Political Roundup: Time for a “Save public broadcasting” campaign

Political Roundup: Time for a “Save public broadcasting” campaign

There was a fair amount of enthusiasm and optimism several years ago when the Government announced a restructure designed to boost public broadcasting. Many hoped it might result in a BBC-like, non-commercial public media organisation that operated on multiple platforms.

Labour’s goals made a lot of sense, and the National Party complaints that Labour was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken didn’t resonate. After decades of RNZ being underfunded, with TVNZ and NZ On Air operating an experimental public broadcasting model that produced ever-worsening commercial television, Labour looked set to bolster democracy with this reform.

But that was 2017, when the idea of a transformational Labour Government still had currency. After years of corporate consultancy reports and working groups, the result of the public media investigations were announced last week and effectively killed off the dream of a cohesive and comprehensive non-commercial public broadcasting media organisation.

What we are going to get is a mish-mash of RNZ and TVNZ, where the two will be initially brought under an umbrella company, and possibly amalgamated under one brand in the future. Funding isn’t likely to change, with a commercial imperative remaining, especially for television, and likely for the new online future media services.

This once in a lifetime opportunity to reverse decades of underfunding and a neoliberal media model has been squandered, and the Government has gone for an extremely compromised and moderate project, which could end up worse than the current situation.

“Is that it?” was the response of most commentators, experts and insiders to Thursday’s announcement. This wasn’t helped by the Minister of Broadcasting and Media refusing to answer basic questions from journalists about the future of the organisation.

Faafoi employed a neat trick – replying that questions about the shape of the new RNZ-TVNZ merger would be left for the Establishment Board (whose personnel has apparently been chosen, but Faafoi is leaving that announcement until next month).

Questions about core issues – such as whether the new merged digital platform will be commercial-free – were deemed to be for the appointed bureaucrats, not for the minister accountable.

Despite all the missing detail, there are a few disturbing things we can now be certain about. First, government funding for the new broadcaster will be entirely inadequate. Although public broadcasting advocates have long asked for a fully-funded radio and TV service, and Labour have made noises about wanting this, the Government won’t put their money where its mouth is. A proper commercial-free public broadcaster might cost $150m a year – three times the current cost – but that’s beyond what Labour are willing to fund.

What’s more, annual funding for the new organisation will be decided by the finance minister of the day, competing against all other government priorities, making this core part of the media vulnerable to the agendas of politicians. This has led to some raising the strong possibility of political interference in the broadcaster.

Second, the model will be a hybrid, in which the television side will continue to be reliant on advertising and audience ratings, and RNZ will remain ad-free. Although there are some similar broadcasting models elsewhere in the world, it’s a fraught and contradictory model for a public broadcaster – to exist as both “for the public good”, and at the same time make money from commercials.

Third, the emphasis of the new organisation will be the push to digital – recognising quite rightly that online platforms will eventually take over linear radio and television broadcast components of the service. But although a commitment has been made to keep RNZ commercial-free, the digital element of the public company is likely to involve commercial advertising.

RNZ’s boss Paul Thompson has been reported as saying, “RNZ could be involved in producing commercial digital content”. Unsurprising the watchdog campaigner for RNZ, the Better Public Media Trust, has responded with alarm about the “gradual weakening” of the non-commercial element of public media under the new model. The worry is that the TVNZ model and culture will become dominant, instead of the traditional RNZ ethos.

And there are things missing from the new model. Whatever happened to the promised non-commercial youth music radio network? It’s been “parked” of course (to use the current language of Labour about transformative policies).

Of course, last week’s politically centrist and unsatisfactory announcement is unsurprising – it aligns with the Government’s approach to other reforms in housing, inequality, climate change, transport, and so forth.

Faafoi has a huge workload, and he was made responsible for key issues on the basis that he is a “safe pair of hands”. Yet he is failing in them all. As Justice Minister he has bungled reforms on hate speech, not even being able to explain them to the public, and his electoral law reforms seem muddled. On immigration, his promised “reset” has been widely panned.

A few months ago, the Herald’s Audrey Young updated her regular ratings of Cabinet Ministers, downgrading Faafoi’s previous 7/10 rating to just 5/10, saying the minister had “gone from a star performer in the first term to a bit of a worry in the second term”.

Similarly, two months earlier, the Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan reported on the annual Mood of the Boardroom survey to say that “Faafoi has lost reputational footing with CEOs”. In 2020 he had been the highest rating minister on 3.58/5, but in 2021 plummeted to a 2.17/5 rating. One CEO said “Faafoi in Immigration is an absolute disaster”, with another stating “If there was a score lower than 1, I would give it to Faafoi.”

Amongst journalists – and of course, Faafoi used to be one himself – the Minister had become known as “missing in action” for generally refusing to do interviews about his portfolio issues. The explanation amongst journalists was that he had given up his electorate to be a list MP, moved to the Wairarapa for a slower life, and no longer really wanted to be a Cabinet Minister.

If this is the case, how much confidence can the public have in what he’s doing?

The question of “Why fix something that isn’t broken?”, is actually now becoming more compelling, especially once the public learns that the new model might be even worse than the current one.

Perhaps it’s time for a campaign to save RNZ and public broadcasting.

Further reading on public media reforms

Peter Thompson (The Conversation): Merging commercial TVNZ and non-commercial RNZ won’t be easy – and time is running out
Daniel Dunkley (BusinessDesk): TVNZ-RNZ merger: big on promises, thin on detail(paywalled)
Daniel Dunkley (BusinessDesk): RNZ boss expects TVNZ news ‘integration’ (paywalled)
Paul Thompson (Stuff): TVNZ, RNZ merger a ‘watershed’ moment for NZ media
Mark Jennings (Newsroom): Faafoi shows political skills haven’t deserted him(paywalled)
Hayden Donnell (RNZ): Government confirms new media body to replace RNZ, TVNZ

Other items of interest and importance today

Stuff: Editorial – A surprising poll in bleak times
Much of what is causing unpopularity for the Government is not their own fault – but is just a Covid malaise in society. Nonetheless this editorial argues the Government will have to drop some of its problematic reforms, as the political focus is now all on economics.

Luke Malpass (Stuff): Christopher Luxon’s surge reveals inflexible and stale Labour in need of a reset
It might be time for a reshuffle and reset in the Government according to Stuff’s political editor. He says that Labour hasn’t really made any big mistakes lately, but all of the problems of Covid, inflation, Ukraine, and the Parliamentary protest are adding up.

Claire Trevett (Herald): Favourable Luxon, National poll is Ardern, Labour’s wake-up call(paywalled)
The Herald’s political editor says that the 1News poll was a useful wake up call for Labour, and the party will need to regain control of the narrative over inflation and Covid, and maybe ditch policies like Three Waters and Fair Pay Agreements which were to be part of the Government’s legacy.

Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern’s rote response to thorny issues wearing thin(paywalled)
The Prime Minister has made a mistake by continuing to deny that there is a “cost of living crisis”. The Herald’s head of business also calls out that “Ardern’s rote response to thorny issues — sometimes the facts even — is to automatically ‘refute’ or ‘reject’ (often ‘absolutely’ too) propositions put to her by interviewers or political opponents.”

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Never rule out Winston Peters. But there’s a new kingmaker in town
New Zealand First is “stoking a culture war”, especially on the Government’s “Māori separatist” and co-governance agenda says Andrea Vance, and it could put them back into power to decide the next government. But Te Pāti Māori are also in the picture.

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Act party donations drive nets almost $1 million from rich listers
The rightwing Act Party has raised nearly $1m in its latest fundraising drive – mostly through seven $100,000 donations from wealthy New Zealanders including from billionaire Graeme Hart.

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Labour starts fundraising drive with $25 a ticket Zoom call
The Labour Party is raising money by getting the Prime Minister to appear on a Zoom call to answer hundreds of questions, and anyone can join in by donating $25 to the party.

Kate MacNamara (Herald): Government’s Covid PR spin machine, murky transparency need dismantling (paywalled)
The Herald’s Kate MacNamara has just finished a series of reports on the problematic role of PR in Government communications. She says that Comms is necessary in government, but after two years of Covid management it’s got out of control.

Amelia Wade (Newshub): Revealed: Kāinga Ora spent over $24m of taxpayer money in four years on its own office renovations
The state housing agency is failing to build enough state houses, and nearly 80 percent of its rentals don’t meet the Government’s own healthy home standards, which means that a big spendup on housing their expanding staff numbers doesn’t look good.

Justin Duckworth (Stuff): Why we must all take responsibility for the Parliament protest
The Anglican Bishop of Wellington met with protestors, who occupied his Cathedral of St Paul, and says: “I met amazing people who were beautiful and generous. I was challenged to reflect upon my own views on vaccine and mandates. I met people who paid a huge price for their beliefs: losing jobs, houses, relationships. Although I may disagree, I must not diminish that many people were prepared to put so much on the line.”

Gerard Hindmarsh (Stuff): Violent clashes an integral part of New Zealand’s history
Journalist Gerard Hindmarsh stands up for the protesters at Parliament in this very useful history of protest in the country, and concludes: “It’s time the Government came off its high-horse and started a dialogue with all the factions of the disaffected. Labelling them ‘ferals’ and a ‘river of filth’ is nothing short of an epic fail and does not address the real problems bubbling away under the surface.”

Alastair Reith (Stuff): Let’s be clear. Protesters in 1981 used violent tactics too
A veteran of leftwing protests, Alastair Reith, disputes the narrative that the recent parliamentary protest was in some way out of line with the history of progressive protests due to its violence or aggression.

Ella Henry: Protesters were accused of breaching tikanga, but history will be the true judge
There’s a long history of Māori condemning other Māori protesters, especially on the complex issue of tikanga, and so it might be too early to judge whether Māori protesters at Parliament got it right or not.

Liam Dann (Herald): Inflation Nation: Why the cost of living is rising and what we can do about it (paywalled)
The Herald has launched a new series of articles exploring the reasons, impacts, and possible solutions of the current inflation shock. This is their business editor’s introduction to the topic.

Liam Dann (Herald): Inflation is now Jacinda Ardern’s biggest problem (paywalled)
The Herald’s business editor argues that inflation is not the fault of this Government, but they need to stop talking about who is to blame, and “start talking about strategies to mitigate the pain.”

Kevin Norquay (Stuff): The Big Stretch: Kiwis are coping with a pandemic while the cost of living soars
Details the rising pain of inflation, and reports on the analysis of economists Rosie Collins and the ANZ’s Finn Robinson.

Damien Grant (Stuff): Things are bad enough to make me care who wins the next election
Who is to blame for the current economic crisis? This columnist says “Untethered, this administration has become unhinged. The Ardern government is doing sustained and serious damage to New Zealand.”

Leah Tebbutt (RNZ): Tauranga city commissioners retained until July 2024, minister says
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has decided to leave her appointed commissioners in place for at least another two years in Tauranga, leaving the City Council without elections this year.

1News: Mahuta admits getting things wrong with Three Waters reform
The Minister of Local Government went on TVNZ’s Q+A yesterday saying that she got some things wrong about the Three Waters reforms, but one of these she “got wrong” amounts to the idea that she overestimated the knowledge and intelligence of the public.

Herald: Government’s light rail project in Auckland could cost $29 billion, say Treasury papers
A report released on Friday by Treasury shows that the costs of Auckland Light Rail “could range between $7.3b and $29.2b”.

Sapeer Mayron (Stuff): Controversial ‘Listener letter’ deemed not worthy of Royal Society investigation
A number of university academics have failed to admonish University of Auckland colleagues who dissented on the question of the place of Mātauranga Māori in science education.

Scott Palmer (Newshub): Justice Minister Kris Faafoi admits Government’s proposed hate speech laws are still not ready
After the debacle of earlier announcements and details of proposed hate speech reforms that the Government planned to make, the Justice Minister is clearly wanting his officials to do better in the next stage, and so he’s announced a delay.

Mary Paul (Newsroom): The pandemic has highlighted inequality but nothing has changed
Social historian Mary Paul says the Labour government has not used the Covid crisis to remedy inequalities, and this has some interesting parallels to that of 100 years ago after World War I when acknowledgement of “unequal sacrifice” helped force progressive change.