Saturday, March 19, 2022

Point of Order: Faafoi is sharing few firm figures on the funding of public broadcasting after TVNZ and RNZ have been merged

Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi had few firm figures to share with the public, when he was questioned in Parliament about the merger of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand and the likely cost to taxpayers.

Budget confidentiality was one part of the explanation he gave for keeping numbers under wraps. Not knowing perhaps explains some, if not most, of the rest.

One number was provided in response to the first question asked by National’s Melissa Lee on Thursday:

“How much has he been advised the merger of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand will cost, and how much ongoing taxpayer funding, if any, will the new public media entity he is creating receive?”

Faafoi began his reply by providing information that had not been sought:

“The Government recently announced that it will create a new single public media entity. This, as I said in my response to question No. 7, is to ensure that our public media is fit for the future challenges of audience change and international content via online platforms”

Then came the one firm figure he seems willing to mention:

“Cabinet’s decision also included funding of $14.6 million to begin establishing the new entity.”

The rest became subject to Budget secrecy (or obfuscation):

“Any further costs are part of the Budget process. Further funding decisions for the new entity are also a subject of the Budget process, so the member will just have to hold on to the remote for a little bit longer.”

But hey, folks – rejoice. The money (whatever it is) will be well spent.

“But I can assure the member the new entity will see more opportunities for New Zealanders to access quality local content that is in stark contrast to when her party was last in power when public media budgets were flatlined and two TVNZ channels were taken off air.

Melissa Lee seemed dissatisfied:

“What tangible benefits are the public going to be burdened with if the new public media entity is unable to retain the levels of commercial support upwards of $300 million a year from advertising revenue expected to be retained from TVNZ’s existing customers?”

Faafoi’s response was a mix of party propagandising and vagueness:

“ I think the question actually shows the National Party’s kind of attitude towards public media where they think it’s a burden on New Zealanders, as opposed to this side of the House who sees the benefit of making sure that quality local content is available to New Zealand audiences that are changing the way they access that and are also finding their revenue—the overseas content being a large challenge to their long-term survival. I thought the Opposition would have realised that over the last five years.”

Lee disparagingly asked if the Minister would commit to shelving the establishment of a new public media entity “and his flawed merger of RNZ and TVNZ” if the cost of a merger would mean taxpayers spending upwards of $150 million or more every year in additional public media spending.

This called for a yes or a no. Faafoi gave neither.

“Again, it’s the same old National Party trope when it comes to the public media: they don’t like it so shut it down.”

National’s Chris Bishop raised a point of order, contending (as was obvious to anyone listening) there had been no attempt to even address the question.

“That was just a broad political attack on a very reasonable question in relation to public media.”

Deputy PM Grant Robertson countered that the question had contained an assertion, a pejorative statement, and used the word “flawed” (oh dear), and therefore it probably got as good as it offered.

The deputy speaker ruled he thought the previous question hadn’t been answered or addressed properly – the question about advertising revenue. If Lee wanted to use an extra opportunity – he said – she could do so now.

She could ask the question again or put a new question to Faafoi.

Lee went with the second option:

“Does the Minister agree with New Zealand Media and Entertainment CEO, Michael Boggs, who said—and I quote—’Additional government investment into this new entity can only add to the intense competition and cost pressures that are already exist across New Zealand commercial media’; if so, will he end the merger?”

Faafoi said he had spoken to Boggs and assured him that one of the key factors in establishing the new organisation is to make sure the state of the wider media sector is solid.

“Given the last couple of years and the challenges that the media environment has faced, I think that would be a good thing. I am also a little bit confused as to why the National Party who are all about competition don’t want to make sure that a public media entity can compete with the others.”

Lee tried again for an idea about costings:

“How much, if any, has he been advised it will cost to rebrand TVNZ and Radio New Zealand; and does he believe rebranding two of the most well-known media entities in the country would represent good value for taxpayer money?”

Faafoi either didn’t know or delights in provocative politicking:

“I think, again, the question shows a misunderstanding of the mission. We need to fundamentally make sure that our public media is fit for the future because of the challenges that audiences face and offshore platforms face. If this is just about a rebranding that would be shallow and that’s the kind of policy that we’ve seen from the Opposition when it comes to public media.”

In light of this ducking and diving, Lee had good cause to ask:

“How can the people of New Zealand trust this new public media entity will offer something more and not be yet another cost blowout for taxpayers—the latest in a long line of wasteful spending by a Labour Government that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars?”

Faafoi glibly replied:

”On this side of the House it is patently clear that we actually believe in the importance of public media. If I think what the member is saying is that the National Party policy at the next election is to gut public media, I look forward to the debate.”

Meanwhile political commentator Bryce Edwards, writing for the Democracy Project, made plain he, too, is dissatisfied with the information provided so far:

“After years of corporate consultancy reports and working groups, the result of the public media investigations were announced last week and effectively killed off the dream of a cohesive and comprehensive non-commercial public broadcasting media organisation.

“What we are going to get is a mish-mash of RNZ and TVNZ, where the two will be initially brought under an umbrella company, and possibly amalgamated under one brand in the future.”

Funding wasn’t likely to change, Edwards conjectured – a commercial imperative would remain, especially for television, and likely for the new online future media services.

“This once in a lifetime opportunity to reverse decades of underfunding and a neoliberal media model has been squandered, and the Government has gone for an extremely compromised and moderate project, which could end up worse than the current situation.”

Edwards drew attention to Faafoi’s answers to earlier questions about the shape of the new RNZ-TVNZ merger – the minister had ducked those by saying they were matters that would be left for the Establishment Board (to be announced next month).

Thus questions about core issues – such as whether the new merged digital platform will be commercial-free – have been deemed to be for the appointed bureaucrats, not for the minister accountable.

Despite the missing detail, Edwards observes there some things (which he describes as “disturbing”) we can now be certain about.

* Government funding for the new broadcaster will be entirely inadequate. A proper commercial-free public broadcaster might cost $150m a year – three times the current cost – but that’s beyond what Labour are willing to fund and annual funding for the new organisation will be decided by the finance minister of the day, competing against all other government priorities. Hence this core part of the media will be vulnerable to the agendas of politicians.

* The model will be a hybrid, in which the television side will continue to be reliant on advertising and audience ratings, and RNZ will remain ad-free. This is a fraught and contradictory model for a public broadcaster, requiring it to exist both “for the public good”, and to make money from commercials.

* The emphasis of the new organisation will be the push to digital – recognising quite rightly that online platforms will eventually take over linear radio and television broadcast components of the service. But although a commitment has been made to keep RNZ commercial-free, the digital element of the public company is likely to involve commercial advertising.

Edwards wraps up by noting it has become more compelling to ask “why fix something that isn’t broken?”, especially once the public learns the new model might be even worse than the current one.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton.

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