Radio New Zealand has downplayed hopes it will use a planned funding boost to launch a stand-alone television station. Thomas Coughlan reports from a combative select committee hearing where National MPs accused RNZ of being politically biased.

RNZ found itself in the firing line during its annual review before the Economic Development, Science and Innovation select committee on Wednesday, which was dominated by questions over the proposed shape of RNZ+ and charges of pro-left bias.

Asked by Melissa Lee whether he envisioned RNZ+ as a television station, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson replied that it would look more like “a combination of more media platforms,” rather than a stand-alone television station.

Both Thompson and RNZ Chair Richard Griffin were keen to talk down the idea of RNZ+ as a stand-alone station. Although Thompson’s comments were consistent with Labour’s manifesto commitment to “transform” RNZ into a ‘multi-platform public broadcaster’, he faced questions from both MPs and media as to whether there had been a climbdown from the idea of RNZ+ as a standalone TV station.

Whatever form RNZ+ takes, it will be funded from an allocation of $38 million split between RNZ and NZ on Air.

Although Labour’s proposal for RNZ+ does not explicitly refer to it as a TV channel, current Mediaworks CEO, Michael Anderson has urged the Government to “hit pause” on any such proposal, saying it would provide unfair taxpayer-funded competition to commercial broadcasters.

“It’s going to be a combination of more media platforms,” Thompson told the committee.

“The delivery of it will be partly television, but not a stand-alone TV station,” he said, “We have a channel already on freeview, it will have more on it but it won’t be a standalone free to air tv channel in the sense that we’re creating anything like the other broadcasters are doing,” he said.

Summarising later to journalists, he said the channel would represent an “evolution of what we’re doing at the moment rather than a big bang”.

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran said she was happy with RNZ’s current efforts, adding that a free-to-air linear TV station might be an option “down the track”.

TVNZ, appearing before the committee for its annual review later in the day, said that it had spoken to RNZ about RNZ+ and it was more concerned with well-resourced overseas competition like Netflix and Amazon.

Nobody expects a Wellington Inquisition

National MPs also charged RNZ with a left-wing bias, perhaps signalling a return to the days when RNZ was derided as ‘Red Radio’ within National.

National’s Broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee argued that RNZ’s The House, which broadcasts news and proceedings from Parliament, spent ten minutes interviewing a government minister, whilst affording no time to National’s spokesperson for that minister’s portfolio (she did not name the minister).

Lee also raised the issue of an unscheduled meeting between Curran and RNZ’s Head of News, Carol Hirschfeld, asking whether RNZ was aware of the meeting. Griffin assured Lee he was.

Griffin, who was Chief Press Secretary and Media Adviser to National Prime Minister Jim Bolger, found himself in the unusual situation of having to defend his organisation against claims of bias towards Labour. The terse line of questions aimed to establish not just whether the meeting was “sinister”, but whether it was a meeting at all, and not just a “meeting of minds”, a “meeting in the broadest possible sense”, or a “breakfast meeting”.

After several minutes, more detail emerged:

“Carol had been to the gym, she was getting a coffee, they bumped into each other, in a cafe and had a conversation so it was hardly a secret meeting. I don’t have any concern,” Thompson said.

A brief exchange on the sidelines aimed to establish whether a sandwich and a coffee constituted breakfast, or whether a breakfast usually includes cereal as well.

“I will put dollars to doughnuts that it was just two people who had something to talk about with someone they already knew anyway,” said Griffin.

“Just a quick meeting?” countered Lee.

“It was not a meeting in the sense as outlined by your colleague — [it was] a meeting of minds if anything,” said Griffin. “It was a meeting of minds in the sense that the minister walked into a cafe, saw the Head of News sitting there and sat down and talked to her”.

An exasperated Tamati Coffey asked the committee to move on to something more substantial.

Questions about Tracey Bridges

Later Lee asked about the appearance of former PR person Tracey Bridges on RNZ’s afternoon talk show ‘The Panel’ last month while she was doing contract work for the Prime Minister.

RNZ National programme manager David Allan later said he was concerned Bridges had appeared on ‘The Panel’ without declaring that she working in Jacinda Ardern’s office on contract.

“It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. We are reviewing our processes around ‘The Panel’ to make this sure this doesn’t happen again,” Allan said in a statement.

Maori hosts on RNZ?

The state of Maori broadcasting at both RNZ and TVNZ was questioned, particularly following the departure of Mihingarangi Forbes, who has left RNZ for The Hui at Mediaworks.

Griffin characterised RNZ’s strategy as “small steps in the right direction,” but RNZ struggled to answer why it had failed to appoint Maori to presenting roles.

“I don’t see any Maori presenters anymore, your commitment to Te Reo Maori I don’t feel is in there at all,” said Coffey.

In the absence of Maori presenters, Thompson struggled to answer why, when a presenting slot opened up last year to present RNZ’s late-night slot, RNZ had appointed Karyn Hay, and not a Maori broadcaster.

“We do look to get the best person for the show and we did that. We have to make those decisions,” said Thompson.

Coffey also turned the heat on his former employer, TVNZ, during its annual review.

Coffey asked whether long-running Te Reo current affairs programme Te Karere was going to be outsourced to Maori Television.

TVNZ CEO, Kevin Kenrick confirmed that there had been communication with Maori Television, but that stories about Te Karere moving were ‘rumours’. However, he did not explicitly rule out changes to the program or consolidation with Maori television for Te Karere, which is entirely funded by Te Mangai Paho, the Maori broadcasting fund, and not TVNZ or NZ on Air.

“We’ve had a conversation about Maori Television about what we could do together, what would create better daily news,” Kenrick said.

“TVNZ has a significant infrastructure with One News, so we think how do they get the benefit of that?”

What this means in terms of the streamlining of news and the loss of journalists was not covered in the committee, but it looks like consolidation could be in the wind for Maori broadcasting.

Concert continuity

One thing that is unlikely to change is Concert FM. Asked by National’s Christopher Finlayson whether RNZ would bow to pressure and reconsider the future of the service for “its 500 listeners”. Finlayson was relieved to learn the audience for Concert was in the 100s of thousands and that its future was safe for now.

Finlayson had less success with TVNZ when he put forward the idea of broadcasting programs in foreign languages, such as Deutschland 83, a German-language production. TVNZ was vague on the answer to that question.

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