Monday, April 19, 2021

Karl du Fresne: Why we should be sceptical about Kris Faafoi's grand broadcasting project

In a previous life, I served for two years as a member of the Library and Information Advisory Commission (LIAC).

You’ve never heard of it? That’s hardly surprising. Not many people have. It was established by Helen Clark’s government for the purposes of, among other things, “maintaining a strategic overview of the library and information sectors” and “providing stakeholder perspectives on issues and proposals”. Make of that what you will.

I was nominated for a seat on the board by the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and accepted, naively thinking LIAC might occasionally deal with issues related to freedom of information.

I can’t pretend it was an onerous job. It involved driving to Wellington once every couple of months for an all-day meeting where various people reported on various things and we were given a pleasant but simple lunch. For this I was paid a modest emolument.

Our minister was Marian Hobbs, whose responsibilities included the National Library. I recall the board strolling across Molesworth Street to the Beehive for a meeting with her and wondering why we bothered, since there seemed nothing of any substance to tell her. But apparently it was a statutory requirement.

My fellow board members were a likeable bunch but came from the public sector and spoke what seemed to me to be a foreign language. That is to say, I recognised the words but struggled to comprehend the sentences they were arranged into.

I particularly remember the late Paul Reynolds, a loquacious Scotsman with a background in IT, who would talk at great length and with irrepressible enthusiasm about the rich potential of the digital information sector. It was impossible not to like Paul, but he needed an assertive chair to rein him in. More to the point, I don’t recall anything actually happening or being decided as a result of his effusive rhetoric.

My occasional protestations that I needed a translator were usually met with the slightly condescending assurance that I served a valuable purpose by keeping my fellow board members grounded in the real world. But after serving one term I decided that keeping LIAC grounded in the real world – if indeed I succeeded in doing so, which I doubted – wasn’t enough to justify my continued presence. So I resigned.

Here’s the thing: at the end of my two years, I was no clearer about LIAC’s purpose than I was at the start. I still had no idea what I was doing there and couldn’t see what, if anything, our meetings were achieving. To me it was just talk, talk, talk, with no discernible outcome, though I admit I seemed to be alone in reaching this pessimistic conclusion. Perhaps I missed something.

Before writing this, I went to the Department of Internal Affairs website to check that LIAC still exists (it does), and to remind myself what it was set up to do. I’m still none the wiser, since its terms of reference are described in woolly bureaucratese that can mean anything and nothing.

Its remit is a masterpiece of vague abstractions and circular reasoning, empowering LIAC to do whatever it thinks might be worth doing, but not actually explaining in simple, practical terms what that is, or guaranteeing that anyone will take any notice of it anyway. It’s there because it’s there. Where LIAC’s reason for existing should be clearly explained, there’s a vacuum.

I came to the conclusion that LIAC was one of those quangos that Labour politicians, in particular, love to create because they create a perception of action, change and dynamic forward momentum.

You can see how this happens. Labour typically languishes in opposition for prolonged periods (in that case, nine years), chafing with frustration and grinding its teeth at all the things it thinks the government should be doing. By the time it eventually gets its hands on the levers of power (mixed metaphor alert!), a massive head of reformist zeal has built up.

All that energy has to go somewhere, so it tends to get diffused in a frantic welter of political and bureaucratic activity that employs legions of public servants, consultants and advisors but often produces no lasting, tangible or beneficial results.

Labour, after all, is a party of change. It has a compelling urge to re-invent the wheel; to re-arrange things, sometimes for no better reason than that it has the power to do so. In this respect it’s fundamentally different from National, whose instinct is to leave things alone. (Unfortunately, National’s inertia means quangos created under Labour often survive a change of government, which may explain why LIAC still exists.)

No doubt there are other LIACs lurking out of the public view, all hoovering up taxpayer money and consuming energy that might be better expended elsewhere. In fact on a government profligacy scale of one to 10, LIAC would barely register 0.5. I mention it only because I happen to have had personal experience of it. (The Taxpayers’ Union does a very good job of exposing the countless other government feel-good exercises which squander public money, like the new Hamilton-Papakura commuter train that in its first week often carried fewer than 30 passengers per trip.)

This brings me to the point of this blog, which is the work going on behind the scenes toward a reinvention of public broadcasting in New Zealand – or to be more precise, a merger (although the government doesn’t like that word) of TVNZ and RNZ.

No one has satisfactorily explained why this is necessary, still less urgent (as Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi seems to think), or what benefits it will bring. But it’s going ahead regardless, at pace and mainly out of public view, and you get the feeling it’s likely to happen whether it makes sense or not. It looks like Faafoi’s big legacy project – one that’s almost inevitably fated to be dismantled and reconstructed by some other reformist minister further down the track, because that’s what happens.

The potential pitfalls in the proposed amalgamation are obvious. The two organisations’ cultures are fundamentally incompatible. Yoking TVNZ and RNZ together would be like trying to mate a komodo dragon with a barn owl.

Admittedly, the model the government is considering, which would combine a commercial television service and a non-commercial radio network under common management, has worked satisfactorily in the past. It’s pretty much how the old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation operated before it was broken up (under a Labour government, as it happens) in 1975.

The NZBC was funded by commercial revenue not only from television but also from its profitable ZB radio network, which was sold off in the 1980s. This income was supplemented by a licence fee, similar to the one that funds the BBC, which everyone with a TV set was required to pay, and which theoretically funded non-commercial broadcasting.

But that was then and this is now. Under the NZBC and its immediate successors, a strong public broadcasting ethos prevailed despite the hybrid funding model. The people who ran the two state TV networks that emerged from the 1975 overhaul were still influenced, consciously or otherwise, by the lingering legacy of British-born Sir James Shelley, New Zealand’s first director of broadcasting. That was apparent from their programming policies, which strove for a balance between populist entertainment and more serious content – and mostly achieved it. Ratings were important, but not paramount.

That can’t be said of TVNZ, which long ago shed any trace of its origins as a public broadcaster. It has been commercially driven – aggressively so – for decades, despite futile attempts (notably the Clark government’s meaningless “TVNZ Charter” in 2003, which the broadcaster appeared to ignore) to impose public service obligations on it.

I would be the first to applaud the restructuring of broadcasting if it signalled a return to public broadcasting values, but I suspect that genie is well and truly out of the bottle as far as TVNZ is concerned.

People might feel happier if Faafoi could at least present a succinct, compelling case for change, but he hasn’t. We’re told the new organisation must be “fit for purpose” – but what purpose, exactly? That’s conveniently undefined. “Fit for purpose” is a fashionable phrase that, like LIAC’s terms of reference, can mean anything or nothing. We should be very suspicious of politicians who take refuge in jargon whose meaning is impossible to pin down.

A key justification advanced for the creation of a “strong new public media entity” (the officially endorsed terminology) is that the media sector is in crisis and needs government help. But a cynical interpretation is that the “crisis” – if it exists, which commentators such as Newsroom's Mark Jennings dispute – offers a perfect opportunity for a deep-pocketed government to step into the market and swamp private operators. This raises the worrying prospect of a state-controlled media behemoth.

Commentators on all sides have expressed scepticism, and not all of it can be dismissed as self-interest or politically motivated. They have also expressed disquiet at a lack of transparency.

As Stuff’s Tom Pullar-Strecker wrote in a perceptive analysis a couple of weeks ago, the longer the government holds out against demands for wider involvement in the exercise, “the more likely it is that people may feel the merger is something that is being done to them, rather than for them”.

Pullar-Strecker also pointedly asked: “Might this simply be a case of public sector empire-building by Faafoi, himself a former TVNZ journalist?”

He went on to suggest that it’s possible “there simply is no strong thinking behind the new public media entity and it is just the product of ill-defined aspirations that have been allowed to snowball in a policy vacuum”.

In other words a bit like LIAC, perhaps, but on an infinitely grander and costlier scale.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at

1 comment:

James Owen said...

A very good comment from Karl. The merger proposal is mostly waffle and I would suggest will need an overhaul the moment it moves away from a Minister who is ex TVNZ. We do need a State owned televised version of Radio NZ and I would suggest that TVNZ be sold to Commercial interests. Radio NZ already streams some of its content and surely that could be expanded to provide a BBC type service for a limited number of hours each evening.