Of all of the sensible and silly funding decisions of this year's Budget, one of the most egregious examples of tone-deaf funding and policy making must surely be the $327 million over three years allocated to the proposed merger of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand.
This massive amount at a time when spending restraint should be the order of the day and when government really should be running a hard ruler over any additional spending.
The problem with the proposed merger of our two state-owned broadcasters is that present costs don't appear to lead to much future benefit. This is a merger whose benefits have never been fully and clearly explained to the public. Certainly not in such a way that public benefit might be understood. The public seeks a plurality of properly funded, competent media voices that demonstrate diversity of ideas and of expression. Just how a merger of two of our state-owned media outlets is going to achieve that outcome has never been properly explained.
Instead, a supposedly commercially driven TV network is going to be tacked together with a purportedly non-commercial radio network with some combined online properties to create something better as a whole than was previously the case in parts.
Given the lack of a compelling case, it would have been hard to understand the benefit of spending $327m of the taxpayer's hard-earned money at any time, let alone now. The new entity will have uncertain commercial imperatives and will potentially lead to further distortions and arguably unfair competition against private sector media outlets, who are already facing the most challenging times they have ever faced.
The Government would do a far better job by going back to first principles and trying to persuade others why this proposed merger is such a good idea, putting the interests of the public and media consumers at the core.
What we need in New Zealand is a healthy, vibrant, diverse and challenging set of media voices. This is all the more important given the background of rapidly declining trust in media and the deeply concerning emergence of fake news and disinformation that we saw during the Parliamentary protests and throughout the pandemic.
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The Government needs to ask itself whether or not this kind of merger is going to improve that situation. Frankly, it's hard to see how.
Finally, this level of spend at this time given the huge challenges faced by private sector media in New Zealand seems tone deaf at best.
The Government should pause, regroup and get the public on board with what they are really trying to do. They could start by explaining how this would lead to a better media landscape than we have today and why the proposed changes are so urgent that we need to spend $327m in the next three years to get us there.
• Phil O'Reilly is the managing director of Iron Duke Partners, and a global business leader and advocate.