There was a fair amount of enthusiasm and optimism several years ago when the Government announced a restructure designed to boost public broadcasting. Many hoped it might result in a BBC-like, non-commercial public media organisation that operated on multiple platforms.
Labour's goals made a lot of sense, and the National Party complaints that Labour was trying to fix something that wasn't broken didn't resonate. After decades of RNZ being underfunded, with TVNZ and NZ On Air operating an experimental public broadcasting model that produced ever-worsening commercial television, Labour looked set to bolster democracy with this reform.
But that was 2017, when the idea of a transformational Labour Government still had currency. After years of corporate consultancy reports and working groups, the result of the public media investigations were announced last week and effectively killed off the dream of a cohesive and comprehensive non-commercial public broadcasting media organisation.
What we are going to get is a mish-mash of RNZ and TVNZ, where the two will be initially brought under an umbrella company, and possibly amalgamated under one brand in the future. Funding isn't likely to change, with a commercial imperative remaining, especially for television, and likely for the new online future media services.
This once in a lifetime opportunity to reverse decades of underfunding and a neoliberal media model has been squandered, and the Government has gone for an extremely compromised and moderate project, which could end up worse than the current situation.
"Is that it?" was the response of most commentators, experts and insiders to Thursday's announcement. This wasn't helped by the Minister of Broadcasting and Media refusing to answer basic questions from journalists about the future of the organisation.
Faafoi employed a neat trick – replying that questions about the shape of the new RNZ-TVNZ merger would be left for the Establishment Board (whose personnel has apparently been chosen, but Faafoi is leaving that announcement until next month).
Questions about core issues – such as whether the new merged digital platform will be commercial-free – were deemed to be for the appointed bureaucrats, not for the minister accountable.
Despite all the missing detail, there are a few disturbing things we can now be certain about. First, government funding for the new broadcaster will be entirely inadequate. Although public broadcasting advocates have long asked for a fully-funded radio and TV service, and Labour have made noises about wanting this, the Government won't put their money where its mouth is. A proper commercial-free public broadcaster might cost $150m a year – three times the current cost – but that's beyond what Labour are willing to fund.
What's more, annual funding for the new organisation will be decided by the finance minister of the day, competing against all other government priorities, making this core part of the media vulnerable to the agendas of politicians. This has led to some raising the strong possibility of political interference in the broadcaster.
Second, the model will be a hybrid, in which the television side will continue to be reliant on advertising and audience ratings, and RNZ will remain ad-free. Although there are some similar broadcasting models elsewhere in the world, it's a fraught and contradictory model for a public broadcaster – to exist as both "for the public good", and at the same time make money from commercials.
Third, the emphasis of the new organisation will be the push to digital – recognising quite rightly that online platforms will eventually take over linear radio and television broadcast components of the service. But although a commitment has been made to keep RNZ commercial-free, the digital element of the public company is likely to involve commercial advertising.
RNZ's boss Paul Thompson has been reported as saying, "RNZ could be involved in producing commercial digital content". Unsurprising the watchdog campaigner for RNZ, the Better Public Media Trust, has responded with alarm about the "gradual weakening" of the non-commercial element of public media under the new model. The worry is that the TVNZ model and culture will become dominant, instead of the traditional RNZ ethos.
And there are things missing from the new model. Whatever happened to the promised non-commercial youth music radio network? It's been "parked" of course (to use the current language of Labour about transformative policies).
Of course, last week's politically centrist and unsatisfactory announcement is unsurprising – it aligns with the Government's approach to other reforms in housing, inequality, climate change, transport, and so forth.
Faafoi has a huge workload, and he was made responsible for key issues on the basis that he is a "safe pair of hands". Yet he is failing in them all. As Justice Minister he has bungled reforms on hate speech, not even being able to explain them to the public, and his electoral law reforms seem muddled. On immigration, his promised "reset" has been widely panned.
A few months ago, the Herald's Audrey Young updated her regular ratings of Cabinet Ministers, downgrading Faafoi's previous 7/10 rating to just 5/10, saying the minister had "gone from a star performer in the first term to a bit of a worry in the second term".
Similarly, two months earlier, the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan reported on the annual Mood of the Boardroom survey to say that "Faafoi has lost reputational footing with CEOs". In 2020 he had been the highest rating minister on 3.58/5, but in 2021 plummeted to a 2.17/5 rating. One CEO said "Faafoi in Immigration is an absolute disaster", with another stating "If there was a score lower than 1, I would give it to Faafoi."
Amongst journalists – and of course, Faafoi used to be one himself – the Minister had become known as "missing in action" for generally refusing to do interviews about his portfolio issues. The explanation amongst journalists was that he had given up his electorate to be a list MP, moved to the Wairarapa for a slower life, and no longer really wanted to be a Cabinet Minister.
If this is the case, how much confidence can the public have in what he's doing?
The question of "Why fix something that isn't broken?", is actually now becoming more compelling, especially once the public learns that the new model might be even worse than the current one.
Perhaps it's time for a campaign to save RNZ and public broadcasting.