Friday, April 5, 2013

Karl du Fresne: RNZ must right its lean to the left

I have some advice – unsolicited – for whoever takes over from Peter Cavanagh, the chief executive of Radio New Zealand, who steps down toward the end of this year. RNZ is a national treasure, but it’s a flawed treasure, and that makes it vulnerable. By correcting the most obvious of those flaws, whoever takes over from Mr Cavanagh could help protect the organisation against political interference.

RNZ’s vulnerability arises from the fact that it’s a non-commercial broadcaster owned by a government which, insofar as it could be said to be ideologically committed to anything, favours private enterprise.

In itself, that shouldn’t place the organisation at risk. RNZ has co-existed relatively amicably with National governments before. The very reason National has remained the dominant party in New Zealand since the 1950s is that it’s essentially pragmatic, and happy to live with a mix of private and public ownership.
But the political climate has changed in recent years. The global financial crisis has put pressure on the government to save money wherever it can.

John Key’s government is not ideologically averse to state ownership of key broadcasting assets. That’s obvious, since it continues to cling to Television New Zealand long after TVNZ abandoned any pretence of being a public service broadcaster (and probably long after anyone else would have been interested in buying it).
But at least TVNZ returns a profit, albeit a relatively modest one ($19.2 million after tax last year). RNZ does no such thing. It is funded by the taxpayer and generates no commercial revenue.

Its funding has been frozen since 2009, which suggests it doesn’t rate highly in the government’s priorities. In fact if Wellington gossip is to be believed, there are influential figures in the government who are at best indifferent, and possibly even hostile, to the state broadcaster.
Take Steven Joyce, for example. As the fourth-ranked minister in the Cabinet, he carries a lot of clout – probably more than his ranking suggests.

He is also a former broadcasting entrepreneur who built a small New Plymouth radio station into the RadioWorks network and pocketed $6 million when he sold his interest.
Mr Joyce is said to be less than sympathetic to arguments that RNZ deserves more money. And while there may be others in the Cabinet who don’t share his robust support for private enterprise (it would be interesting, for example, to know the attitude of someone like the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson), the brutal reality is that National probably takes the view that there’s little electoral risk in upsetting RNZ listeners because most of them vote Labour anyway.

So what might the new RNZ chief executive do to enhance the organisation’s standing in a political climate that is less than favourable? One obvious step is to take a tougher line against the editorial bias that still permeates some RNZ programmes.
Public broadcasting organisations, by their very nature, tend to be left-leaning.  Australia’s ABC is perpetually under fire for partisan reporting and the prevalence of left-wing views in current affairs programmes; Britain’s illustrious BBC only slightly less so.

It’s not hard to understand how this comes about. Journalists distrustful of capitalism (and many journalists, being of an idealistic bent, tend to the left anyway) naturally gravitate toward state-owned media organisations, seeing them as untainted by the profit motive. This becomes self-perpetuating, since the more left-leaning an organisation becomes, the more it attracts other people of the same persuasion.  The result is often an ideological mindset that permeates the entire organisation.
But while this can be reassuringly cosy for the employees, publicly funded broadcasters have an obligation to make programmes that reflect the views and interests of the entire community – not just those the broadcasters happen to favour.

This is explicit in RNZ’s charter, which commits the organisation to impartial and balanced coverage of news and current affairs.
It’s the duty of the chief executive, who also has the title of editor-in-chief, to ensure this happens. But in this respect, Mr Cavanagh, an Australian who was recruited from the aforementioned ABC in 2003, has been missing in action.

Overall, RNZ presents a more balanced range of perspectives than it used to. But on some programmes, a stubborn left-wing bias persists.
Kim Hill is the worst offender. This is a problem for whoever runs RNZ, because she’s also its biggest name.

Chris Laidlaw lists to the left too, as does Jeremy Rose, a journalist and producer who frequently crops up on Laidlaw’s Sunday morning show. Rose appears to be on a lifelong mission to convince people that there are humane alternatives to nasty, heartless capitalism, and assiduously trawls the world looking for examples (worker-owned co-operatives in Spain are a favourite).
He’s perfectly entitled to believe whatever he pleases, of course, but he has no right to co-opt the resources of RNZ to pursue his fixation. It’s an abuse of power to use a taxpayer-funded medium to promote pet ideological causes.

And while I used to be a firm admirer of Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan, I’ve reluctantly been forced to file her under “L” too.
I had my first misgivings when she conducted a disgracefully partisan interview during the furore over the beleaguered Auckland employers’ leader Alasdair Thompson in 2011. I was reminded of that episode when I recently heard Ryan aggressively hectoring Chester Borrows, the Minister of Courts, over a government proposal to take action against the partners of welfare cheats.  

No one who heard the Borrows interview could doubt that Ryan allowed her personal views and emotions to override her professional obligation of impartiality (which, I stress, doesn’t preclude hard and rigorous questioning).
An editor-in-chief who was doing his job properly would crack down on such abuses, for two reasons.

The first and most important is that they breach RNZ’s duty to the public to present information fairly and impartially. The second, more pragmatic, reason is that the left-wing bias apparent in some of RNZ’s programmes is hardly likely to endear the organisation to the politicians who control its fate.
In saying this, I’m not suggesting for a moment that RNZ should become a tame government puppet. That would be far worse than the status quo. 

But we all have an interest in Radio New Zealand surviving, and a genuinely independent, non-partisan RNZ will be in a far stronger position to defend itself than one that consistently leaves itself exposed to allegations of bias.
Karl du Fresne blogs at published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 27.


Louis said...

There is no place for state funded broadcasters. Let radio stations fund themselves like most other businesses. If there is the demand claimed, then this should pose no problem.

Unknown said...

"There is no place for state funded broadcasters." Ummm I would have thought our significant income tax bills would cover a little bit of non commercial radio and television. I don't particularly like waking up to inane DJ's and equally inane and ridiculously loud, Home-furnishings advertising.

Richard C said...

I'm with Eltastro. A quality public broadcasting exists in Australia. While on current affairs it tends to suffer the left-ish bias Mr du Fresne identifies it also has some skilled anchors who cover a wide range of reviews and in depth interviews with a wide range of authors, teachers, visitors to Australia etc. If I'm visiting Australia I always try to listen to as many "Conversations" - a 1 hour slot - with Richard Fidler, as I can. The depth of discussion reflects what journalists should aspire to - i.e. well researched and prepared. Try it at Only interrupted at the half hour for a news report. No way that would work on a commercial network.