The new Government’s first week in office has been overshadowed by a “war” between the Deputy Prime Minister and the news media, which Peters erroneously claims were bribed by the former Government.
While the wider debate grew out of a residual anxiety over the terms of the Covid-era Public Interest-Journalism Fund, this week’s row stemmed from another policy of the new Government: Restoring the primacy of public-sector departments’ English language names.
When asked about reducing te reo Māori in the public sector, Peters turned on the press pack and blasted: “Well, we’ll see the speed with which TVNZ and RNZ, which are taxpayer-owned, understand this new message”.
Interestingly, those two public broadcasters already tend to use English names before their Māori names, although both use te reo Māori on air.
Peters was reminded both organisations were editorially independent and could make their own editorial decisions.
“Well, isn’t that fascinating. I’ve never seen the evidence of that in the last three years … you cannot defend $55 million of bribery,” Peters said.
There are layers of irony to this row, but Peters has a shred of a point about te reo Māori and editorial independence. RNZ is not completely free when it comes to the use of te reo Māori on air. Its charter requires it to use the language.
The charter sets out RNZ’s purpose as an “independent public service broadcaster” and makes it clear that its news reporting is “independent” and that the organisation must uphold freedom of “thought and expression”.
However, in achieving that end, the charter also notes that RNZ must “reflect New Zealand’s cultural identity, including Māori language and culture”.
So in using te reo Māori on air RNZ is not so much kowtowing to the cultural preferences of one Government or another as it is following the law — RNZ’s charter is embedded in its governing legislation, the Radio New Zealand Act 1995.
Peters knows this.
He and his NZ First Party supported the creation of the charter, including its clause about the reflection of Māori language and culture, which has been included in the charter since it was first drafted in 1995.
Peters told the Herald he has been consistent since 1995 and his criticism about Māori language use on air is more to do with quantity.
“When it comes to the question of comprehension ... up to 95 per cent can’t understand what’s being presented to them. I object because that was never the purpose,” Peters said.
The RNZ charter is a legislative accident that owes its existence to the fractious political environment brought about by the creation of MMP.
Until the 1990s, Radio New Zealand owned not just the RNZ National (Then National Radio) and Concert stations as we recognise them today, but a host of commercial radio too. The National Government of the time introduced legislation that would split the public broadcaster Radio New Zealand, from the commercial radio stations, which would be privatised.
The bill as introduced included a clause saying the new organisation would produce programmes that would promote “Māori language and Māori culture”.
The bill passed its first reading with just National support. Peters voted against the bill at first reading because he saw it as an effort to privatise RNZ’s commercial stations. He spent most of his speech attacking his former colleagues in the National Party, including the then-Foreign Minister Don McKinnon (they’ve since made amends, McKinnon famously interrupted Peters’ trolling of Simon Bridges during the Jami-Lee Ross scandal by calling him when he was trying to play the song Burning Bridges on his mobile).
McKinnon interjected, calling Peters a “born loser”. Peters shot back arguing that McKinnon was a loser for forgetting that the United States was a Nato member (this seems to refer to remarks McKinnon had made about Nato’s involvement in the Bosnian war).
The bill was introduced in May 1995.
In June, chaos engulfed the Government, when a new party was formed: United. The party was born of mainly former National MPs. United propped up the National Government on confidence and supply, but it extracted a heavy price in terms of legislative concessions.
One such concession was the Radio New Zealand Bill.
A contemporaneous RNZ bill by Labour member Steve Maharey was also in Parliament. Having been introduced by an Opposition MP, it would have been destined to failure, but for the creation of United.
United had said it would support the Government’s bill. However, at the select committee, the party decided it would not back privatisation unless the new public broadcaster were governed by a charter along the lines Maharey had proposed.
The committee consented, reporting back to Parliament with a recommendation the bill be split in two: The first bill created a new structure Radio New Zealand, to be governed under a charter. The second bill split the organisation and allowed the commercial assets to be privatised.
The privatisation passed with opposition. The charter bill, however, passed with unanimous support — including the support of Peters and NZ First. The Māori language provisions in the original legislation were moved into the charter, where they have remained.
Despite the current angst about RNZ’s alleged wokeness the original legislation governing the broadcaster was far more forward-leaning on Māori-related issues than RNZ’s current legislation.
It included a section outside the charter on Māori employment, which required the organisation to recognise the “aims and aspirations of Māori; and the employment requirements of Māori; and the need for involvement of Māori as employees of the public radio company”.
That section was taken out of the legislation in the mid-2000s. RNZ has struggled with retaining Māori talent, a struggle that burst into the open this year when high-profile star Māni Dunlop left the organisation and her then-partner, Kiri Allan, criticised the company for its approach to Māori staff.
The legislation asks that the House review the charter every five years, a deadline that appears to rarely have been met. As the charter is written into RNZ’s legislation, changes to it must pass through the House as amendment bills.
In 2003, the House got around to reviewing the charter. Since 1995, the 2003 review led to the only charter update not to have been passed unanimously.
The Helen Clark Labour Government, with Maharey now Broadcasting Minister, sought to insert a clause requiring RNZ to have regard to New Zealanders’ “spiritual” and “ethical” needs.
“New Zealanders... do have concerns about values issues, which may well be religious issues, and about issues of spirituality in the broad sense that represents the wide range of cultures that make up our society. It is reasonable to expect that those concerns are explored on Radio New Zealand,” Maharey said at the time.
This split the House, with National, NZ First, and Act finding the new requirement risible.
National Party MP Georgina Te Heuheu said that while New Zealand was a “multicultural, multilayered society”, the idea that RNZ should cater to people’s spirituality was “beyond belief”.
“How does a public broadcaster cater for spiritual beliefs that, at one end of the spectrum, include Ringatu or Paimarie, and at the other end of the spectrum include the beliefs of people now living in New Zealand who are of the Buddhist faith or of the faith of Islam?” she asked.
The changes passed, and the spiritual aspect of the charter is still included in RNZ’s legislation. The Māori cultural and language aspects of the 1995 charter were largely absent from the debate on the charter and remained in the 2004 amendment act.
In 2009, another update was ordered, and introduced to Parliament. The then-National Government was so unenamoured of RNZ that it didn’t get around to actually passing the bill until 2016, giving the legislation the rare honour of having been on the order paper for the three Parliaments of that Government.
NZ First, then in Opposition, excoriated National for the delay. MP Tracey Martin was delighted the bill had finally made it to a third reading.
“Halleluja is all I can say. Halleluja! Finally, finally,” she said.
If Peters were frustrated with the amount of te reo Māori on air — as some listeners were in 2016, a period when then-Morning Report host Guyon Espiner made regular use of the language, to some protest — he had an opportunity to put up an amendment to the bill which could remove the language clause from the charter completely, or give greater direction on how much te reo Māori was too much, but this did not transpire.
The bill, which was nothing more than a minor update to the charter, was passed unanimously.
The intervening years have been tumultuous for all media, and especially for public broadcasting. The use of Māori language has been a hot topic, but so too has been the issue of the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
The controversial Public Interest Journalism Fund had a goal of promoting these principles, something critics of the fund argued undermined the independence of the outlets that accepted PIJF grants. NZME, publisher of the NZ Herald, received PIJF funding but had a clause inserted into its funding agreements specifying that editorial independence trumped the principles.
The debate looks set to be coming to RNZ. The charter was reviewed by the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee in 2022. At the inquiry, RNZ recommended to the committee that “the charter be updated to expressly refer to the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi”. It said this would better reflect its responsibilities as a public broadcaster.
The committee said most submitters were generally supportive, although one said the Treaty had no place in public broadcasting. The former Government responded to the committee saying it would introduce a bill “to amend the RNZ charter to acknowledge the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi”, however it never did so.
That task now sits with the new Government. Given the response to the PIJF, a broadcasting Rubicon runs between the existing Māori clauses in the charter and the insertion of a Treaty principles clause.
The current Broadcasting Minister, Melissa Lee, did not respond to requests for comment. Peters, however, cryptically told the Herald he would only back a principles clause when it could be explained in a way that the public could understand it.
Thomas Coughlan is deputy political editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the parliamentary press gallery since 2018.