As predicted in this column last week, the Government has ended its eight-year funding freeze on Radio NZ.

Yesterday's Budget revealed that the state radio broadcaster, which has been stuck on a budget of about $35 million since 2008, will get an extra $11.4m over the next four years.

So ends a sorry chapter in the political oversight of public broadcasting - an era that has coincided with a wider crisis in media.

In my view, the long freeze was due to hubris in a Government with strong ties to the private broadcasting sector, and sceptical about the value of public radio.


Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, RNZ has been dismissed as "Radio Labour" or "Red Radio".

Its salvation appears to lie in its policy of giving some content to private sector media companies at low cost. This way, National can support public radio and end the freeze.

Punitive move?

Why did National put RNZ through the wringer? To me, the situation sums up why campaigners to save journalism should be wary about calling for government funding.

There may be a lesson in the controversy over Cabinet Minister Alfred Ngaro, and his unfortunate comments about critics of National Party policy.

Rewind to a National Party northern regional conference two weeks ago, and you may remember Ngaro criticising Labour candidate (and broadcaster) Willie Jackson, suggesting his Manukau Urban Maori Authority could miss out on funding if Jackson "bagged" National on the campaign trail.

It was quite astonishing.

Ngaro has since apologised to the Cabinet, and an embarrassed National Party leadership quickly said Ngaro's comments did not reflect the way the Government dealt with community groups.

But in my view, you have to wonder whether this sort of attitude was behind the funding freeze at RNZ, which had run some tough criticism of National. At one time it was hard to get ministers to appear on its shows.


Now, RNZ is selling assets and (not a bad thing) delivering content cheaply to the private sector. National has found a way it can cope with public radio.

A step too far

Newshub political editor Paddy Gower took Ngaro to task this week, over comments that the media had "manufactured" the housing crisis.

Ngaro's comments on media were almost as cack-handed as his earlier warning to critics of the Government, and Gower was right to challenge him.

Alas, Gower's interrogation of the Minister lost credibility when he asked repeatedly whether Ngaro would "apologise to the media" for the slur.

This was surely a step too far. Demands for apologies are a sad ploy from journalists and activists.

Election spending

Ipsos New Zealand market research director Jonathan Dodd says the extension of taxpayer-funded advertising to online media, plus the rapid growth of private social media, are likely to have a big effect on media spending for the 2017 election campaign.

The other factor is a Court of Appeal decision that makes it legal for individuals or pressure groups to run partisan commercials.

Social media spending offers the opportunity for messages to be shared and magnified. But Dodd warns that some politicians may overestimate the positive impact.

Candidates would need to make a clear separation between their professional and personal social media profiles, and almost curtail their personal roles, Dodd said.

One factor in political marketing is the so-called "post-truth world", where people no longer believe what they see and hear in the news media.

Dodd believes this effect may not be as pervasive in New Zealand as it has been in the US.

New Zealand mainstream media are "refreshingly balanced" in their coverage, he says. New Zealand is such a small market that media had to aim at a wide audience, not just a niche.

"In New Zealand, mainstream media have been able to hold on to more trust."

'Peak time' for PR

The Budget has set the election campaign alight. According to a well-placed PR source, lobbyists and PR folk will now be working hard to convince clients that this is the time they can get something out of lobbying -- or at least, that they can't afford not to try.

How much lobbyists and PR people have any impact on policy after the election is another question, it seems.

A sophisticated lobbying system is a relatively new phenomenon in this country, and has grown with MMP, I am told. Most lobbyists cultivate either National or Labour, but peripheral parties get a lot of attention about now, according to my PR source.

These days, even a minor party has the potential to influence policy, and can be worth lobbying.

"Now is the peak time," the PR insider said. "Whoever is in the race will be getting approaches like crazy from PR right now."