.”
“(But) too much of this bill leaves out those things that are in the too hard basket. There is, for example, virtually nothing about that relationship between its commercial and non-commercial operations beyond preserving what Radio New Zealand does now. It needs to at least to give some indication on the way the entity should act in certain circumstances.
“If we don’t do something to ensure the absolute independence of this entity from any forms of government control over and above annual appropriations of funding for public good, then it will not gain the trust of the public.
Or Tu, of which Ellis is an affiliate, is holding a second workshop on today (Aug 31) on the proposed entity, where it will prepare its submission to the select committee.
(Simon Louisson worked for over 30 years in private sector media, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, New Zealand Press Association and Reuters and briefly worked two stints as a political and media adviser to the Green Party.)