Editorial: Excuses ring hollow over TVNZ promo

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Poor judgment by all involved has led to the screening of a Television New Zealand promotional advertisement featuring the Finance Minister, Bill English. Both the state broadcaster and the minister seem blind to the blurring of all sorts of boundaries.

The Labour Party is piqued, saying the 45-second promo looks and sounds like a party political broadcast. Its annoyance is understandable. TVNZ's belated advice last night that the English advert would end this weekend was small consolation. The company still maintains it is in the right and rejects Labour's criticisms.

National would have been similarly agitated if Michael Cullen had been given the same opportunity as a consequence of what Cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee fatuously refers to as "good luck".

The promo's aim is to draw attention to a series of economy-focused programmes on Freeview Channel TVNZ 7. It is possible that in using Mr English, the broadcaster was deliberately courting controversy. Such programmes on tiny channels need all the help they can get to attract an audience. But whatever the motivation, TVNZ has provided no credible response to the issues raised by its approach. Nor, indeed, has Mr English justified his involvement.

Labour's finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, has questioned whether it is appropriate for the state broadcaster to use one of its shareholding ministers in what amounted to a party political broadcast, and whether Mr English should have agreed to be involved, given the need for ministers to adhere to strict conflict-of-interest rules. These issues would not arise if the promo was for TV3 or another privately-owned station. Mr English must have seen TVNZ's invitation to free air time funded from its budget - complete with the right to adjust the script - as far too good a chance to turn down. But if he had considered how the boot would look on the other foot, he would surely have turned down the opportunity.

Of more concern is TVNZ's failure to arm the promo with balance. There would be far less objection and far less of a political taint if other parties had been given the chance to talk about the economy. TVNZ's explanation that "we are not within an election time-frame, so there isn't a requirement on us to give equal time to specific parties" neglects any mention of fairness and equity.

Just as lamely, it has defended the promo as a product of the creative minds in its promotions department, a status that apparently makes it immune from other considerations. There was, said a spokeswoman, a clear delineation between news and promotions, and Mr English's promo had "nothing to do with news and current affairs". Yet the promotion is for a current affairs programme. In such circumstances, it is disingenuous to suggest a Chinese walls-style purity of purpose.

Sadly, the inept thinking does not end there. TVNZ also insinuates that the average viewer may not be concerned about the niceties raised by Labour. "Those people may not care about the other politicians and the time they have on television," the spokeswoman said. Maybe so. But the public television company is in no position to disregard subtleties such as editorial balance, no matter the mindset of its viewers.

Clearly, in the interests of creating an audience, it might have been tempting to promote a programme aimed at demystifying the economy with just one voice, that of the Finance Minister. But doing so confuses making the subject easier to understand with arrant simplification. The economy is never that simple, and there are always a variety of views. Fortunately, the programme will feature a debate between Mr English, Mr Cunliffe and Sir Roger Douglas. If sound judgment and fairness had been exercised, their voices would have been prominent from the first promo to the closing credits.

- NZ Herald

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