RNZ's Magna Charter - 1

Published: Mon 3 May 2021 09:15 AM
Two significant events occurred when Parliament resumed after Easter on Tuesday 6 April: the Prime Minister Jacinda Adern revealed her Cabinet’s choice of Monday 19 April as the date for ending Covid-19 restrictions on trans-Tasman travel; and the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee announced that it would conduct an inquiry into the review of Radio New Zealand’s charter.
The news of when a trans-Tasman travel “bubble” would open had been eagerly awaited. It was welcomed joyously by news media which besieged tourism and hospitality sector spokespeople in their quest for supportive soundbites. Of even greater significance, though, was the prime minister’s choice of venue for making the announcement. The quaintly named Beehive Theatrette, a small auditorium with seating for around 180 and a stage with two podiums on the ground floor of the Executive Wing, is where Ms Arden now briefs the news media and, via television, the nation on major events including policy announcements. Since March 2020, alongside her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, the prime minister’s updates on the Covid-19 pandemic have made the Beehive Theatrette the natural environment for country’s leader to address the nation directly via television, like United States president Franklin D Roosevelt although his “fireside chats” were, of course, on radio.
Another venue available for the prime minister to address the nation via radio and television is Parliament’s debating chamber. She, and all of her ministers, have the right to interrupt proceedings at any point to make a statement informing the House of some matter of significant public importance which requires the immediate attention of the House. Earthquakes, terrorist attacks, declarations of war, deaths of prominent people, opening and closing of travel bubbles — all fit the parliamentary definition of major breaking news. Ministerial statements, as they are called, automatically trigger a debate. Parties with six or more MPs can make a response, from their leader or a nominated spokesperson. The debate ends with a final comment from the government. The news media, having reported the debate, can then make their own interpretation and commentary or, as it is now self-importantly labelled, analysis.
In the House, the task of holding the government to account on its statements and actions is done by its political rivals in the Opposition. In the Beehive theatrette, that role is now taken by journalists. The difference that makes to the quality of our political discourse is becoming increasingly evident as the televisual and empathetic prime minister enters her second term as the country’s leader. The extent that Labour’s reliance on their leader’s televisual appeal and communication skills is changing New Zealand’s politics and constitution from a representative democracy copied directly from the British Westminster system to one based on the American presidential model based on money and television.
Commercial television, which is all we have except on Sunday mornings and rare public holidays, is limited in its value as a news and information medium by its reliance on visual images, sound bites, cliches, mawkish sentiment and loud bangs. Labour’s reluctance to challenge the powerful vested interests behind commercial television, which now include the funding agency NZ on Air, is a major factor in our dumbing down. For a government which acts like a theatre company, staging big opening nights for its headline-making policy announcements and then shutting down to write ther music and lyrics, commercial television is the ideal medium.
The opening night of “Annie Get Your New Media Entity”, starring eight “experts” in a reality television contest to design a business case and write a charter by November, was on Wednesday 31 March. The curtain went up to reveal the Minister of Broadcasting and Media, Kris Faafoi, backed by his chorus line of experts in a “Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Group” chaired by Tracey Martin, a former NZ First Party deputy leader with no working experience, let alone expertise, in broadcasting or media. Barely a month into the job she told Waatea News, on Tuesday 27 April, that the new public media entity, for which her group is supposed to be constructing a business case, need not involve a merger of Radio New Zealand and TVNZ after all.
This is a problem because, if the two Crown-owned commercial television and publicly-funded radio broadcasters are not to be merged into a new structure, there is no need for a business case to sort out which part is to be reliant on advertising revenue and which part will be funded by taxpayers. Mrs Martin, meanwhile, has redefined her group’s purpose, telling Waatea News that it had “been asked to work out what sort of public media is needed to support a functioning democracy, and how it can function across the new platforms.”
This is a much wider job description than its original task of taking over the business case exercise from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (which appears to have switched consultants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers to Deloittes) and writing a charter for the new entity.
Aside from the difficulty of writing a charter for an organisation with directly conflicting commercial and public service objectives, there is no need to write a charter for Radio New Zealand as it already has one. Coming due for its five-yearly review earlier this year, on Good Friday 2 April, the charter review has been taken up in the form an inquiry by Parliament’s Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) select committee.
Announcing its decision on Tuesday 6 April, the committee completely cut the ground out from under Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi. He had written to Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, claiming the review of the charter would not be “practicable at this time”. The letter has not been published. A copy, requested under the Official Information Act, is due for release on Wednesday 5 May.
Another OIA request to Radio New Zealand on Friday 19 March sought any references to reviewing RNZ’s Charter in the minutes, agenda or papers at the three most recent meetings of its Board of Governors. With a response a week overdue, a reminder on Friday 30 April prodded RNZ into hurriedly producing a letter that the minister had written to its board chairman, Jim Mather, on Monday 22 February.
“Dear Jim,” the letter begins before informing the chairman and former CEO of Maori TV of the minister’s intention to advise the Speaker that he doesn’t think “it is efficient or practicable for Parliament to undertake a review of the current Charter of RNZ until Cabinet has made final decisions about establishing a new public media entity.”
This is not a call that the Minister can make. As his letter acknowledges, “section 8C of the Radio New Zealand Act provides that the House of Representatives undertake a periodic review of the Charter provisions governing the operation of RNZ.” That means the review is a statutory responsibility of Parliament, placing its initiation and performance outside the control of the government and its ministers.
The minister’s letter was merely “noted and received” by the board. The minister says “Jump” and the board of the supposedly independent public radio asks “How high?”
A request for confirmation that the minister’s letter was the only reference to the charter review at the three most recent meetings of RNZ’s board elicited a same-day response including a minute from the board’s meeting on Tuesday 2 February — three weeks before the date on the minister’s letter: “Charter Review: The CEO said the review of our Charter is likely to be delayed. The Minister intends to write to the Speaker to request a delay of the review to synchronise it with the development of a Charter for the new public media entity. We feel this makes sense and will give us an opportunity to build on the Charter as part of the development of the new entity."
Obviously, RNZ’s management and the minister’s officials in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage had been talking for some time about the threat that the public broadcaster’s charter review posed to the “new media entity” that they and NZ on Air have been furtively developing over the past four or five years. Driven by the 32-year-old funding agency’s desire to move taxpayer subsidies away from traditional free-to-air broadcast television and radio into streamed video and websites on the internet, Labour’s “Stronger Public Media” strategy stumbled at its first hurdle when RNZ management’s raid on Concert FM’s frequency exposed it to public scrutiny. Having learned nothing from that debacle, the Minister plans to keep planning behind closed doors, limiting “engagement” to his Governance Group’s “consultation” with “stakeholders”.
The minister’s response to a question, lodged under the Official Information Act, as to whether or not the Governance Group will keep minutes of meetings which will open to scrutiny under the OIA, is due by Thursday 6 May.
“I am intending that public consultation to inform the development of a new Charter will be undertaken in the next few months,” the minister said when attempting to kick for touch on the charter review. “A review of the current RNZ Charter would draw on the same resources as the public engagement process on the Charter for the new entity, both within government and the sector.”
Not the general public. Not the listeners, viewers or taxpayers. But they will all now get a chance to air their opinions when the select committee hears submissions during its inquiry into RNZ’s charter review.
The inquiry is on the committee’s agenda for the first time at its meeting this Thursday 6 May. Stay tuned.

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