• What Price Public Service Broadcasting?

    I had the privilege of serving for a number of years on the board of TVNZ.  The company had a dual mandate over that period – first, as a state-owned enterprise, it had to turn a profit by competing with commercial rivals and selling advertising time, so as to pay an annual dividend of at least 9% to the government.  But, at the same time, TVNZ was governed by a charter drawn up by the Labour government in 2003.

    The charter meant that, while TVNZ would be called to account if it failed to produce a big enough dividend, it was also required to operate more or less as a public service broadcaster, a kind of south-seas BBC.  The requirements included, amongst other things, recognising New Zealand’s cultural diversity, promoting New Zealand-made content, and providing “independent, comprehensive, impartial, and in-depth coverage and analysis of news and current affairs”.

    Successive chief executives found this dual mandate somewhat confusing, but they recognised the importance of the charter’s requirements; and, in strictly commercial terms, of course, the public service role had the advantage of providing TVNZ with a Unique Selling Point.

    The board was always alert to ensure that we did not lose sight of our charter obligations – and I recall Rick Ellis, our very able and commercially-minded chief executive, assuring us that “the charter is in our DNA.”

    But the charter did not long survive a change of government.  The new National government quickly signalled its intention to consign the charter to the junk heap, on the grounds that it diverted TVNZ from its main function of maximising a dividend that helped the government to shore up its own finances.  The charter was duly scrapped in 2011.

    That has left Radio New Zealand as the sole standard-bearer of “public service broadcasting”.  But even that role is now threatened.

    Government ministers have made clear their belief that broadcasting should operate on a commercial basis.  They see Radio New Zealand’s own charter as an irksome distraction and they resent the money paid to keep the broadcaster in operation.

    So, the funding needed to keep Radio New Zealand afloat has been frozen since 2009, and will not increase in any foreseeable future.  As costs inevitably rise, this means, in effect, death by a thousand cuts.  RNZ is struggling to maintain its role as the sole remaining guarantor of New Zealanders’ access on the airwaves to impartial news and commentary.

    The stakes for all of us are high.  The value of a public service broadcaster is not just as a source of calm and authoritative information at times of national emergency, like the Kaikoura earthquake, important though that is.  It lies in what it offers to those who prefer their news reporting not to be influenced by individual or commercial biases; and it also helps to ensure that those beholden to other interests and influences are kept honest.

    It is also a question of standards in a wider sense.  Radio New Zealand remains an indispensable provider of high-quality broadcasting, not just in the field of news reporting and in holding to account those who make decisions affecting all of us, but in keeping us informed about world affairs, and the latest developments in music, the arts, science, sport and business.

    If Radio New Zealand is no longer able fully to discharge these functions, it is not just a question of what we lose, but of what we are then compelled to rely on.  Those who care little for impartiality and high standards, or who look mainly to be entertained, will happily look elsewhere – to commercial providers or even the social media.  But those who value what Radio NZ offers will be bereft – and will be less than impressed by the limited choices then available.

    Like many others, I would prefer not to have the news and current affairs interpreted for me by a Paul Henry or a Mike Hosking.  The news should not be a vehicle for self-promotion or for the presenter’s own prejudices.  Democracy itself is threatened if we are not fully and fairly informed.  Long may Radio New Zealand thrive and continue its essential role – and, hooray, Morning Report is back this week! – but it will do so only if we stand up and defend it.

    Bryan Gould

    21 January 2017