Stairway To Hell: Like the decrepit dynasty at the heart of Mervyn Peake's grotesque fantasy novel, Gormenghast, the "Heads" at TVNZ's Auckland sprawling headquarters lost track of what was going on within their immense domain.
GORMENGHAST is one novel of a hell. Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien on acid, C.S. Lewis on speed, and you’ll hardly have made a mental dent in Mervyn Peake’s grotesque trilogy. I won’t spoil the books by giving away the plot in detail. Suffice to say that Gormenghast is an immense castle. So immense that the decrepit dynasty of Groan, to whom it ostensibly belongs, cannot possibly keep track of everything that goes on within its walls.
Watching Patrick Gower unfold (with ever increasing glee) the activities of Shane Taurima and his colleagues at TVNZ headquarters in Auckland, I couldn’t help being reminded of Peake’s gothic fantasy.
Like Gormenghast Castle, the sprawling TVNZ site had somehow spawned a secret cell of resistance. How was that possible? Because, like the Groans, TVNZ’s bosses appear to have become preoccupied with “the obscure and esoteric tenets” of their governance functions.
For the most part this involves large numbers of middle managers running up and down the great staircase that dominates TVNZ’s Auckland headquarters, ducking into tiny offices, and exchanging information with other middle managers who undertake to pass it on to yet more middle managers. Only very occasionally (or by accident) does this information ever trickle down to the people who actually make the television programmes we see on air.
Only very rarely do all the various functionaries of TVNZ gather together. And when they do it is almost always to pay homage to something called “The Ratings”. These are collections of viewing data gathered according to specifications laid down at some point in the far distant past but which are now almost completely irrelevant to the way people use their television sets, Sky decoders, PCs and iPhones.
The grand interpreters of The Ratings are the “Heads” (Head of Programming, Head of Marketing, Head of Sport, Head of News and Current Affairs). Their job is to advise the CEO who, in his turn, advises “The Board”.
TVNZ HQ - The higher you climb the less you know.
It is widely acknowledged within the sprawling edifice of TVNZ that the higher you climb in the organisation, the less you know about television. At the level of the Board, for example, virtually nothing is known about the rights and duties of a state broadcaster.
The similarities between TVNZ’s top brass, the Groans of Gormenghast, and the peculiar determination of both elites to cling to the “obscure and esoteric tenets” of their respective institutions are quite uncanny.
Certainly, it is very difficult to fathom how else Shane Taurima and his colleagues could run what amounted to a Labour Party branch out of the Maori and Pacific Television Unit – practically under the noses of TVNZ’s senior executives – without employing something like the Gormenghast metaphor.
And, really, can you blame them? It has been years since TVNZ management demonstrated the slightest respect for the news and current affairs obligations of what is still, officially, the people’s television network. They are required to operate in a culture of contempt for the principles of public service television – an attitude epitomised by the TVNZ CEO who claimed Police Ten-Seven as an example of Maori programming by pointing to the large number of young Maori men and women arrested on the show!
The atmosphere broadcasters are required to inhale at TVNZ may not be party political, but it is unquestionably ideological. Since 1989, when Labour removed all references to the public good from the Broadcasting Act, TVNZ has understood that its real (albeit unwritten) charter mandates the relentless promotion to New Zealanders of the virtues of neoliberalism, while rigorously eliminating all those programming options capable of constructing an alternative worldview.
Mr Taurima’s and his Maori and Pacific Television Unit colleagues’ biggest mistake – apart from believing that they could ever get away with behaving in such a nakedly party political fashion – was to hang their hats on securing the election of a Labour-led Government.
In the nine years that Helen Clark’s Labour Party governed New Zealand no serious effort was made to root-out the pernicious operational culture at TVNZ or, indeed, to address the manifold defects of this country’s recklessly deregulated media industry.
Even had TV3’s Patrick Gower not exposed Shane “Steerpike” Taurima’s cell of resistance in the bowels of the TVNZ Gormenghast, a change of government would only have confirmed for him The Who’s immortal line:
“Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 February 2014.