The Government is facing a wall of opposition to the way it proposes to structure the new merged TVNZ-RNZ public media entity.
Under the proposal contained in the Bill, the new Aotearoa Public Media (APM) entity would be required to “have regard to government policy.”
Though the Bill restricts the Minister of Broadcasting from directing APM’s news and current affairs department, submitters to the Select Committee currently considering the Bill say that is not enough.
Even Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson, in comments that have raised eyebrows in the media industry, has conceded there was a risk a future government could direct the new entity.
“There’s always a risk, particularly if the future Government is that Opposition party across the other side,” he told Parliament on Thursday.
Television New Zealand is one of those opposed to the structure outlined in the Bill.
The Bill has proposed that the new entity be an “Autonomous Crown Entity” (ACE), whilst TVNZ wants it to be a Crown Owned Company.
An “ACE” has a number of clauses either allowing its Minister to intervene or requiring it to take account of government policy.
POLITIK understands that in the background, there has been a bureaucratic turf fight over how the new entity is structured, with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, who are key advisors on the Bill, preferring the ACE model because then it would then have the authority to monitor APM’s performance whereas if it remained as a Crown Owned Company, Treasury would do the monitoring.
Radio New Zealand, however, is in favour of the new entity being an Autonomous Crown Entity in part because it opposes the TVNZ proposition that it be a company when it should have a “public media focus ahead of commercial outcomes.”
But a substantial case against the ACE proposal has been made by Auckland University’s Koi Tu, the Centre for Informed Futures.
The Centre convened two “hui” of a wide range of academics and media practitioners to consider the Bill.
Speaking to Parliament’s Economic Development and Innovation Committee last Thursday, the Centre’s deputy director, Anne Bardsley, said the amount of ministerial power and the proposed structure APM as an autonomous crown entity would have “will severely curtail the entity’s independence from government, which is absolutely critical for securing the public’s trust.”
Dr Gavin Ellis, a former Editor of the New Zealand Herald and well-known media commentator, said that the Koi Tu hui’s key finding was that it would be unsafe to proceed with the legislation in the way it was currently framed.
“Now, that word (unsafe) was a very carefully chosen one, and it was chosen by a very senior member of the legal profession,” he said.
“And we really do believe that without amendment, it is unsafe for a large number of reasons, not least of which is the issue of real independence.
“We’ve heard over the past few days talk about the reduction in trust in the media.
“Trust can only be regained by the public being absolutely satisfied that this new entity is free from influence of any sort.
“And we believe that that needs to be enshrined in law because legislation that is dependent for its protections on the goodwill of the present government or a future government is not good legislation.”
Ellis emphasised that Koi Tu was in favour of the merger.
“It’s not what this Bill would be or if it was enacted in law, what the present Gvernment or the next Gvernment would do with it; it’s where the Gvernment ten years from now will go with it because this will be around for 20 to 30 years on the basis of previous legislation.
“So the job of Parliament is to make sure that it’s robust enough to withstand the unforeseen inroads that might be made or attempted to be made on it.”
Ellis acknowledged that there were some restrictions within the Bill on how the Minister could direct news and current affairs.
“But I think that it’s wrong to think that editorial independence is a little cocoon of its own that exists in isolation from everything else that goes on in the organisation,” he said.
“It doesn’t work like that.
“The pressures on it might be subtle, sometimes not unsubtle, but editorial independence is part of the overall fabric of the business.
“The business needs to have a measure of independence now.”
The Radio Broadcasters’ Association is sceptical that the proposed entity will actually function as a true public broadcaster.
“Where there is an expectation of delivering large audiences and revenue, the public media mandate is unlikely to deliver any improvement on the status quo,” its Executive Director, Jan Rangooni, said in a submission.
“The new entity is likely to be more competitive and therefore commercial in every area it can.”
Rangooni was presumably worried about part of TVNZ’s submission, which argued that it should be required to “optimise commercial performance to supplement Crown funding.”
And it claimed that there was a risk that without maintaining some focus on commercial performance, the Bill capped the ambition of ANZPM and might limit its ability to compete for audience with multinational conglomerates with significantly higher budgets.
And then TVNZ argued that the Charter should reflect an aspiration for ANZPM to be audience-driven in its approach.
“That includes maintaining and growing the significant number of New Zealanders who currently watch and listen to TVNZ and RNZ,” it said.
Rangooni said that the proposed legislation was too vague and that what needed work were the limits and boundaries on the commercial outcomes versus the public service media outcomes and the editorial and operational independence of the organisation.
“Essentially, the legislation creates New Zealand’s largest media entity, and at best, it could do everything that Minister Jackson hopes for, or at worst, and I would say more likely, it could further distort the market and significantly reduce the investment and therefore quality and quantity of media outlets and content produced in New Zealand and for radio,” she told the Committee when she appeared before them on Thursday.
Former journalist and Green MP Sue Kedgley, appearing on behalf of the National Council of Women, was another who was concerned about the Government’s powers with respect to APM.
“We do agree with many submissions that the new entity must be seen to be independent of the influence of government politicians,” she told the Committee.
“We’d like to see a strengthening of the requirements for the new organisation to be editorially independent and to ensure that its personnel, particularly its journalists, cannot be influenced by politicians in any shape or form.”
POLITIK understands that the Committee will hear about 80 of the hundreds of submissions it has received on the Bill.
That is a lot and is obviously imposing a time pressure on the Committee. Most submitters will get only five minutes in front of it, but TVNZ has been allocated 15, which considering the potential impact of the new entity on it, seems remarkably short.