How Clare Curran's bungling over RNZ has inadvertently done us a favour

by The Listener / 05 April, 2018

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After her cafe meeting with Carol Hirschfeld, Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran is less likely to get her way with RNZ's future.

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, talking-heads 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 sponsorship-dense 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.

This editorial was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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