Monday, October 31, 2022

Chris Trotter: More Than One Way To Skin A Cat.

Nobody has yet come up with a credible case for amalgamating Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand. Even so, the merger proceeds apace, costing the taxpayer a ridiculous amount of money – to no good end. No one truly believes the quality of the broadcasting product will improve. The present audiences of both networks have longstanding gripes with the overall direction of their public broadcasters, but the response of those in charge has been to double-down on the very policies their audiences find most objectionable. With no clear rationale for the amalgamation of RNZ and TVNZ on offer, the cynicism of those who were formerly public broadcasting’s strongest defenders can only grow.

The pall of pessimism which has settled over those who still believe in the possibilities of public broadcasting has not been lifted by vague references to the need for a reliable source of public information. Citing the growing strength of the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation on social media, government mouthpieces have presented the new “entity” as the place where New Zealanders anxious to learn what’s really going on can go to for “the facts”. They are being encouraged to think of the new entity as a sort of beefed-up version of the Prime Minister’s infamous “podium of truth” during Covid.

God save us!

The newsrooms and current affairs production hubs of RNZ and TVNZ have become ideological monocultures. Senior executives, producers, journalists, technical staff and, seemingly, the entire workforce of the public broadcasters, subscribe to a single version of economic, political, social and cultural reality. A journalist wishing to put together a programme on the bitter divisions rending the women’s movement over transgender issues, for example, would not only be denied permission, she would be lucky to hold on to her job. The RNZ and TVNZ of today grow only a single crop. If you don’t like the taste of “Woke” – then you had better find an alternative menu of ideas.

Perhaps it is this apparent indifference to the traditions of free inquiry and frank debate which enlivened the public broadcasters of yesteryear that explains the new entity.

At the summit of both RNZ and TVNZ sit people who despise the whole Reithian concept of broadcasting as a public service. It was the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, who formulated the original three word mission-statement of Britain’s public broadcaster. The purpose of the BBC, said Reith was to “inform, educate, and entertain”.

For many years Reith’s formula underpinned the operations of publicly-owned radio and television in New Zealand. It could not, however, survive the onset of the neoliberal project in the mid-1980s. The latter reduced TVNZ to a commercial operation indistinguishable from those operating in the private sector. It’s job was to sell eyeballs to advertisers and to hell with “inform, educate, entertain”.

RNZ would likely have suffered a similar fate, had it not been so vociferously defended by its loyal listeners. Thwarted in their mission to simply wipe out RNZ, the neoliberals opted to starve it to death by refusing to fund it adequately. Committed to public service broadcasting, RNZ management and staff struggled heroically to do more with less year after year. Ultimately, however, it was the government of the day that appointed the Board of RNZ, and the Board that appointed its CEO. Inevitably, the day came when the Reithian rear-guard was overwhelmed.

At the summit of RNZ, an idea took root that it was morally indefensible for public broadcasters to assume they knew better what the people of New Zealand needed than the people themselves. By this reckoning, RNZ was an educated, middle-class, Pakeha Baby-Boomer redoubt: an island of intellectual snobbery and unconscious bias in a sea of younger, browner, New Zealanders with very different values and tastes.

In the estimation of both the RNZ Board, and its CEO, the time had come for a mighty shake-up. Their first move was an attempt to downgrade and marginalise the Concert Programme and replace it with a youth-oriented network modelled on a hip, Black, New York radio-station. But, in what was very likely the last great public campaign to save Reithian radio, the supporters of the Concert Programme – led by former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, forced the RNZ Board and the CEO to put their plans on hold.

Not to worry, there is always more than one way to skin a cat. With the instalment of a Labour-led Government in 2017, a pathway opened for those who wanted to radically remake RNZ. A woke government, served by a woke broadcaster, might just be persuaded to embark on a bold new broadcasting journey. By merging it with the brain-dead TVNZ, the cerebrally-vital RNZ would finally be in a position to ditch its elitist Boomer audience and show Aotearoa what Generations X, Y, and Z could do.

If this is what happened, then, obviously, the new state broadcasting entity will be run by the bright boys and girls at the top of RNZ. TVNZ really will become “radio with pictures”. Just how much informing, educating and entertaining will go on in the new, clumsily named, “Aotearoa-New Zealand Public Media” is anybody’s guess. To those Boomers who fought so hard for RNZ and its Reithian virtues, F-Boy Island is likely to be perceived as a very poor exchange for Kim Hill and Jim Mora.

Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at


Robert Arthur said...

Willie jackson's dream, based on his RNZ interview, is not just the likes of populist F Boy island but saturation maori "culture", te reo, and and pro maori twaddle generally. he does not seem to realise that the present over generous content of this largely accounts for the decreasing number of listeners.

DeeM said...

I sometimes wonder if Chris Trotter is really two people...or maybe has a split personality.
He always writes well but his political views seem to see-saw from expected Left to almost conservative and reasonable, as per this article.

A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma!

EP said...

Maybe it's kind of Willie Jackson to want to share Maori culture with the rest of us (or egotistical) Those of us who want to study a limited language, or listen to very tedious 2-note flute, can find the means to do so. The truth is Willie, it's boring. We know. That's enough thank you. Now can we please have our lives back?

Anonymous said...

Yes, when asking anyone I meet what they think of this merger, the same blank look of incredulity crosses their visages. If anything typifies this Government, this is it. An expensive solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. How anyone can seriously support and vote for these morons is beyond me, but then that is democracy and even fools get the right to vote.

Robert Arthur said...

On RNZ, except for the pleb choices on Sat night request, we no longer hear light classical music or even the best of popular music of the 1930s, 40s 50s, presumably on the basis that it old fashioned. And despite that it is agelessly pleasant to all groups. Yet we now have inflicted hours of listening in the format of dreary popular singing of the 1920s and earlier, but all in tedious plaintive sounding te lingo.

Anna Mouse said...

Sadly for RNZ and TVNZ the very people who keep it alive are the boomer generation.

In 10 years time the listenr/viewership will have tanked along with the advertising income as these "younger, browner, New Zealanders with very different values and tastes." turn as they have already to better more suited media options.

Merging these two entities is like glueing a half cow to a half horse with meat glue and hopeing it produces milk and wins the Melbourne Cup. It wont because once cut and re-imagined it becomes a stagnant dead corpse that cannot change ever again to accomodate the changing appetites of the so called younger, browner, New Zealanders with very different values and tastes.