Friday 30 March 2018

The Politics Of Public Service Broadcasting.

Jamming The Public's Voice: If they could have got away with it, John Key and his National Party colleagues would have commercialised (literally) Radio NZ in exactly the same way as the fourth Labour government (in the person of Richard Prebble) made TVNZ dependent on the advertisers’ dollars. Prevented from doing so by the many thousands of middle-class Kiwis who rely upon RNZ for intelligent and informed journalism and programmes of genuine cultural merit, Key’s government did the next best thing – it attempted to starve the publicly-owned radio network to death.

COLIN SCRIMGEOUR was the John Campbell of his day. A fearless radio broadcaster whose influence over the victims of the Great Depression was so great that the United-Reform coalition government jammed his election-eve broadcast. Remember that the next time the National Party presents itself as the champion of media freedom!

Michael Joseph Savage, the prime minister elect, was interviewed by Scrimgeour on the night of Labour’s historic 1935 victory. Scrimgeour later recalled: “When we were off air he told me Jack Lee would be the Minister of Broadcasting, and the next time he unveiled a transmitter he wouldn’t be tearing scrim off it.”

That last comment was a direct reference to the fact that the transmitter used to jam Scrimgeour’s broadcast had been hidden behind a thin wall of scrim. “Scrim”, or “Uncle Scrim” was also the name given to Scrimgeour by his tens-of-thousands of avid listeners. Savage message was crystal clear: Labour had a plan for broadcasting, and the country’s most influential left-wing broadcaster was an integral part of it.

That was how Labour rolled back in the 1930s. Its socialist leaders understood what today’s Labour politicians do not. That the media – be it print, electronic and/or digital – is crucial to the success or failure of any government; and that without the support of at least a very substantial fraction of that media, the government’s ability to implement its policies will be severely compromised.

Savage was well aware that his right-wing opponents could rely upon the unwavering support of the daily newspapers. That is why he was so keen for the new Labour Government to take control of the airwaves and appoint someone he could trust to run them. The Left needed to even-up the odds.

It still does.

Since the more-market reforms of the 1980s and 90s, and especially since the transformation of Television NZ into a state-owned enterprise (i.e. a publicly-owned institution legally obliged to conduct itself in the manner a privately-owned company) there has been a pronounced ideological shift in the news media’s political orientation. Increasingly reliant upon advertising and, therefore, upon ratings, the operational culture of TVNZ has grown less-and-less receptive to the public service broadcasters’ contention that it has a duty to elevate and educate – as well as to entertain.

Efforts to reinstate the public service broadcasting imperatives under Helen Clark’s fifth Labour government were unsuccessful. Not only were they resisted from within TVNZ (many of whose personnel now considered the whole concept of public service broadcasting to be elitist and condescending) but from within the Labour-led government itself.

Almost before she had got her feet under the Minister of Broadcasting’s desk, Marian Hobbs found herself fiscally hog-tied by the Finance Minister, Michael Cullen. It was the latter’s refusal to put up the money necessary to carry through a root-and-branch reform of TVNZ that left Radio NZ as the country’s sole purveyor of genuine public service broadcasting.

If they could have got away with it, John Key and his National Party colleagues would have commercialised (literally) Radio NZ in exactly the same way as the fourth Labour government (in the person of Richard Prebble) made TVNZ dependent on the advertisers’ dollars. Prevented from doing so by the many thousands of middle-class Kiwis who rely upon RNZ for intelligent and informed journalism and programmes of genuine cultural merit, Key’s government did the next best thing – it attempted to starve the publicly-owned radio network to death.

Only in the ninth year of Key’s Government was RNZ’s funding increased. By then, of course, National had stocked the RNZ Board with the sort of people who regarded the Right’s tendentious epithet “Red Radio” as a political critique which RNZ had to be seen to be taking seriously. With this sort of board overseeing RNZ, its employees’ operational options were strictly limited. ‘Do more with less’, and ‘Don’t upset the Board’ (i.e. the National-led government) became RNZ’s watchwords.

Enter Clare Curran. Labour’s broadcasting spokesperson came to her job already convinced that TVNZ was a lost cause and that if public service broadcasting was to be resurrected, then RNZ was the only state-owned institution remotely capable of doing the job. Hence “RNZ-Plus” – Curran’s plan for using public service radio to rebuild public service television.

Except that Curran, like Marian Hobbs before her, not only had to contend with the intense opposition of private broadcasters (many of whom found sympathetic ears on the RNZ Board) but also with the unhelpful interference of her own cabinet colleagues.

Was that the reason she was so keen to meet with RNZ’s Head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld? To learn from a person she clearly believed to be sympathetic to her cause, the precise location and identity of the forces resisting her plans for RNZ? Beleaguered by National’s “stay-behind” resistance-fighters, and foot-tripped by the reservations of her own overly cautious colleagues, did the Minister stumble with naïve enthusiasm (desperation?) beyond the mere pleasantries and personal networking which Hirschfeld had mistakenly assumed to be the purpose of their tête-à-tête over coffee at the Astoria café?

And once appraised of Curran’s hopes and fears, and quite possibly, of her intentions vis-à-vis the reappointment – or not – of RNZ Board Chairperson, Richard Griffin, did Hirschfeld suddenly find herself in possession of information as sensitive and compromising as it was potentially career-destroying? Did the Right and its media allies, informed of Curran’s meeting with Hirschfeld, simply seize an opportunity to kill two potentially very dangerous birds with a single stone?

It remains to be seen whether Curran’s opponents prefer to keep her in place – disgraced and powerless – or, by replacing her with someone considerably less committed to RNZ’s cause, allow the Right’s jamming of public service broadcasting to continue?

And this time, alas, there is no Jack Lee to track down the jammers’ transmitter in the Newmarket railway yards, and no Michael Joseph Savage to even-up the democratic odds by making sure that the voices of those who cannot afford to own shares in radio and television stations continue to be heard.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 March 2018.


Richard Mayson said...

Brilliant! No the word to describe this both the issue in historical terms and the more contemporary dynamics. Essential reading for the Labour Govt especially that relating to both RNZ and TVNZ's boards, stacked as they are with National party hacks.For Melissa Lee to try and take the moral high ground when creeps like Hoskings were not only allowed, but encourage to run amuck with bigotry and Goebbels type rantings against Labour & the left.Some one needs to bring this timely substantial article to the attention of Pm Jacinda.

Wayne Mapp said...

You seem to saying that RNZ is supposed to be a leftwing station and that anything that Labour does to bring that about is fine. Well I don't don't pay my taxes for hostile propaganda.

I am happy with robust public service radio, but you can keep your leftwing politicians away from it.

As for drawing a direct line from Scrimegor to Simon Bridges well that is a bit rich. It is 83 years ago. I don't think the sins of the great gandfathers are supposed to carry down four generations to curse their great grandchildren.

Anonymous said...

The absurd aspect to me is that Curren should be forced to confine the advice she takes, and information she gathers, from (a) only those at the head of an organisation she is responsible for and (b) defacto officers of the National party, given they were political appointees of the last government. Can you imagine National being prepared to accept advice exclusively from trade union activists in any area of Government and not account for an employer view? All the criticism is inherently facist insofar as it assumes no mere worker within an organisation can validly have any perspective a Minister should hear. Should Ministers not meet anyone? Never attend or talk to anyone at 'after 5' functions? I don't care what the Cabinet manual says, I think she made the mistake of capitulating here. Winston would have ballsed this one out and turned it back into an attack. He knows of no such strategy of passive retreat. If you hit him, you need to do it with the full awareness that he will do his best to come back harder at you. I think the Govt has played this out badly. More's the pity for the reasons and consequences you outline Chris.

jh said...

Even if RNZ gets more money and a TV station that is no guarantee of public service unless we have diversity of opinion (which we don't)

polly said...

Why should public service broadcasters be left wing or right wing?.
What about the honesty, integrity of all employees and participants.
Those standards should not be set aside by the dishonesty of politicians, that's were the core hardened liars reside.
Unfortunately we have to live with what we have.

Anonymous said...

In 1991 I enrolled in Rob Steven’s New Zealand Politics, and found there the first glimmers of what I had been looking for – neo-Marxist critique. Rob was an outstanding teacher - his lectures were insubordinate and his tutorials were defiant. We would crowd into his office, sit on the floor and ‘share’ our stories of political oppression while Rob would weep (I think he was going through a marriage break up at the time). This nebulous and indefinable sense of my own construction within a white political narrative was finally given some definition and shape, and Rob was a sympathetic teacher who enthusiastically welcomed my burgeoning, uneasy, halting, and awkward politicization. I was on my way.
To a PhD in Media Studies

JanM said...

"Well I don't don't pay my taxes for hostile propaganda" - Wayne Mapp.

Hilarious, but sick. You do realise, of course, that Labour voters pay taxes too, and are forced to deal with the vile RW nonsense that is currently served up.

Voyager said...

As a university educated middle class listener and viewer, all I can recall is the extreme dunbing down of TVNZ around the early 90's.

Top quality programmes like University Challange and Radio with Pictures were canned; presumably because masses of uneducated idiots didn't watch and thus it didn't rate for advertising.

When in Australia & the UK on my OE, the ABC and the BBC were high doses of pure oxygen.

In NZ, I can hardly draw air.

greywarbler said...

Wayne Mapp
Your comment explains a lot about how you can constantly defend the indefensible, remaining inviolate from accusations of rorting and improper political behaviour and egregious policies likely to lead us to ruin.
Ignore history - goodness Scrim was 83 years ago. We can't apply anything from the past to today. Which means that the ancient idea of democracy is passe'! Learning and building on past experience and findings is how modern society has been built up and progressed. But that does not enter your field of vision apparently.

And left wing politicians might interfere with the cosy pipelines between RW power and the disseminators of infotainment that have results like Parkinson's law of work; The amount of half-lies, scuttlebutt and petty personal attacks expand to fill the media waves and leave little time or intellect to examine important issues.

You are a shrinking violet from today's reality, yesterday's wrong-headed political moves, and future-facing reasoned efforts to make changes so we can be partly equipped to face any future we may have. Look through your Camera Obscura, if you dare.

Anonymous said...

And to think Winston swapped our popular, capable, experienced and honest National govt for this inept omnishambles, with a leader who is proving to be nice, but weak, and without any political instinct. We are now a laughing stock on the world stage, and it seems, that corruption within the CoL is rife. How much longer must the electorate suffer this unelected carnage? Thanks Winston, for selecting a bunch of muppets to 'lead' NZ, and thanks, for going against MMP convention. How does he sleep at night?? Baubles and whiskey and no sense of what is right.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

The dumbing down of TV NZ news started way before the 90s. I last watched it around 1987 where, as I remember there was a segment of about four minutes about a Russian sailor who broken his leg on a fishing boat off the coast and was transferred to hospital by helicopter. As far as news goes, completely irrelevant, but it made great TV watching the helicopter swooping around. It was one of the few road to Damascus moments I've ever had in my life. :) I instantly switched over to Radio New Zealand and have pretty much got my news from them since then. I almost stopped listening to radio New Zealand when one morning I think it was the first seven items on morning report were about crimes. I thought that if they were going to go with if it bleeds it leads to that extent, I have to give them up to but luckily they seem to have backed off just a tad. But they are the only new source I can think of in New Zealand which is both high-quality and relatively "fair and balanced". Unlike the channel that that slogan comes from. And when you think of all the right wing people they've employed in prominent positions.........

Kat said...

RNZ National is Blue Radio. Richard Griffin is chair of the RNZ National board of governors. Richard Griffin's political colour is blue. the RNZ board is stacked with National's servants. Why should I be paying my taxes for daily doses of B grade hostile propaganda.

Nick J said...

Wayne, I pay my taxes too and constantly hear opinions from the Right on RNZ. That pisses me off not because they shouldn't be heard on RNZ but because there is no counterpoise.

It appears to me that the sins of great grandfathers are visited upon the same people as before, just different actors. The Right are very good at teaching their children well.

Victor said...

Simmer down, Wayne

Surely what Chris is talking about is a resurrection and extension of public service broadcasting as per the Reithian BBC and its many successful imitators around the world, albeit with a mite more air time for "alternative" perspectives, investigative journalism etc.

And if that's not what he's talking about, it's what he should be talking about.

None of this is rocket science and it's broadly what New Zealand used to have, albeit in a form appropriate to a different epoch.

In the last few years, RNZ has gone a short distance down the road to resuscitation, by recruiting some top-notch broadcasting talent, in particular, the broadly left-wing Mr Campbell and the broadly right-wing Mr Espiner.

I would not be surprised to learn that the estimable Ms Hirschfeld has also had something to do with this long-overdue renaissance. Either way, I wish her well.

Meanwhile, much remains to be done to rescue this once fine institution from the decay into which it's been allowed to slip, starting, maybe, with a radical overhaul of its 'Nine to Noon' slot, along with recruitment of a new presenter who (this time around) understands the difference between radio and print journalism.

I suppose it's too much to ask that Kim Hill will return to a permanent slot, other than on Saturday mornings. But our household still lives in hope.

For what it's worth, I've got an open mind as to whether and how far, RNZ should be developed into a multi-platform vehicle including 12 or 24 hour TV.

In principle, it seems like a good idea. And, if not this, we will need another equally ambitious plan for arresting the decline of our mental public space and of our conversation as a nation.

Anonymous said...

For diversity viewpoint you have to go outside the MSM to youtube. Look at the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson. Yet Jordan Peterson is under attack for the way he links Jungian archetypes to religious truths (the resurrection of Christ is a perfect metaphor).
On Youtube you can get the low down on race and genetics (Douglas Murray) and make what you will of it without the thought police breathing down your neck telling you you are about to fall over a (moral) cliff.
The authority of those behind our media outlets is the problem. In government we have embedded ideology in the Human Rights Commission and throughout government an institutionalised public discourse that is tyrannical, backward and out of step. Take biculturalism, for example. It has given existential legitimacy exclusively to radical viewpoints that (for example) place Maori lack of achievement at the feet of Europeans.

jh said...

You can't base broadcasting on what political parties want. They didn't earn the right. It needs to be recognised that broadcasting in the modern age is not democratic when powerful interests divide up territory.
The general public are stereotyped as in "go ahead caller" - see how dumb they are; see how clever we are?

Anonymous said...

Its pretty cheeky of you Chris to post about the Conservative treatment of Scrimgour and ignore the offenses of the succeeding Labour govt under Fraser. Read this link for a fuller examination of the times.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" radical overhaul of its 'Nine to Noon' slot, along with recruitment of a new presenter who (this time around) understands the difference between radio and print journalism."

Hi Victor, would you care to elaborate on that?

greywarbler said...

Perhaps Victor you could indicate in what way you would have Nine to Noon change. What is deficient? Coulc you give an example of who we could listen to who has the approach and depth and breadth of understanding to purvey the material in the way that you want to hear?

I understand that Voyager's comment referred to TVNZ. I might agree if I still watched and knew TV. Radionz is perhaps still quite good perhaps?

Len said...

Wayne, read some Gramsci.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"For diversity viewpoint you have to go outside the MSM to youtube."
Which is full of every half baked idea ever put out by some arse who wants fame or money. Whose audience is mostly consist of those who can't tell shit from clay as the old saying goes, and mostly consists of angry white males, who can't cope with the growing equality of nonwhite people, and or women.

"Jordan Peterson is under attack for the way he links Jungian archetypes to religious truths"
Well, one of the reasons he is under attack is that his arguments are couched in such vague terms as to be unassailable. As soon as you would attack one of his statements, he says "Oh no it didn't mean that." He is almost as bad as Deepak Chopra talking about the isness of the oneness of the wellness or something.

"On Youtube you can get the low down on race and genetics (Douglas Murray)"
You can make of it what you like, because Murray tends to leave out all the difficult stuff, the complexities that mean it's not quite as simple as he says. Which means his ideas can pretty well be dismantled – most of them anyway – without resorting to any moral cliffs at all.
Fuck me, there are times and I think that people should really have a lesson or two in logical thinking, and discernment, whether it be of science or fake news before they are allowed anywhere near YouTube. The thing about the MSM which is so readily dismissed by the whack-jobs who follow Alex Jones or Breitbart, is that it does have at least SOME commitment to telling the truth. The rest of it not so much.
There was a rumour going around that Faux news was banned in Canada, because Canada has laws about telling the truth in broadcasting. Anyone with any sense could check this and find out that wasn't true. Many people didn't bother. It isn't true. Pity.

Hilary Taylor said...

I've been listening to RNZ pretty much all of my 60 years on the planet. From 'Portia Faces Life' & 'Doctor Paul' (hilarious), from Frank Muir to Kenneth Williams as a child, the brilliant Praire Home Companion to suckling my babies while feeding my own mind listening to Geoff Robinson, Brian Edwards,Kim Hill et al over the last 25 years. I'm amused that some here regard it as 'blue' when a 'blue' blog I visit sometimes calls it 'red radio'and its denizens regularly chastize it for lefty bias. I listen because it is ad-free, has great interviews and music...I learn stuff, am entertained & informed and I've never found anything else that does similar... daily. LW, RW, centrist board members come & go...don't care, it's a good fit for me.

Victor said...

GS and greywarbler

Radio is ultimately about conversation. The presenter may seek to shape the conversation and even ask awkward questions but, unlike with a print story, the "auter" theory doesn't apply.

Things to be avoided are a presenter hogging the conversation or engaging in lengthy and ponderous meshes of subordinate clauses, which are the antithesis of good communication and may just indicate a ponderousness of mind.

It's also, of course, important to listen carefully to what guests are saying and to keep concentrating while they're speaking. That way, you can often avoid the need to keep asking the same question.

A broad knowledge of the world beyond New Zealand is also required, especially when interviewing guests from overseas.

I've already indicated the names of some star broadcasters who clearly understand these requirements. I'll leave you to judge for yourselves whether there are others who might, with reference to these criteria, need replacing.

I would add that there's no shortage of skilled broadcasters in New Zealand. It would be good if more of them could have a chance to show their worth.

Victor said...

One further thought on RNZ.

It should never have been a case of Campbell OR 'Scary Mary'. We need them both!

sumsuch said...

I remember Bill English telling us to take RNZ's rationing along with the rest of NZ, 10 years ago or so. Also remember his minimal recognition of Jim Anderton on his death. The most social-democratic of the Right...won't admit where the spring of that comes from.

It would have helped National if private radio could have stepped up to NatRad's standards. Newstalk ZB? Once you're over your laughter.

I listen to NatRad 5-6 hours a workday and find it a little dull and tiresome, handicapped as it is by the pieties of being the national broadcaster and keeping to the absolute truth. Transistor radios outside only pick up AM well, and so the alternatives in my area are Racing, Newstalk ZM and a happy clappy Christian station -- no choice. Not enough of the exuberance of voices which is the great strength of radio and makes we, the living, superior to the wits of history.

How vital the National Programme was in representing us in the 80s and 90s. But that was when the liberal elite remembered where they came from. Since then NatRad has represented the movement in the mind of that elite. That is, their self-satisfied separation from the people.

Victor said...


Spot on.

It's difficult for any mainstream journalist to advance his/her career with a reputation for telling porkies, particularly when working for an organisation that has a registered business address where it can be sued.

UK tabloids and some US cable channels obviously work to a lower standard than many other news purveyors. Even so, there's a practical limit to the lies even they can tell.

Apart from that, the main problem with the MSM is what it fails to tell you rather than what it actually says.

I wish I could make that limited defence of much "alternative" media or, for that matter, the paid media of some illiberal governments. Alas, I can't.

It's seriously worrying that there are apparently sensible people who give them a credence that they don't give to professionally-edited journalism.

NickJ said...

I really wish that this government would grow some balls and tell the public sector bosses, (all those appointees from Nationals regime like Richard Griffin) who is boss.

Regardless of the process, protocol etc broken by Hirschfeld and Curran one thing should be made clear. And that is that the government are the boss, not the public "servants". Time to harden up and shoot a few of them very publicly. Sends a message.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Portia faces life? What about aunt Daisy? Those were truly awful days, except that they did have those brilliant English comedy and quiz shows on. The Goons, Hancock's half-hour, the Navy Lark, Round the Horne – a tradition that still continues today with the brilliant Mock the Week, HIGNFY, and 8 out of 10 Cats. That was their saving grace in my youth, because I thought national radio was stuffy and boring. And they probably were compared to today. Funny, I'm just reading a biography of Hancock. I regard him as one of the best if not the best comedian ever – yet he was a real prick. I hope Dara O'Briain (my latest comedic hero) is as nice as he seems. :)

greywarbler said...

Government, public broadcasting always has someone complaining that it is dull, stuffy etc. But it acts as a base point that others can fly above.
I don't see them being excessively po-faced, just trying to keep a balance on things. They can say simple swear words like bugger and bloody without washing their mouths out with soap. (That happened to me at kindergarten - don't know what I said.) Sensitive matters get talked about, usually intelligently.

Take Radionz and nurture it please, suggest sometimes, complain sometimes - to them - but don't moan too much or someone might use your negatives to fuel the RW narrative - the gummint can't do anything well.

They will say give it to the creativity of private business. They can weave their magic like the Grimm's fairy tale of weaving straw into gold. (Wikipedia says that researchers have found it might be 4,000 years old.) But the gold I want is news and information and creative stuff that is as good and as near truth as possible, anything else is fool's gold.

I admit I do have a gripe though. Hearing about every disastrous event in the USA drives me up the wall, and I am height sensitive. But that can be justified as news to be recorded. What is OTT is getting the minute to minute reports of everyone's impressions and feelings and hearing the local Sheriff and wiseguy commentators details. Spare me the details. Fill that time with some interesting business and political info from Sandinavia, Ireland, India, Brazil and China - the BRICS that are populous and doing and thinking things we should know about.

Do you know that Argentina has had much of its precious agricultural land washed away in a huge flood because of ignorant, stupid agricultural corporate practices and its major export the soya bean crop could be munted?

It is time that news was not parcelled up into separate packages, ie crime and disasters, agriculture, business and finance etc, arts and creativity, English speaking and a narrow arrow slit for all the rest. There is so much that we need to know for attempted intelligent decision-making.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

A powerful statement about the press from Dan Rather.

greywarbler said...

I haven't seen a lot of comment about the way that Radionz is looking for its own mostly political, news with OIAs. They are asking questions and trying to illustrate to us what sort of country and government we have and being pro-active about things. That's why they get called left weing no doubt. Now the boot is on the other foot perhaps the wings will change when bearing criticism.

Victor said...


No-one reared on Hancock, the Goons or 'Round the Horne' can be all bad.

There's clearly no hope for either of us

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Unfortunately Victor most humour dates quite rapidly. At the moment I'm addicted to Mock the Week, but if I'm still alive in 20 years I won't find it that funny probably. Though to be honest, if I'm still alive in 20 years I probably won't find much very funny. :)