Saturday, April 22, 2023

Chris Trotter: Vigorously Independent? Not Really.

Elon Musk is on a mission from God. Or, at least he’s on a mission from the godlike position of the world’s second-richest man. Musk’s colossal wealth, and what it permitted him to discover, is the inspiration behind his mission. What did he discover? He discovered that Twitter, the social media platform he outmanoeuvred himself into purchasing, had allowed itself to become – without disclosing the fact – an arm of the United States national security apparatus.

It really pissed him off.

So much so, that Musk has instructed his Twitter minions to describe all the great public broadcasters of the world as “Government-funded Media”. The BBC’s been tagged. So has National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. Canada’s CBC has suffered the same indignity, while across the Tasman, the ABC has been similarly humiliated. Even here, at the bottom of the world, RNZ has been tagged as Government-funded Media.

To say these august bodies resent being so described would be a considerable understatement.

Megan Whelan, RNZ’s head of content, has gone on Twitter to denounce Musk’s description.

“RNZ’s editorial independence is enshrined in our charter and editorial policy. Twitter’s own policy defines government-funded media as cases where the government “may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content”, which does not apply to RNZ.”

According to Whelan: “Not only is our independence protected by the law, we guard it vigorously.”

Those familiar with the history of public broadcasting in New Zealand would probably balk at the word “vigorously”. They might even have some difficulty with the word “independence”.

As Wellington lawyer and Free Speech Union executive member, Stephen Franks, tweeted in response to Whelan’s protestations:

“Who determines your charter, appoints your Board, determines how much you can spend?”

When the answer to all three of these questions is: “the government of the day”; it’s hard to fault Musk’s designation.

What Whelan fails to acknowledge is that the public broadcasters’ social licence derives from the ordinary citizen’s well-founded suspicion of private media. At the time the great public broadcasters were being set up, in the 1920s and 30s, it seemed reasonable to offset the growing power of private media by establishing publicly-owned and funded networks answerable, ultimately, to the people’s elected representatives.

What that meant, however, was that public broadcasters could never be truly independent. Indeed, any assertion of editorial freedom that threatened to become excessively “vigorous” was bound to raise political eyebrows. The persons appointed to run public broadcasting networks necessarily required considerable diplomatic skills. The trick was to convey the appearance of editorial independence, while ensuring the organisation remained safely within the boundaries of political and cultural tolerance.

The very worst thing a public broadcaster can do is allow its audience to form the opinion that “their” broadcaster has an “agenda”. The moment the audience begins to feel that it is being preached to, and that those who refuse to convert to the new religion will no longer be heard, then public broadcasting is doomed. That’s why the principles of fairness and balance are so crucial to the survival of state-owned networks. People of all political persuasions (or nearly all) need to see and hear their ideas and beliefs carried on the public airwaves.

Elon Musk’s rage at the social media giants’ willingness to co-operate with the US national security apparatus is readily understood. Their active censorship of individuals and organisations accused of disseminating “misinformation, disinformation and malinformation” – as defined by the state – raises the spectre of totalitarianism. That the state-owned news media has actively colluded in what amounts to a public-private partnership dedicated to protecting the political narratives of the Powers-That-Be, can have only one outcome – the forfeiture of its social licence.

That public broadcasters all over the world are responding furiously to Musk’s “Government-funded media” tag merely confirms their estrangement from the public they are supposed to serve. Being government-funded is only a problem if the citizen’s faith in the state is being steadily eroded.

Back in the days of the NZBC (which quietly ran a political blacklist to ensure its National Party paymasters never became too alarmed by what was carried on the airwaves) being described as government-funded media would have been an unremarkable statement of fact.

That RNZ is affronted by Musk’s description smacks of an institutional guilty conscience.

Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at


Unknown said...

Many many years ago when 20 something years old I regularly traveled to Europe on business. My business contacts were mainly consultants and advertising agencies. They were helping me establish markets on behalf of a large NZ Corporate for agri-sector products. One consultant in Germany asked me detailed questions about the NZ media which puzzled me. I asked why the questions and she looked startled saying well you do realise the media largely dictates which political party gets to Govern. So yes it's important to know these things.

Well, it took 40 years for me to realise just how relevant her questions were.

Thank you Chris Trotter for highlighting this major issue.

How it can be resolved remains a puzzle.

Rob Beechey said...

I consider Musk’s purchase of Twitter is one of the great gifts to mankind.
It created outrage from the mainstream media by exposing their lies and political interference.
Before Ardern’s return flight from her tyrannical outburst at the UN touched down, Elon Musk’s timely purchase of Twitter was already signed and sealed, rendering her planned authoritarian war on free speech, impotent.

Robert Arthur said...

RNZ's Media Watch presenter regularly argues in all seriousness that RNZ is not govt influenced. (When career is at stake, motivation can be considerable) Yet it presents (or has) an endless procession of fawning pro mari "interviews".The recent Select Committee recommended that pro maoriness be more forcefully written into the Charter, although it seems their nerve failed and it not done (yet), although required to plug te reo. No party in receipt of the PIJFunding can plead objective independence.

Anonymous said...

The first reaction to Musk unmasking Twitter was international MSM smear tactics. They seem to be effective as there is quite an anti-Musk sentiment among especially some young people. When I point out the reality of governments having control of the narratives they don't quite comprehend but also can't quite refute it.