Tuesday 17 November 2020

If Only We Had A Minister Of Broadcasting Worthy Of The Title.

Worryingly Uninterested: Given Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi’s evident uninterest in the classic Reithian principles of public broadcasting – i.e. to educate, elevate and entertain the people – any review of his motivations for rolling-up TVNZ and RNZ into a single, state-owned broadcasting entity, leaves one fearing the worst.

MORE OR LESS OFFICIALLY, this government is committed to merging TVNZ and RNZ into a single, monolithic, publicly-owned broadcasting entity. The temptation to support this idea enthusiastically is strong. For a Minister of Broadcasting to even contemplate such a dramatic revision of the public broadcasting status-quo surely implies a deep understanding of how poorly the current entities are performing, while signalling a firm intention to offer TVNZ’s and RNZ’s audiences something better. You would, however, be well advised to curb your enthusiasm. The chances of this policy proving successful are so low they make KiwiBuild look like a safe bet.

Consider the policy’s provenance: the Office of the Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi. This is the man who, having been briefed on RNZ management’s proposal, endorsed by RNZ’s board, to effectively destroy RNZ Concert – in favour of a “Yoof” channel – failed to identify any significant problems with the idea. That failure, along with the public outcry and political embarrassment it occasioned, should have seen him stripped of the broadcasting portfolio. Unfortunately, so uninterested is the Labour Cabinet in public broadcasting – and the media in general – that Faafoi continues to hold the warrant.

Given the Minister’s evident uninterest in the classic Reithian principles of public broadcasting – i.e. to educate, elevate and entertain the people – any review of Faafoi’s motivations for rolling-up TVNZ and RNZ into a single, state-owned broadcasting entity, leaves one fearing the worst.

The first motivation that springs to mind is straightforward, old-fashioned, cost-cutting. Rather than fund RNZ properly (as Faafoi’s predecessor, Clare Curran, promised to do more than four years ago) the current minister might simply be seeking the approbation of the Finance Minister by freeing-up an extra $15 million for some eye-catching and vote-winning alternative. (Something to do with Rugby, perhaps?)

Another motivation could be a strong desire to get rid of the governance and management personnel who caused him such acute political embarrassment. Any merging of RNZ and TVNZ would, almost certainly, be to the disadvantage of the smaller and weaker radio network. Perhaps Faafoi is anticipating that the big television elephants will make short work of the tiny radio mice? As a former TVNZ journalist, he is likely to identify much more strongly with the populist instincts of his former employers, than he is with what remains of the public service ethos at RNZ. Killing two birds with a single stone always elicits hearty cheers from career politicians.

Then again, it might be some sort of confused, ham-fisted attempt by elements within the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MHC) to stop the rot in both state broadcasters and drag them, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of awareness of their obligations to New Zealand’s democratic political system, and to the cultural needs of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Unfortunately, that is the least likely explanation for the proposed merger. After multiple changes at the upper echelons of the MHC there is simply not the critical mass of tough and talented public servants needed to drive through such a visionary (not to mention ideologically suspect) project.

To be reasonably confident of this (or any) government pulling off a successful and progressive merger of TVNZ and RNZ, the public would need to have been properly prepared by means of a full-scale public inquiry into the strengths and weaknesses of both entities. Those leading the inquiry would need to be genuinely independent, as well as fully conversant with the way public broadcasters are funded, managed and protected in other Western countries. Most obviously, it would study the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC, but it would also review the public broadcasting arrangements in Western Europe and North America.

The problem with this “solution” is, of course, that only a government already cognisant of the vital role effective public broadcasters can play in lifting the cultural and political discourse of a nation could contemplate such an inquiry. And, as we have already established, this is not such a government.

If it was, and if it had a Minister of Broadcasting and Communications worthy of his title, then New Zealanders might expect to see, hear and/or read about a minister who was not afraid to raise issues pertinent to the quality of public broadcasting in New Zealand.

Such a minister might ask why the important role of political commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon show is apparently now restricted to public relations personnel and pollsters with strong ties to the two major political parties, rather than to individuals demonstrably at arm’s length from these institutions, such as university academics, trade unionists and independent journalists and commentators. This was, after all, the previous practice – why the change?

That same minister might also wonder aloud why so much commentary on economic matters is provided by economists employed by the major trading banks, rather than, once again, by qualified individuals without quite so much skin in the game?

Or, why so many of our leading state broadcasters are more interested in the sound of their own voices, than in the voices of the unfortunate people they invite on air to interrogate and interrupt?

Questions might be raised as to why so much of the prime-time schedule is devoted to reality TV shows? Why there is so little political satire commissioned and broadcast on state television? Why the rural and business sectors are so well-served by our public broadcasters, while the lives of industrial and service sector workers are considered unworthy of such regular and dedicated journalistic scrutiny? Why we have a programme called Country Calendar, but not one called Working Life? Why sport flourishes while the arts struggle to be heard?

A government purporting to be “progressive” would not only ask these questions, it would question why they needed to be asked. Its Cabinet would be filled with people for whom the life of the mind was more important than likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter. Such a government would be filled with politicians who are as interested in reading books as they are in balancing them.

Most of all, it would have a Broadcasting Minister who made it his, or her, business to gather together the brightest, the bravest and the most creative souls this country can offer, and then provide them with the resources needed to broadcast back to New Zealanders their own compelling, revelatory, uplifting and unique reflections.

That is the sort of public broadcasting policy New Zealand needs: exactly the sort of broadcasting policy it is not going to get.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 November 2020.


Kat said...

Nine to Noon is not a serious political investigative program. Its akin to Womens Day magazine in audio. Why don't you make some real waves Chris and go for a slot on radio, I am sure you would have a solid listener base and certainly attract some interesting guests.

Shane McDowall said...

TVNZ plays great TV shows like Gotham and Empire after 11pm but play drek "reality" shows in prime time.

RNZ's flagship Morning Report turned into morning interrogation about three minutes after Geoff left.

They are their own worst enemies.

Trev1 said...

Chris, I fear you and I are relics of another era which has long since passed. There was a time when New Zealanders gathered eagerly around their TV sets to be "civilized" by Sir Kenneth Clark, or to see Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan describe the mysteries of the ascent of man or the origins of the universe. Or perhaps to thrill to Brian Edwards or Simon Walker engaging in hand to hand combat with Rob Muldoon. No more. We have a dumbed down population and even dumber broadcasters. The only hope for TVNZ is to sell it before it drains even more taxpayer funding. A shopping channel or nationwide funeral home franchise might find the network useful. As for RNZ, it is so one-eyed even the Cyclops would be embarrassed. There is no hope there.

BlisteringAttack said...

Why was 'Radio with Pictures', & 'University Challenge' shit canned?

John Hurley said...

Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris, only the Woke enjoy RNZ. Journalists are supposed to be at the frontier of ideas (discussing the pros and cons). Rather than explaining Critical Theory and Post Colonial theory they are proselytes. People haven't got a clue why now days the Maori Tohunga is as good as the Professor of Medicine or why Tupaia is the bigger man in the Captain Cook story. That's why they are so annoying (although with Critical Theory explaining is losing).

John Drinnan said...

Well said Chris. The merger of RNZ with TVNZ creates a hode lodge of Commercial beignets - with an increasingly outmatches of control woke coloture - mixed with PR people and biased academics.

Brendan McNeill said...

John Hurley is correct. RNZ is an unashamed advocate of the progressive left woke agenda. This expressed through the subject matter they discuss, the people they choose to interview, and those they choose to ignore. Their lack of self awareness in this regard speaks to the very insular, self selecting self reinforcing bubble they occupy. They are completely out of touch with at least half of New Zealand they are supposed to serve.

I recall with some amusement the disbelief expressed by one RNZ broadcaster following his predictable and superficial ridicule of Israel Folau when his guest Rodney Hide suggested he was planning to donate $50.00 to Folau's defence fund. Witnessing the broadcaster's obvious distress at this, Hyde in typical fashion suggested "actually I might make it $100.00".

Sadly such golden moments were rare, and I'm now tuned to the Concert program while it still exists.

Anonymous said...

We have Country Calendar because it's pretty and about animals. Not sure about Working Life.....

Nick J said...

I can echo remarks above about the seemingly incompatible postures extreme mainstream neolib orthodox and wokeness displayed on National Radio. It drives me to distraction as the "reporters" don't question their stance and assume we won't. It's totally arrogant.

In my darker moments I can envisage a "postal" incident on The Panel by a headcase driven mad by their non questioning middle class woke bigotry. A defense of being driven to insanity would definitely be in order.

Seriously though we can protect our sanity by using the on off button. And we can celebrate the day when as a consequence the reporters are made redundant.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

No time to do any more than scratch the surface, but I always regard Radio NZ as BBC lite. Superficially evenhanded, but very, very establishment. The prime example being Kathryn Ryan's "From the Left and From the Right, which would be better titled "From the Centre, and From the Embarrassingly Extreme Right. Always interviewing business people, rarely trade unionists. And definitely out of touch with the half of New Zealanders they are meant to serve – the bottom half.

greywarbler said...

What a pathetic bunch of commentaries. Whinging from people who can't see round a topic themselves and drearily negative each time you appear.
Radionz is what I want to keep. It has faults, but it still remains the best listening that I want to be bothered with. If I can't be bothered I just turn it off, and because RadioNZ takes seriously its job to reach each target audience I know it will be serving that particular slot and others will be enjoying it. And they measure their various audiences to confirm they are pleasing listeners.

The trouble is that there is so much whingeing and not only from the 'woke' brigade but also from the set and forget brigade, that public radio is on the edge of its seat trying to be seen to be relevant to the wide public many of whom are so narrow that they can't envisage their ideas as not being all important. For example, Lisa Owen at night sounds as if she has been told to be edgy and more productive, no slow speech, so she gabbles as if she is fitting in the maximum daily gossip trying to beat competitors to be first. However I blame that on you people, who expect the unachievable.

Tom Hunter said...

Chris, I fear you and I are relics of another era which has long since passed.

Chuckle. Exactly right and this is only amplified by the comments of people clearly in the same age category talking about Radio NZ or the Concert Program or Country Calender and on and on with paens to the past.

Talk to young people. Certainly anybody younger than 25 and probably 40. They have no interest in TV, radio, newspapers or magazines, let alone the specific local examples of TV One, One News, Three, etc. Their teachers despair at trying to get them to watch or listen or read such things as part of Y9-10 "Social Studies", where they never had to give such a basic thing even a moment's thought forty or even thirty years ago.

It's dead. But until the generations of Boomers and up go into the grave these entities will continue as the living dead.

And don't be too hard on Farfoi. He's merely following in the footsteps of the equally useless "Booboo" of early 2000's infamy.