New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS -

As a new so­cial me­dia-style sta­tus up­date, Min­is­ter of Broad­cast­ing Clare Cur­ran could hardly have a bet­ter moniker than “Min­is­ter In­ter­rupted”. The de­ba­cle last week over her meet­ing with Ra­dio New Zealand ex­ec­u­tive Carol Hirschfeld has made it less likely that Cur­ran will get her way over the pub­lic broad­caster’s fu­ture de­vel­op­ment. And that may be a good thing. Cur­ran has sur­vived what many would con­sider sack­wor­thy bungling, but her cafe meet­ing with Hirschfeld – who re­signed af­ter ly­ing about the meet­ing to her boss – re­vealed the fu­ri­ous pol­i­tick­ing over the fu­ture of pub­lic broad­cast­ing. Sel­dom has a state com­pany been seen more clearly to be at odds with its min­is­ter.

RNZ is a na­tional trea­sure and de­serves a bet­ter-bal­lasted role in pro­vid­ing what New Zealan­ders want and need: a cred­i­ble, im­par­tial, in-depth news ser­vice. Yet the tra­jec­tory for RNZ’s planned multi-plat­form ex­ten­sion is un­clear. The Gov­ern­ment has not backed away from the prom­ise of spend­ing $38 mil­lion more on pub­lic broad­cast­ing, but Cur­ran’s pet project, an ex­pen­sive stand-alone tele­vi­sion chan­nel, RNZ+, is now in real doubt.

The RNZ board and chief ex­ec­u­tive, Paul Thomp­son, have, rightly, favoured a slower evo­lu­tion, in­clud­ing de­fer­ral of the TV ex­pan­sion, af­ter ad­vice that the chan­nel could dis­place other pri­or­i­ties, in­clud­ing its wish to rein­vig­o­rate re­gional re­port­ing. It’s rea­son­able, in any event, to ask whether the rather old-fash­ioned im­pulse to start a new lo­cal tele­vi­sion chan­nel is sen­si­ble, given the in­creas­ingly plat­form-ag­nos­tic habits of con­sumers.

Pro­pos­als for the new chan­nel have been akin to a res­ur­rec­tion of the less-than-suc­cess­ful TVNZ 7: mostly stu­dio-based, talk­ing­heads pro­grammes, lean­ing to­wards the high-brow. The wider tele­vi­sion in­dus­try fears more of this low-au­di­ence fare would be a poorer op­tion than the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, in which New Zealand On Air at least sup­ports some more-am­bi­tious projects such as TV movies, drama se­ries and doc­u­men­taries. Nat­u­rally, that body wishes to re­tain fund­ing con­trol, whereas those who made money sup­ply­ing pro­gram­ming to TVNZ 7 want its re­turn.

In mak­ing its de­ci­sion, the Gov­ern­ment must be mind­ful of the risk of cre­at­ing un­fair or dis­pro­por­tion­ate tax­payer-funded com­pe­ti­tion for other New Zealand me­dia at the very time when most are strug­gling against in­ter­net be­he­moths. No politi­cian would want to be seen as re­spon­si­ble for re­duc­ing di­ver­sity in the sec­tor or driv­ing com­pa­nies to the wall. Yet that could be the ef­fect of a heav­ily beefed-up RNZ, even though Thomp­son and the board say they do not wish to sup­plant other play­ers.

Cer­tainly there must be clear rules for the priv­i­lege of guar­an­teed pub­lic fund­ing. Crit­ics point out the con­tra­dic­tion that RNZ’s jeal­ously guarded com­mer­cial-free sta­tus has been di­luted with its con­tent-shar­ing agree­ment with spon­sor­ship­dense web­site The Spinoff.

There must be clar­ity, too, about where Tele­vi­sion New Zealand fits into the wider pic­ture – or if it fits in at all. This is one state as­set rapidly turn­ing into a li­a­bil­ity un­der the nose of a Gov­ern­ment vi­o­lently al­ler­gic to as­set sales. TVNZ, still a pro­ducer of award-win­ning in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, is fight­ing to avoid hav­ing its re­sources mined to feed the RNZ ex­pan­sion.

The worst out­come would be that the com­pelling pub­lic-good rea­sons for the state to sup­port ex­cel­lence in jour­nal­ism and en­ter­tain­ment are lost in a ruck over patch pro­tec­tion.

It’s heart­en­ing to note that even Britain’s strug­gling pri­vate-sec­tor me­dia back con­tin­ued sup­port of the BBC, be­cause its rig­or­ous jour­nal­ism and qual­ity pro­gram­ming – both ra­dio and tele­vi­sion – ben­e­fit ev­ery­one. In cur­rent af­fairs in par­tic­u­lar, the BBC’s courage has helped buoy up that of its com­peti­tors. Its con­tin­ued cov­er­age of the prov­inces, too, obliges com­peti­tors to think twice when mak­ing cuts.

The BBC’s lat­est move is to find ways to bet­ter share its con­tent, in­clud­ing new in­ter­net ap­pli­ca­tions and even part­ner­ing with world me­dia com­pa­nies. Its aim is to main­tain a wide au­di­ence reach for dis­tinc­tive Bri­tish voices and cul­ture. It is not talk­ing about start­ing more chan­nels, earn­ing more or com­pet­ing head-to-head with com­mer­cial me­dia; in­deed, its char­ter ex­pressly says it must not ad­versely im­pact fair and ef­fec­tive com­pe­ti­tion. It sim­ply seeks to en­gage the Bri­tish pub­lic.

Pub­lic en­gage­ment should be our Gov­ern­ment’s watch­word, too. Cur­ran has, in­ad­ver­tently, done us the favour, through her poor stew­ard­ship, of forc­ing us to re­con­sider what could be a waste­ful path­way and to fo­cus on what truly mat­ters.

Clare Cur­ran’s pet project, an ex­pen­sive stand-alone tele­vi­sion chan­nel, RNZ+, is now in real doubt.

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