Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson

A bureaucratic turf war may be behind what appears to be a reluctance by the Government to back down on the lack of political independence of the proposed new RNZ-TVNZ media entity.

Parliament’s Economic Development Committee is still deliberating on the legislation to merge TVNZ, but though POLITIK understands it is discussing some changes, they look unlikely to satisfy its critics.

While the public debate centres on why the Government is merging the two broadcasters, the Committee has been focused on the question of editorial independence.

In a move seen by some as driven by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the Aotearoa Public Media would be an autonomous crown entity.

As such, it would be required to have regard to Government policy, and the Minister of Broadcasting could change its functions on a whim.

That has raised a question about its independence.

The prestigious Koi Institute for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland has argued in a report on the merger that the proposal would so endanger the independence of the new entity that it would be “unsafe” to pass the legislation.

The alternative would be for it to be a Crown Owned Company as Radio New Zealand and TVNZ are now.

But that would mean the merged entity would be overseen by Treasury, whereas an autonomous crown entity would report to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

That may explain why the Ministry has been so keen to make it an ACE.

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Currently, both RNZ and TVNZ are Crown Owned Entities which means they are registered as companies and subject to the Companies Act.

Treasury, on its website, says it provides “performance advice” to both.

The Ministry of Culture and heritage has one of its Deputy Secretaries, Emily Fabling,  running the ANZPM establishment process.

She is a former Deputy Secretary and has no known background in the media or broadcasting.

The Ministry has had to go to outside consultants to find that expertise.

RNZ has reported an Official Information request which shows that the Ministry is budgeting around $10 million for consultants to work on the merger.

POLITIK understands it is also proposing to hire staff for a unit to manage and oversee the new entity.

There is also a Radio New Zealand Act which very specifically bars the Minister of Broadcasting  from directing RNZ on “a particular programme or a particular allegation or a particular complaint; or the gathering or presentation of news or the preparation or presentation of current affairs programmes; or the responsibility of the company for programme standards.”

But under the Autonmous Crown Entities legislation proposed for the merged entity, the Minister can add to the functions of the merged entity.

There are currently 12 functions in the Bill before the Select Committee. Some are very specific.; it should promote Tikanga Maori and should be “in or use Te Reo.”

There is currently a series of clauses prohibiting the Minister from any direct involvement in new and current affairs and those are the ones that POLITIK understands the Select Committee will strengthen.

But the way is still open for the Minister to use the functions to influence programming, and apart from that, the Crown Entities Act also requires the whole organization to “ have regard to government policy.”

The University of Auckland’s Koi Tu Institute for Informed Futures, headed by the Prime Minister’s former Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, in late September convened a group of academics and broadcasters to develop a submission on the Bill.

The group of 25 included two KCs; Professor Paul Spoonley; the former Herald editor,  Gavin Ellis; Dr Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne; the documentary maker, Bryan Bruce and the founder of the film and tv production company, South Pacific Pictures, John Barnett.

Their submission claimed the Bill paid lip service to editorial independence.

They advocated either constituting ANZPM as an Independent Crown Entity; or giving it the same status as its predecessors, a Crown Company.

The Koi Tu group was in favour of the concept of the merger.

A large part of that is because they argued the country needed media that could be trusted.

“The Bill should recognize the positive role ANZPM will have in providing balanced information, education and entertainment that reflects the broad interests of an increasingly diverse New Zealand society,” it said.

“The Bill has inadequate protections for the independence of ANZPM.

“Trusted democracy requires that all aspects of the entity are protected from direct or indirect political, bureaucratic, and commercial influence – and are seen to be so.

“The editorial independence guaranteed by the Bill is illusory.

“It refers only to direct influence by the responsible Minister, but experience in other jurisdictions

tells us that, e.g. funding allocations and onerous oversight can have equally coercive effects.

“There is an unacceptable level of ministerial control that transcends anything currently imposed on RNZ or TVNZ.

“Oversight by multiple ministers, plus a legal right conferred by the Bill allowing the responsible Minister to add functions to the entity, act against ANZPM being seen to be free from political influence.

“We note these powers are in addition to the statutory rights conferred by the Bill’s application of the Crown Entities Act.

The Koi Tu groups has had a subsequent meeting with the Opposition spokesperson on broadcasting, Melissa Lee, which appears to have been fruitless since she is totally opposed to the very idea of the merger and says a National government would repeal it.

Koi Tu’s submission called for the Government to delay.

“We are concerned that 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,” they said.

That would seem unlikely with the Select Committee due to report in late January and an intention on the part of senior Ministers to get the Bill passed and the entity set up as soon as possible after that.