The state agency that provides taxpayers' money to television producers, NZ On Air, has been embarrassed by a documentary it funded on child poverty because it was screened by TV3 just four days before the election.
It wants to "safeguard our reputation for political impartiality" by making it a condition of future funding that programmes on subjects likely to be an election issue must not be shown in the lead-up to an election.
This is an extraordinary admission of the standards, or lack of them, in NZ On Air's funding criteria. If a documentary on any serious issue is not fair, balanced and politically impartial, it does not deserve public finance at any time, let alone election time. If it does meet those tests it can be screened at any time, and particularly during an election if it covers a topic at issue.
Perhaps it is only at election time that the board of NZ On Air is sensitive to the objective standards of documentaries it has agreed to fund. If so, it should use its embarrassment this time as a cue to improve its scrutiny of all applications.
Taxpayers are sometimes surprised at the quality and character of the fare they have been obliged to pay for. It has been an outrageous fortune for some.
When it comes to serious journalism a public funding agency is in an awkward position. It has been set up to provide programmes that are unlikely to attract a sufficient audience to pay for themselves through advertising. NZ On Air's first stated objective is to "support content valued by different New Zealand audiences" and its second is to "promote diversity in ideas". When these principles are applied to documentaries they could permit tendentious research and political polemic. Anything might be approved in the name of minority interest and diverse ideas.
The board of NZ On Air says that in accord with its legislation it wants to avoid making editorial decisions on funding applications for documentaries, leaving those to the radio and television channels that support the applications. But the board must have some way of assessing the likely quality of a production when it makes a decision to fund it, and surely it does not look at technical criteria alone.
Of course, even with the most careful checks for prejudice on the part of the applicant or bias in the documentary's intended approach, the funder could be embarrassed by the result. But it should be embarrassed when that happens at any time, not just before elections.
The agency's reputation is at risk because, whatever the quality of the final product, it tends to blare that this programme was brought to you with the help of NZ On Air.
In many cases it might like to remove its imprimatur but taxpayers have a right to insist that it owns up for everything they have been obliged to finance. Perhaps the agency could tone down its credit on the end of programmes that cause it remorse, or attach a standard disclaimer dissociating itself from any views expressed.
Anything would be preferable to an admission that it has funded material unsuitable for screening before an election. The board chairman, Neil Walter, says it does not shirk from screening controversial programmes but has to safeguard its own reputation. Imagine if media in the private sector took the same attitude to political controversy.
NZ On Air has made itself a brand for public broadcasting. Its reputation and public acceptance ride on the quality of its results and it cannot duck that test in the weeks before an election.
Whenever it assesses a documentary application it should ask itself whether it could be screened in election week. Controversy does no harm if the work is done well.