John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: Labour waits as police leap in for Key

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John Key chatted with celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson on his radio show in September. File photo / Herald on Sunday
John Key chatted with celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson on his radio show in September. File photo / Herald on Sunday

In a bizarre election twist, police have swiftly moved to execute searches of media investigating John Key's complaint about the teapot tapes.

Yet the body to determine free and fair elections - the Electoral Commission - is taking its time with a complaint about the Prime Minister's September 30 show on Radio Live.

Celebrities such as Sir Peter Jackson, Sir Richard Branson and Richie McCaw chatted with the PM on the show - guests arranged by Key's staff.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority acted quickly on a Labour Party complaint about the Key show and found it was not in breach of broadcasting standards.

Yet six weeks after Labour lodged a similar complaint with the Electoral Commission, there is still no decision.

Chief electoral officer Robert Peden has refused several requests for an interview, will not discuss the issues, the reasons for the delay or even the commission processes.

A spokeswoman could not say if there was any prospect for a decision before the election.

If not - and the commission finds against National over the RadioLive show - Labour is expected to complain that the delay has undermined any redress.

Labour Party general secretary Chris Flatt said yesterday that he had made several approaches to the commission, requested urgency and had been told a decision was on its way.

"We do understand that the commission has been very busy, but we think it is an important issue and have been surprised it has taken six weeks," he said.

TWO FOR TEA

The tea-for-two tape fiasco is reaching comical Banana Republic dimensions.

Who is advising the PM on this Mexican stand-off with the media?

A source familiar with the Government communications strategy said the PM's attack on the Herald on Sunday and refusal to explain his comments to John Banks was a strategic decision, rather than a symptom of concern or panic from the media storm.

It was based on the premise that Key was so popular the public would support the PM and any negative outcome would be less than if the details of his conversation with Banks were actually released, the source suggested.

The expectation was that any damage to media relations in the campaign could be fixed with a charm offensive in the New Year.

The sharp edge of the criticism reflects the style of Kevin Taylor, Key's chief press secretary, who lacks the skills of Helen Clark's Mike Munro.

That said, Steven Joyce can play a heavy hand when media transgress his rules and the Rena debacle revealed his lack of experience in handling a media storm.

Experienced National strategist Murray McCully is not playing a big role in the case, and that might explain how it has escalated.

On the face of it Key's war on media is surprising given the cosy relationship in the past. But the love affair has been fading.

Key found himself the butt of jokes for his performances during the Rugby World Cup, including the infamous three-handed handshake.

The RadioLive show and other media appearances raised the question whether Key had overreached due to his confidence.

Key showed his weak points when he had to backtrack over claims that Standard & Poor's would be more likely to downgrade a Labour-led New Zealand.

FAT, SWEET AND CHEEKY

Ad agency Sugar and DVD rental company Fatso came up with a cheeky way to capitalise on paranoia about new video piracy rules.

As record companies sent out warnings for people found making illegal downloads, the alliance sent out phony warning letters with the fictitious logo of the New Zealand Copyright Authority and the message "notice of breach".

A recipient told this column they opened the envelope with guilty dread, having downloaded a TV show this week, and were relieved to find it was just a joke promotion offering a free month's subscription.

"You've been identified as someone who loves free movies. We get it. We love free movies too." Sweet ...

REFORM BY STEALTH

TVNZ is turning its back on Freeview to focus on pay television in an opaque process that reflects reform by stealth under National's minimalist broadcasting policy.

The policy has two main prongs - profit at all costs at TVNZ and hands-off the unregulated market for Sky TV.

TVNZ is mordantly secretive, but the broadcaster's approach was shown in its recent statement of intent backed by the Government - to press for more taxpayer cash from New Zealand On Air to pay for commercial content.

The most worrying aspect is the abandonment of Freeview.

The Government is pumping millions of taxpayer dollars into the switch-over to digital TV while state broadcaster Television New Zealand secretly negotiates away from Freeview.

TVNZ has been in talks to take a stake in Sky's new digital terrestrial pay network that will offer 11 to 14 channels for about $25 a month.

Nobody can blame Sky or TVNZ for taking advantage of acquiescent Governments over the years. Sky Lite, or "Igloo" as it is known by its working title, makes good sense for Sky.

The new platform should soak up some of the 30 per cent of consumers it is estimated don't want to pay $47.66-plus for a Sky package.

If Sky does not use up surplus radio frequencies for Igloo, they might be leased out to a new competitor. The role of other partners will diminish criticism of Sky's TV dominance, and TVNZ may have some useful assets.

But TVNZ's intended stake in Igloo has an effect on Freeview - the platform for free-to-air which was once regarded as an alternative to Sky.

Igloo is intended to launch in time for the digital switch-off, starting next year, and it would undermine Freeview at a crucial time.

TVNZ was once a vocal critic of Sky TV and its growing dominance.

But the Government-brokered deals to foster a cosier relationship between the two have made TVNZ much more circumspect about its criticism of the pay-TV giant and its growth.

TVNZ's shift to pay TV started with TVNZ Heartland, then the closure of TVNZ 6 to become Kidzone on Sky.

Chief executive Rick Ellis calls its approach to Sky "co-opetition" and says there is still competition in some aspects, such as advertising sales.

But, in my opinion, in an unregulated market co-opetition could morph into collusion and should be openly debated.

That is the way such a change to competition and cultural issues would be in an industrialised democracy.

PLAN? WHAT PLAN?

Sky TV has been relatively open giving its view on why it should not be regulated but TVNZ has been extraordinarily secretive.

Sky is in such good favour with National it is under no threat, and TVNZ equity might diminish public scrutiny on its growing dominance of TV.

Meanwhile, TVNZ has been focused on profit at all costs. TV advertising revenue is under pressure from extra channels, so focusing on Freeview and free-to-air makes no sense.

Pay TV subscriptions offer a new source of revenue, and channels can often be made up with low-cost repeats of shows.

Coincidentally, the biggest threat to TVNZ revenue is Sky buying MediaWorks, an outcome that is less likely with Sky and TVNZ in a joint venture.

The Government is the silent partner in these developments, but it will have been made aware of the moves.

TVNZ's approach is built on its wilful refusal to contemplate regulation of the pay TV industry or scrutiny, and the scrapping of TVNZ7.

Nobody would say that the restructuring of broadcasting is going according to Government plans. That is because, as National proudly admits, there is no plan beyond leaving it to the market.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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