Bryce Edwards: Labour was meant to save public broadcasting, not weaken it

Bryce Edwards: Labour was meant to save public broadcasting, not weaken it

The Labour Party used to advocate for a properly-funded, multi-platform public broadcaster. There was real merit in the proposal to set this up when Labour campaigned for it in 2017. After all, New Zealand lacks a public broadcaster along the lines of the BBC or the ABC. And the idea of merging RNZ and TVNZ meant that synergies, together with proper funding, could finally produce a broadcaster that would enhance democracy and New Zealand society. The idea had hints of transformation about it.

The plan was also to update public media for the 21st century in which the future is clearly digital. Public media needed to be online and less reliant on TV and radio. By future-proofing the public broadcasters, setting up new digital offerings that would coexist with the mega tech companies, public media operating in the public interest could survive and prosper.

But that was in 2017. Once in government, Labour delegated the job respectively to ministers Clare Curran, Kris Faafoi, and now Willie Jackson. They have all failed miserably, and what we are about to see launch seems something more of a Frankenstein version of a public broadcaster, and much worse than the existing services.

Along the way, the ministers have contracted expensive private sector consultancies to help conjure up something transformational. Deloitte and other management consultancies have been paid about $9m to “fix” public broadcasting.

They came up with “Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media” (ANZPM), which is now a mess of different ideas that aren’t backed up by robust justifications. Various other political agendas also seem to have become incorporated in the mission, and the original concept has been lost.

A Commercially-driven model of public broadcasting

At the core of Labour’s poor design of the new ANZPM is the half-baked funding arrangement. Public broadcasters operate best when they are wholly publicly-funded, but Labour made the decision to go with a hybrid model in which the government wouldn’t have to invest much money. Instead of fully funding the new entity as a commercial-free public broadcaster, the decision was made to rely on advertising revenue for the vast bulk of its resourcing.

This essentially means that in the future it will be advertising revenue that will be used to cross-subsidise RNZ’s radio operations, and the main new digital operations of the public broadcaster will be commercially-driven.

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass has argued this week that Labour’s attempt at keeping costs down is probably counterproductive and they would be better just fully funding the new public media entity: “If the Government really wanted to help public media – and create a stronger commercial media sector, it could simply take RNZ and TVNZ fully into being publicly funded broadcaster and be done with it. As it is it will be tipping over $200m a year in any way, why not make it a round $300m?”

He argues that New Zealand would be better served by going with a proper BBC or ABC model instead of the “weird arrangement” of part-commercial and part-public broadcaster.

A Lack of protection from political interference

There is now a consensus that the new ANZPM risks being dominated and controlled by the government of the day. This is because the merged entity will have weak protections against political interference and is being set up in a way that editorial independence is not protected.

The biggest problem is that ANZPM will be an “autonomous Crown entity”, which means that it still under some control of government ministers. The current setup of both RNZ and TVNZ means that they actually have much more independence from the politicians.

The legislation to establish ANZPM is currently being scrutinised at the select committee stage, and public submissions from experts has been rather scathing.

Chris Trotter writes today in the Otago Daily Times that the new merged public broadcaster will be nothing like the BBC model. He blames Labour’s determination to go with a commercial model, but one that will be too slavish to the needs of incumbent politicians. He argues the new ANZPM will alienate most New Zealanders: “It will not be fair. It will not be balanced. It will not perceive itself as a platform upon which all New Zealanders, espousing all manner of ideas and opinions, will be made to feel welcome.”

This sort of suspicion will be widespread, coming after the Government’s $55 million public interest journalism fund has also been perceived as increasing political control over the media. And, as virtually all commentators have pointed out, Jackson’s heavy-handed approach towards Jack Tame in his weekend interview did nothing to dispel fears that politicians are keen to construct a more compliant fourth estate in order to reduce scrutiny of those with power.

The notion that the new broadcasting entity is just an updated version of the “Podium of truth” that the Prime Minister told the public to put their trust in during Covid lockdowns could weaken trust in public broadcasting.

The fact that the Government has been so unwilling to allow the public to know the details of the merger has only furthered apprehension about this.

Will the ANZPM experiment be halted?

The deadline for the Government’s broadcasting merger is 1 March 2023. This is now looking very difficult to achieve, and even Jackson seems unconfident in this.

Speculation is now buzzing that the ANZPM reforms are about to be killed off by the Prime Minister. She has given a couple of interviews this week in which she has clearly stated that some of the Government’s intended reforms are on the chopping block. And in a conversation about the need to carry out some U-turns in the near future, Ardern specified that “We’ve still got work to do on the merger, it’s not completed. It is not, however, number one on the government agenda.”

Jackson himself is in the firing line, too. Speculation that he will be reshuffled out of the broadcasting portfolio are increasing. Herald political editor Claire Trevett reported this week that “Jan Tinetti or Carmel Sepuloni are circulating as possible replacements” for Jackson.

The problems for the reforms are bigger than just Jackson, however. He might be the one currently struggling to explain the reforms or the need for them, but that’s because the reforms are intrinsically flawed. Even Jacinda Ardern failed to sell the reforms this week, and resorted to saying that they were needed because of the rise of disinformation, and because RNZ might collapse without them.

A recent opinion poll survey showed how unpopular Labour’s broadcasting reforms are: just 22% were in favour of the new setup. It seems that what should have been a popular and transformational reform has turned into a major missed opportunity. Initially, there was plenty of enthusiasm for Labour’s plans to establish a proper public broadcaster. Many thought that New Zealand might finally get some sort of proper BBC-like, non-commercial public media organisation that operated on multiple platforms.

After decades of RNZ being underfunded, with TVNZ and NZ On Air operating an experimental public broadcasting model producing commercial television that seemed to only get worse, it looked like Labour was going to bolster democracy with this reform. Now, it looks like the result will be even worse than the status quo.

The whole exercise has been a major disappointment for those who believe in the need for strong public broadcasting.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


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