Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: June 28

TVNZ7 is going off the air on Saturday. Have our politicians done enough to save it? Photo / File
TVNZ7 is going off the air on Saturday. Have our politicians done enough to save it? Photo / File

Public broadcasting has slowly but surely been strangled by successive Labour and National governments. The latest victim is TVNZ7, which goes off the air on Saturday at midnight.

The channel's experience has been an informative example of how our political parties and politicians orientate towards quality media. There is an apparent Labour vs National campaign running at the moment that is more illusionary than real in terms of the debate over public broadcasting. The truth is that the blame for the demise of quality broadcasting in New Zealand can be leveled at both Labour and National - a point well made in the analysis of media studies lecturer Peter Thompson: Public Disservice Broadcasting: The shameful demise of TVNZ7. A third culprit might also be Sky TV - which is examined in an excellent feature in the Listener this week by Ruth Laugesen - see: Sky TV's hold on the NZ market.

The final Back Benches show aired on TVNZ7 last night. You can watch the whole episode online here or at least view the 2-minute Best-of-montage.

Various autopsies and reviews of the show are being published, with the best media example being Carla Penman's A final view from the Back Benches.

But more interesting views are expressed in the blogosphere. Most notably, David Farrar gives some bouquets and brickbats in his post, The final TVNZ7 Backbenches. Will de Cleene celebrates that Back Benches played an important democratic role in helping fix a broken politics in New Zealand: 'Whether it has been the professionalisation of political communication through media advisers, press secretaries and so forth, or other causes, Politics has suffered a disconnect between the apparatus of representative government and the people. Back Benches has helped mend that wound by bringing strangers and political animals alike back into contact with their alleged representatives' - see: Last call at Back Benches. A blog on the Standard, The end of Back Benches, reviews last night's show through a typically partisan lens, and has some harsh words to say about TVNZ7's Media7 show. And Pete George has equally harsh words about such partisan-type views in Back Benches - sad to see the end #2.

Pete George - while a supporter of TVNZ7 - has particularly strong words about Labour's campaign to save the channel. For example, he says Clare Curran 'has put forward a Member's Bill to try and save TVNZ7, but this only happened in the last few weeks, and there hasn't even been a ballot for Member's Bills since. It appears to be a "Look at me! I'm doing something!" - but far too late. If she was serious about saving TVNZ7 this should have been tried a year ago'.

There's some truth in George's allegation. But more significantly, a strong critique can be made of the whole TVNZ7 model. The fact is that the last Labour Government originally set up it up with the same fatal flaw that most of our other public broadcasting suffers from - it was ultimately controlled by a thoroughly commercial organisation. It was a compromise patch up after the contradictions inherent in TVNZ's public charter became obvious even to the then Labour Government. If TVNZ7 had turned out to be a huge ratings success the state broadcaster's commercial ratings, particularly on TV1, would have suffered and so would have the dividends that both Labour and National governments have been squeezing out of the state owned enterprise. TVNZ7 and its shows were never going to be heavily invested in or promoted - to do so would have been commercial suicide for TVNZ. Labour set up TVNZ7 with only very limited funding, and it integrated a 'kill switch' into the model with short-term funding, making it so easy for the next government to allow the project to die when the funding ran out.

There have, however, been alternative funding arguments. Danya Levy reports on the latest in TVNZ7 rescue plan not used. Her previous articles are also informative: Levy to fund public TV a no-go and TVNZ7 backers enlist Chen. But there's always been questions about whether government funding is appropriate given the allegedly low TVNZ7 audience - see for example David Farrar's The actual ratings for TVNZ7. There's also some hope that some of the more popular TVNZ7 shows will continue in other forms on other channels. Chris Keall explains in the NBR that Sky TV exec eyes TVNZ7's Back Benches.

Nonetheless, there will be a few more protests this week. For details, as ever, see Clare Curran's blogging: Rally for TVNZ7 tomorrow. She has also blogged about her attempts in the House to get answers about TVNZ7's demise - see, for example, A bit depressing.

Tonight the Media7 show has its last broadcast (before transforming into Media3 on TV3). The 9:05pm show will be well-watched, and partly because the international internet tycoon Kim Dotcom has drawn attention to the final show by attending it, and by throwing his weight behind efforts to save the channel - see: Kim Dotcom backs TVNZ7 in station's dying days.

So why have various governments allowed commercial interests to dictate how public broadcasting is delivered? Both Labour and National will have to take part of the blame as neither party takes public broadcasting seriously. For a good critique of the current television model, see Peter Thompson's January opinion piece, Viewer choice sacrificed to commercialism. Similarly, Kristen Wilson puts forward a very good defence of public broadcasting in Public Service Broadcasting Matters.

Clearly it's not just the channels that are the problem. The entire NZ on Air 'public broadcasting' system suffers from the same contradiction. While the public body can theoretically make any program it likes, it is absolutely reliant on public broadcasters if anyone is to actually view it, a very effective veto and bargaining chip in negotiations. We really shouldn't be too surprised that millions of in NZ On Air funding is funneled into propping up reality shows and talent quests.

At least in radio we do have Radio New Zealand, but the squeeze on their funding is well documented (and has occurred under both blue and red governments). This is despite nearly all governments publicly supporting RNZ's role (even if John Key prefers not to have to personally participate in its news and current affairs programs). The obvious question is why do they support a non-commercial, fully funded radio public broadcaster but not a fully funded television broadcaster?

One reason may be a criticism frequently made of public service broadcast advocates - that they are elitists who want the taxpayer to pay for programming they like but which is commercially unsustainable. Labour's failure to support the Youth Radio Network initiative gives credence to that. Older, middle class, pakeha listeners have two networks (RNZ's National and Concert) dedicated to their tastes without commercial interference while younger listeners are primarily a target market to be delivered to advertisers.

The other factor is, of course, the growing influence of the commercial broadcasting lobby which has very strong links and relationships, particularly with the current government. Commercial radio saw the Youth Radio as a threat to its ratings and did their bit to sink it.

With television the elephant in the room that neither Labour or National is willing to confront is Sky TV, which has been able to achieve a level of dominance in our television market that would make Rupert Murdoch weep. Their move into free to air with the purchase of Prime TV and their aggressive approach to online content competitors shows they intend to maintain and extend that dominance well into the future.

The only bright spot appears to be Maori Television, which although a hybrid commercial operation, is overwhelmingly publicly funded and can select, commission, produce and broadcast its own programmes. (For the latest new on changes to Maori TV - see Yvonne Tahana's Maori TV dumps ads for lessons in language.

There has to be some merit in rumors going around that Maori TV is in discussions about launching a third pakeha-oriented digital channel aimed at essentially replacing TVNZ7. If such a project gets off the ground - helped no doubt by the negotiations of the Maori Party - it could indeed be promising.

Political parties always have an eye on their own polls when they get involved in campaigns like the one to save TVNZ7, but Labour actually has to shoulder its share of the blame for its demise. To have any credibility they will need to do better than trying to resurrect a hopelessly compromised structure that is a pale shadow of what a true public service broadcaster should be.

Other important or interesting political items today include:
* David Shearer's leadership of the Labour Party gets a very positive appraisal today from Vernon Small in Shearer flexes muscles but a work in progress. Small says that the leader has made such significant improvements that now his leadership is no longer under threat of challenge. It's not all positive though - Small still laments that 'his answers are often mushy and unconvincing on key economic and financial issues'. Danyl Mclauchlin also blogs on the topic and adds that 'it seems absurd not to give Cunliffe the Finance portfolio, given the standard of his recent speeches on the state of the economy, National's dire performance in this area and Labour's inability to get traction on the issue despite everything' - see: The whisperer in darkness.

* If Labour (or National) is to go into coalition with New Zealand First after the next election, they will have to use the Cullen Fund or other funding to buy back the minority states in the partially privatised energy assets. This is revealed by Duncan Garner's report that Winston Peters now declares this a 'bottom line' for a future coalition - see: MP 'mortified' by offence over Hitler comments.

* Kiwirail is suddenly looking less valuable to the taxpayer, with the Government reducing its book value by $6.7b - see Vernon Small's KiwiRail restructure adds to deficit. Opposition parties are linking this writedown to the Government's asset sales programme - see Newswire's KiwiRail will be sold, opposition says.

* Allegations of government cronyism are being leveled at National again - see Isaac Davison's Nats accused of health agency cronyism. The Health Promotion Agency's 7-person board now has, not only Katherine Rich on it, but also two National Party campaign leaders, Dr Lee Mathias and Jamie Simpson.

* The response to the Government's newly announced 'to do' list of targets hasn't been too positive - two newspaper editorials raise some objections today - see the Herald's Targets have more pitfalls than benefits and the Waikato Times' Key takes aim at targets.

* A Government minister has finally admitted that Christchurch faces a housing crisis. In fact the Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples goes further than that and advocates that the homeless take over abandoned red-zone homes - see: Squatter idea out of order - minister.

* A debate on ethnicity between Rodney Hide and Willie Jackson would be pretty interesting. Recently Hide put forward the argument against affirmative action at the University of Auckland - see: Racial quotas let down med school talent pool. Willie Jackson has now responded with: Ignorant Rodney Hide misses the point.

* Judith Collins has many suit jackets ('Thirty - and counting') and would most like to meet Margaret Thatcher - these are the most interesting revelations in Sarah Daniell's Twelve Questions with Judith Collins.

* Transparency International will be very pleased about the news of the Judges bill gets through first reading. This Green Party private members bill seeks to make it mandatory for the judiciary to reveal details of their basic financial interests (as MPs and ministers currently do).

* John Key apparently expresses an involuntary giveaway sign whenever he is 'fibbing, hiding something or not totally convinced' by his own argument - this is reported today by Claire Trevett in Pfiss ... Key's poker face revealed.

* Finally, following on from Megan Woods using the Nazi analogy this week, Toby Manhire has done an excellent job of researching past such offences in New Zealand political rhetoric - see: Godwin's law-makers.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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