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 bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz.