The Select Committee, considering the proposed RNZ-TVNZ merger, has come back with a report conceding many of the criticisms that were made of the original legislation.
In what is one of the most comprehensive demolitions of a Bill submitted to a Select Committee, the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee has reported the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill back with proposed substantial amendments to strengthen the independence of the new entity; to clarify its Charter and relationship with the private sector media industry.
The changes beg the question as to the quality of the consultation process and advisory committee work that led to the original draft, which was prepared by the Ministry of Culture and heritage.
But the Committee’s changes may be too late with POLITIK understanding that Ministers are now actively considering a proposal to defer the legislation. A decision is expected within the next few weeks.
The report begins by proposing a change in definition that makes the reasons for the proposed merger much clearer.
“We agree that Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) should not be restricted to linear content models such as television or radio,” it says.
“On this basis, the Bill should not use language that suggests that television or radio is dominant or prioritised over other means of providing content.
“We, therefore, recommend replacing the term “broadcast” with “provide” throughout the Bill.
“Further, we recommend defining “provide” to include “broadcasting, selecting, commissioning, and producing content”.
“For consistency, we also recommend that references in the bill to ANZPM as a “public broadcaster” or similar be amended to “public media entity”.
The Committee has accepted the widespread criticism that the Bill, as introduced would not provide strong enough protections for the new entity’s editorial independence.
And so it has proposed that Ministers be prohibited from interfering in any content or advertising; any allegation or complaint relating to content or advertising; the gathering or presentation of news or current affairs content and responsibility for the standards administered under the Broadcasting Act.
In short, Ministers should stay away from all content decisions.
The Committee has also proposed that the bar on Ministerial direction be extended to anyone connected to ANZPM, such as contractors or consultants.
The Committee has also addressed a provision in the Autonomous Crown Entity legislation which would have allowed the Minister to add functions to the ANZPM legislation.
“We consider it inappropriate for a Minister to be able to add functions to a public media entity,” it says.
“Such directions are unlikely to be compatible with other provisions protecting ANZPM’s editorial independence.”
The concept at the heart of the entity is the proposed Charter, but that also attracted significant criticism during the Select Committee process.
As a consequence, one requirement that the new entity counter misinformation without specifying what that misinformation might be opened the door to the entity being required to undertake controversial political campaigns.
“We are concerned that having a publicly owned broadcaster decide what is classified as “misinformation”, in order to counter it might lead to unforeseen and unintended outcomes,” the report says.
“In particular, requiring ANZPM to counter what it determines to be misinformation might affect its ability to provide impartial and balanced current affairs content.
“The phrase could also erode public faith in ANZPM, as it could be seen as stifling debate and reducing the diversity of views provided.”
So the Committee says the requirement should be removed.
Surprisingly, the original Bill had very little to say about the quality of what might be delivered on the various APNZM platforms, so the Committee has proposed that the Charter include a provision that content support and stimulate artistic diversity and be inclusive of children and the disabled community.
During the Select Committee hearings, the big media companies — Stuff, NZME, MediaWorks and Discover Warners, were all concerned that ANZPM might use its size to act as a defacto monopolist within the media industry in terms of offering advertising opportunities.
But advocates of public broadcasting were equally concerned there was too much emphasis on the new entity earning commercial revenue.
The Committee has moved to accommodate both criticisms by proposing that the legislation specify that ANZPM’s primary objective is to serve the public interest as a public media entity.
On the broader question of how ANZPM related to the rest of the media industry, the Committee says ANZPM should work alongside the private media sector.
“ANZPM should be one part of a diverse media system, which offers New Zealanders a wide range of current affairs and entertainment options.
“We think that ANZPM should not be unduly constrained from earning commercial revenue in order to deliver public media content to all New Zealanders.
“However, we do not want ANZPM to act in a way that adversely affects competition in, or the plurality of, the media sector.”
So the Committee has proposed ANZPM’s board would be required to ensure that ANZPM takes account of existing services in the media sector.
“ For example, the board would consider existing services when deciding whether to begin delivery of a new service or whether to produce content in-house.”
However, it has shied away from imposing the kind of quota on independent production which is contained within the BBC’s legislation.
“This new clause would help ensure that ANZPM considers the effects of any decisions that could have an adverse effect on the sustainability and capacity of the wider media sector.”
And the Committee has proposed a further restraint by proposing that the new entity be subject to the Commerce Act.
“The bill as introduced does not clearly state whether the Commerce Act 1986 as a whole would apply to ANZPM’s operations,” it says.
“We are concerned that this ambiguity could affect the new entity’s ongoing operations.
“The purpose of the Commerce Act is to promote healthy competition in markets for the benefit of consumers.
“We believe that, given ANZPM’s likely size and market power, it is important to be clear that the Commerce Act should apply to ANZPM’s ongoing operations.”
Despite the changes, which address many of the concerns expressed by submitters, National remains opposed to the legislation.
Much of their criticism is related to process, particularly to the lack of a business case, a regulatory impact statement and the failure of any of the members of the Strong Public media Establishment Board to appear in that capacity before the Committee.
But ultimately, their opposition is political. Leader Christopher Luxon has consistently offered up the merger as an example of what he says is wasteful Government spending and promised that National would reverse it if they became the Government.
Ironically, in their minority statement, they approvingly cited a selected excerpt from the submission of Koi Tu, the Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland which strongly supported the concept of a merger but which was critical of the drafting of the original Bill.
They quoted Koi Tu: “this bill, which will be a cornerstone of the sector for some decades, is so incomplete and raises so many issues that it would be unsafe to enact it in its present form”.
“National members agree with Koi Tū, and National believes the only appropriate course of action is to cease this bill in its tracks and to allow RNZ and TVNZ to continue in their present form.”
And that would seem the likely endpoint (for the meantime, anyway) of the whole process.