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.