Sue Kedgley: Make Radio NZ an election issue

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Government aversion to public service broadcasting has left important and popular station just hanging on.

Guyon Espiner, who takes up the Morning Report reins tomorrow, won't have to worry about ad breaks at Radio New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Guyon Espiner, who takes up the Morning Report reins tomorrow, won't have to worry about ad breaks at Radio New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Conservative governments all over the world seem to dislike public service broadcasting. George Bush targeted public service broadcasting; John Howard made attacking the Australian Broadcasting Corporation a regular sport, and now Tony Abbott has launched an all-out assault on the ABC, accusing it of being unpatriotic, and threatening to cut its funding.

Here in New Zealand, our own conservative Government seems to have a similar aversion to public service broadcasting. As soon as it took office six years ago, it stripped TVNZ of its public service mandate, leaving it as a nakedly commercial broadcaster; ditched two public service television channels, TV6 and 7, and froze Radio New Zealand's funding indefinitely.

The Minister of Broadcasting, Jonathan Coleman, also demanded that the Radio New Zealand Board "change its mindset", explore other revenue streams and more commercial models of funding such as sponsorship.

The Government's aversion to public service broadcasting reflects its suspicion that public service broadcasters harbour some secret left-wing bias. Why should the state fund a broadcaster that is often critical of its political agenda, you can hear them arguing, and anyway, why shouldn't radio be left to commercial broadcasters, and the free market, to provide?

The Government clearly doesn't buy the argument that it's important, for a healthy democracy, that there are some independent broadcasters left whose sole mandate is to serve the public interest, not commercial interests; who are not beholden to advertisers or sponsors, and who can hold corporations and governments to account without fear or favour. Nor does it seem to accept that an independent and impartial news and current affairs service is a crucial part of any democracy, and a powerful check on government and corporate power alike.

But the truth is that it's hard to get quality broadcasting in a commercial environment, as Brian Edwards pointed out some years ago, because the saturation level of advertising that's required to keep a commercial radio station viable makes in-depth coverage of complex social and political issues almost impossible. There's no room for extended interviews and in-depth discussions of complex ideas, which are the daily fare of Radio New Zealand.

You need only listen to current affairs on commercial radio to see how true this is. The constant refrain of Larry Williams and Duncan Garner, is "sorry, we've run out of time. We've got to go to an advertising break."

It's inevitable, too, that if a broadcaster is reliant on advertisers and sponsors it will become, in some sense, beholden to them, and this will compromise its editorial independence somewhere down the line. I mean, realistically, you cannot get stuck into a sponsor.

That's why it's so important that we have at least one non-commercial broadcaster left, with an exclusive mandate to serve the public interest, not commercial interests, and why it shouldn't be allowed to wither on the vine as a result of its frozen budget.

The problem for Radio NZ is how long can it survive with its funding frozen, especially when an independent audit of the organisation, in 2007, found that it was under-funded by about $7 million a year, under-staffed and under-resourced.

So far Radio NZ has soldiered on stoically, and coped with its shrunken budget by selling off some land in Auckland, giving staff minimal pay increases, making internal savings, and selling two grand pianos. And it has managed, so far, to retain a loyal audience of about 500,000 listeners, at a time when radio audiences are slowly declining.

Chief executive Paul Thompson said that as well as refreshing its radio interviewers, Radio NZ needs to expand into other digital platforms and make other innovations if it is to survive and compete with new digital media.

This sort of expansion costs money - something Radio NZ can't access when its funding is shrinking by the year. Thompson acknowledged that advertising would kill Radio NZ, and its trusted brand, and he said that it wouldn't commercialise its existing services.

Clearly, as the Government keeps the screws on Radio NZ, there's not much it can do except tough it out, and hope the funding freeze will end some time soon.

So perhaps it's time to make the future of Radio NZ, and public service broadcasting generally, an election issue.

If Radio NZ's half a million loyal listeners made it plain that they would vote only for a party that was committed to adequately funding it, perhaps the Government would sit up and listen.

- NZ Herald

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