Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson would do well to heed the advice of Adrian Orr and cool his jets after this morning’s trainwreck interview on TVNZ’s Q+A with Jack Tame.
The interview went awry quickly, and for a number of reasons.
Jackson was derailed early on after equivocating on details of who would benefit from the Government’s new collective bargaining scheme for media companies.
That was quite unfortunate for him, given the point of announcing a policy on a weekend politics show is to give yourself a few minutes to advertise what a great job you’re doing.
But it was Jackson’s bizarre and worrying comments about the independence of the new merged TVNZ-RNZ media company that raised eyebrows in the industry.
To recap, the media is struggling with the perception of independence following the $55 million public interest journalism fund. This problem has bled into the proposal to merge TVNZ and RNZ because the proposal is for the merged entity to take the form of an “autonomous Crown entity”, which still provides for a level of ministerial control. This will give the new entity less independence than both organisations have currently as Crown entity companies.
Tame probed this - an essential question. The merger would be an utter waste of time and money (particularly during an inflationary crisis) if the public fails to trust it.
Jackson defended the proposal, saying the Government would have a “hands off” approach to running the new entity.
But as the interview went on, Jackson could not resist taking a very “hands on” approach with TVNZ and its role as the broadcaster of Tame’s show. He made repeated and awkward insinuations about Tame’s relationship with his company, and the broadcaster of Q+A, an organisation Jackson is responsible for as broadcasting minister.
Answering questions about why the establishment board appeared to be excessively secretive, Jackson told Tame “you’ve” - meaning Tame and TVNZ - “got representatives on the establishment board”.
This entirely missed the point.
The fact that Tame’s employer had representatives on the establishment board is neither here nor there. The question isn’t why Tame doesn’t sneakily rinse his colleagues for insider gossip on the merger, it’s why doesn’t the Government and the board deliver greater transparency for everyone.
To questions about why the Government refused to release an unredacted version of the heavily-redacted business case to the opposition, Jackson said it was because TVNZ’s commercial arm didn’t want to.
That’s a perfectly fair answer, but Jackson didn’t treat it this way. Jackson turned the answer back on Tame.
“Your people don’t want some of their accounts seen,” Jackson said.
Again, Tame’s relationship with TVNZ’s commercial bosses and the Government is neither here nor there in the context of an interview. Instead of answering the substance of the question, Jackson deflected by making a bizarre insinuation that Tame should be looking out for his own company’s interests - if TVNZ didn’t want the figures given to National, then Tame should be satisfied with that.
That’s not the way it works.
When an interviewer is in the chair - if independence means anything - they’re acting on behalf of the public, not their organisation. If TVNZ doesn’t want the unredacted business case to be given to National, well, that’s a problem for them, not their journalist.
This wasn’t the only strange remark made by Jackson. He referred to TVNZ’s chief executive, Simon Power as “your [Tame’s] CEO”, an inappropriate reminder of the awkward relationship between editorially independent journalist, employer, and the Government. He then made a crack at Tame referring to “your friends in National” (clearly Jackson hadn’t tuned in for Tame’s 1-on-1 with Christopher Luxon last week).
The remark was equally strange seeing as Jackson is understood to be currently trying to put a former National leader, Simon Bridges, onto the new entity’s board, suggesting that if anyone has friends in National, it’s not Tame.
He then decided to give Tame tips on how to conduct a good interview.
“You’re doing such a negative interview today - I’m very disappointed in you,” Jackson said.
Jackson, as the co-author of one of New Zealand’s worst ever broadcast interviews (a bizarre grilling of a friend of an alleged victim of the Roast Busters group), is in no position to be dispensing tips on tradecraft, but nevertheless felt himself qualified to do so.
“You’re hammering every part of this entity,” Jackson complained - and of course Tame was - that’s the whole point. Heaven forbid the new entity prohibits its employees from “hammering” it.
The interview culminated in a bizarre series of remarks when Jackson was pressed on whether the legislation to create the entity would get passed before the election.
Speaking about public support for the reforms, Jackson said that, “people like you” meaning Tame, were “of course … a bit disappointing” for not backing the bill - as if it were Tame’s job to support the Government’s current broadcasting policy.
He doubled down, when speaking to fears the legislation would not pass before the election.
“If you keep doing negative interviews like this, you won’t help Jack,” Jackson said.
It was a joke of course, but a highly inappropriate one, on top of the other unusual remarks he had made about TVNZ’s independence.
It’s not Tame’s job to help or hinder the entity, it’s to probe why the Government is doing what it’s doing - Jackson’s repeated bizarre insinuations about editorial independence left viewers none the wiser on this point and raised serious questions about whether he had the capability to be the minister of the entity he is so keen on creating.
There are arguments to be made in favour of the new public media entity, some of which point out flaws in the current model. One of the best was made in an indirect way by The Spinoff’s media podcast, The Fold, in which host Duncan Greive and comedian Chris Parker revived the scandal of TVNZ turning down a pitch from The Flight of the Conchords - a new public media entity should be a better nurturer of New Zealand drama and comedy talent than TVNZ has been. The ridiculous thing about this argument, however, is it that it isn’t being made by a minister.
The most bizarre thing about this is that the interview was a good example of why many argue the expensive merger isn’t needed at all. Q+A receives funding from the taxpayer and airs on a government-owned network and yet this morning, Tame showed no compunction at grilling not just a minister, but the minister responsible for his company (Q+A’s competitor, Newshub Nation, also taxpayer funded, but running on a private network, is equally unforgiving).
The show is impartial - last week’s extended interview with Luxon made uncomfortable viewing for anyone thinking Luxon could talk his way to victory next year.
Impartiality is healthy in our publicly-owned media. RNZ’s coverage of the demise of former broadcasting minister Clare Curran was as hard-edged as any, despite her delivering funding increases to the organisation, which had been in a freeze for most of the previous government.
Likewise, TVNZ’s newsroom’s coverage of the Kamahl Santamaria scandal was exemplary, despite the incredibly close proximity of those reporters to the people involved.
Public media must bite the hand that feeds - this morning, Tame devoured Jackson whole. If the new entity can’t deliver equal levels of impartiality, viewers and listeners might be tempted to sate their appetite for accountability elsewhere.