NZ on Air comes under fire

By Amelia Romanos

NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea was accused of political bias after he questioned an Inside Child Poverty documentary screening days before the election. File photo / NZ Herald
NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea was accused of political bias after he questioned an Inside Child Poverty documentary screening days before the election. File photo / NZ Herald

New Zealand on Air bosses faced intense questioning at Parliament today as Labour MPs continued to grill them over potential conflicts of interest in the organisation.

NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea, who is also the electorate chairman for Prime Minister John Key, was accused of political bias earlier this year after he questioned an Inside Child Poverty documentary screening days before the election.

The issue was the subject of heated debate when chief executive Jane Wrightson and acting chairwoman Nicole Hoey appeared before a parliamentary commerce committee today, with Labour MPs taking the opportunity to air concerns.

Labour broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said Mr McElrea's situation raised questions about whether other conflict of interest problems might exist at NZ on Air.

The MP specifically objected to another case concerning a newly commissioned programme on the whanau ora scheme, which Mr McElrea had not declared a conflict of interest over.

"These decisions were made during an election year, on a government policy that was controversial, remains controversial, and has been the subject of much debate," she said.

Fellow Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove said that as a National Party member, Mr McElrea had a bias where government policy was concerned.

"I would presume a person in Mr McElrea's position may be quite disposed to a programme that was positive about a government policy, and maybe less disposed to a programme that was somehow negative about the government policy ... that's an absolute conflict of interest," he said.

"In order to protect the credibility and integrity of Mr McElrea, the Prime Minister, and more importantly your organisation, that should have been declared and more especially the other board members should have had foresight to raise the issue."

Ms Wrightson disagreed, saying she did not think there was a conflict of interest because the content of the documentary was not known when the decision to fund it was made.

She argued that NZ on Air was an autonomous Crown entity and did not care what the politics of the day were.

"We are trying to make opportunities for documentary makers to make documentary stories. We don't care what angle they take as long as they're well made documentaries."

Ms Hoey also defended the neutrality of the board, saying Mr McElrea was just one of six members making decisions.

"I think that over 20 years we have had board members with almost every range of political view you could imagine around the table."

Labour also took issue with Ms Hoey's appointment as chairwoman given that she was also the owner of television production company Cinco Cine, which has received NZ on Air funding.

Ms Hoey said her appointment was appropriate given her length of time serving as a board member, and that she always complied with the"extremely strong and robust conflict of interest rules" at NZ on Air.

- APNZ

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