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.
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 bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz.