John Drinnan: NZ on Air digs itself deep

NZ on Air sent a letter to TV3 to complain about the documentary. Photo / Supplied
NZ on Air sent a letter to TV3 to complain about the documentary. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand On Air has dug itself in deep over allegations it is open to political intervention with Stephen McElrea taking a role in documentaries about social issues.

The National Party official and NZ on Air board member who complained about the timing of Bryan Bruce's child poverty documentary has a key role choosing projects, including three issues-based documentaries with a political bent for TV3.

The three upcoming documentaries will look at social welfare, law and order and health and are expected to screen in the second half of 2012.

Last year McElrea was appointed onto a committee to fast-track what projects get Government cash, though it is not clear whether the appointment was before or after the row. The issue about the Bryan Bruce documentary was raised on on December 16.

NZ On Air - which has been at the centre of controversy over its complaints - sent TV3 a "strict and stern'' letter complaining about the documentary, which it said the funder should not have screened days before the election.

McElrea, who is a chairman of the northern region of the National Party and chairman of Prime Minister John Key's Helensville electorate raised the issue with the board.

Concerns were picked up by chairman Neil Walter who said NZ On Air coveted its political neutrality. But the intervention by the NZ On Air board - which is seeking legal advice on extra powers to restrict timing for programmes - has been over the top and had the opposite effect.

It has raised questions about the degree the organisation is scared of offending politicians.

The appointment of McElrea - with has strong political connections - as gatekeeper for political documentaries is a surprising lapse from Walter, who is expected to resign early due to ill health.

Rather than abiding by political neutrality NZ On air has ignored a perceived conflict of interest over allocation of public money.

It is understood that Prime Minister John Key strongly supported McElrea's appointment to the funding committee in 2009. McElrea is a former executive at TVNZ but was not involved in documentary making or news.

As a member of New Zealand On Air he also has a say in the allocation to current affairs shows Q & A and The Nation. NZ on Air cut funding to The Nation last year - a decision that led to Sean Plunket losing his interviewer job.

Acting chairwoman of The Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand, Janette Howe said: "We have a lot of members putting pressure on us to ask Stephen McElrea to resign. His actions have shown poor judgment and there are real concerns that as he leads a documentary working group responsible for selecting titles within strands that he will bring his political hat to the table in this role.''

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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