NZ on Air to stop docos in election lead-up

By Claire Trevett, Herald Online staff

Bryan Bruce's documentary on child poverty was aired just four days before the general election. Photo / Supplied
Bryan Bruce's documentary on child poverty was aired just four days before the general election. Photo / Supplied

NZ on Air wants to stop broadcasters screening documentaries on political issues in the lead-up to an election - a break from its usual hands-off approach which its chairman says is important for its reputation.

The broadcasting funding agency has obtained legal advice on whether it can include a condition for broadcasters "not to screen programmes discussing topics likely to be an election issue" before an election.

The measure was revealed under Official Information Act material requested by Tom Frewen for the Scoop website.

The suggestion has been described by commentators as "heavy-handed" and worrying.

The step was prompted by TV3 screening a child poverty documentary four days before the November election. NZ on Air had provided $105,400 for the Inside Child Poverty programme by Bryan Bruce.

Board chairman Neil Walter said yesterday NZ on Air did not shirk from funding controversial programmes, but had to safeguard its own reputation. He said child poverty was a major election issue, and there was a risk the programme would influence voting.

"We are, on one hand, anxious to safeguard our reputation for political impartiality, and in our view that was put at risk by the decision to schedule that documentary just four days out from a general election. On the other hand, we are very careful not to interfere in the editorial content of programmes. Our legislation bars us from doing that."

Mr Bruce told Radio New Zealand TV3's decision to broadcast the documentary three days out from the election was appropriate.

He condemned any efforts to dictate when programmes can be aired.

"I think we are on very dangerous ground if New Zealand on Air takes the view that some people ought not to be heard because it would be inconvenient or embarrassing or it might actually just make people think in a different way. I think that would be not just sad but quite dangerous, we would be on a slippery slope to a very controlled environment."

Media law barrister Stephen Price said a blanket clause preventing "election issues" was too broad and seemed heavy-handed.

"It's much better if they just leave it up to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The broadcasters already have an obligation to be fair and balanced and they know they have to be on their toes close to an election."

Labour's broadcasting spokeswoman, Clare Curran, said a formal clause preventing election issue programmes was "a knee-jerk reaction" which set a concerning precedent.

She questioned whether the step was prompted by NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea - a National Party officeholder - who was the first to voice concern about the documentary.

Yesterday Mr McElrea would not comment, saying it was policy for the board chairman to do so. Mr Walter said he had full confidence in Mr McElrea.

TV3 would not comment yesterday, although in the documents Mr Walter said the broadcaster had "expressed its regret for having put us into this situation and has assured us there will be no repeat of the problem".

The documents show NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson wrote to TV3 just before the screening, saying she was "deeply disappointed" at the timing of the programme.

"We feel that this risks damaging NZ on Air's reputation and calls into question our political impartiality," she said in her letter.

At the request of the board, Ms Wrightson also wrote to TV3 in late December to find a way to prevent a similar thing happening again.

- NZ Herald

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