Clare Curran’s resignation as Minister of Broadcasting gives the Government a timely opportunity to review its policy options for an industry that is coming under intense pressure. Mark Jennings looks at what might happen next.
Clare Curran’s views on the media were shaped by her past.
A one-time journalist for the Nelson Mail, she moved to Sydney in the late 80s and did PR work for Australian unions.
She was a media and communications adviser for the Australian Council of Trade Unions in Melbourne during the bitter waterfront disputes of the 90s.
Curran once told me the experience “hardened her up”.
During her time in Australia, traditional media was booming and the ABC (one of the two major public broadcasters) was a powerful player in the news landscape.
Curran would have had a lot to do with the ABC’s industrial relations reporters and other specialist roundsmen (and they would’ve been mostly male) at the city’s big daily newspapers.
When she returned to New Zealand and started her political career, the disruption of conventional media was only just beginning.
Curran’s support for public broadcasting surfaced strongly in 2012 when she railed against the impending closure of TVNZ 7.
The non-commercial channel was set up by the Clark Labour government and while its audience numbers were relatively small it had a dedicated following.
In 2011, National scrapped TVNZ’s charter and TVNZ 7 was shut down the following year.
Curran spent much of her time in opposition mulling over how to resurrect a similar channel and lock in funding for public broadcasting.
She eventually settled on the idea of RNZ+ (a TV channel to complement RNZ’s radio networks) and prior to the last election announced that Labour planned to pump $38 million into RNZ and NZ On Air to shore up public service broadcasting.
Curran explicitly ruled out reintroducing a charter for TVNZ or any public service role for the state-owned TV network.
She believed that a highly-commercial, win-the-ratings-at-all-costs culture was too embedded at TVNZ for there to be any speedy transformation to a different model.
“They are just not interested in a public service, they are fully commercial – we might have been able to change them three years ago, but not now. We would waste years battling with them and we don’t have time for that. We want this to happen now and we can do it a lot faster by building up RNZ,” Curran told Newsroom when she announced Labour’s broadcasting policy.
Curran would not be swayed from her RNZ+ vision even when a large part of the industry expressed concern that it wasn’t a viable idea or that it would require a lot more money than Curran was proposing to invest.
Her plans took a serious knock when the promised $38 million was reduced to $15 million in this year’s Budget. This came on the heels of the Carol Hirschfeld affair that badly dented Curran’s credibility.
Still, Curran clung to her dream of a new channel even though RNZ started to downplay its own aspirations.
The logic behind starting another television channel when free-to-air linear television is in decline has to be highly questionable.
Three and Prime are both losing money. It is likely Choice is also a marginal operation and Māori TV has a tiny audience.
TVNZ remains profitable (essentially, through cost-cutting) but is likely to require a government hand-out down the track if audiences continue to fall.
Curran would rightly have argued that current offerings lack quality but that could be solved by turning One into a public service channel. TVNZ has all the infrastructure and expertise required – RNZ lacks both.
Curran’s hackles were raised when this was pointed out by MediaWorks’ CEO Michael Anderson. She accused Anderson of conducting a “Murdoch-style” campaign and told him “I won’t be pushed (into changing her mind)”.
Anderson, of course, has a vested interest but it doesn’t mean he is wrong.
Curran’s replacement, Kris Faafoi was also a journalist but a different kind of one.
Faafoi was a TV journalist and worked for 1 News and the BBC before becoming former Labour leader Phil Goff’s chief press secretary.
He has an “insider’s” knowledge of TV and will understand that RNZ’s infrastructure requires significantly more investment if it is to deliver on Curran’s dream of being a quality presence on New Zealand screens.
If TVNZ were to come forward now with a farsighted plan to turn TVNZ1 into a non-commercial or maybe a semi-commercial channel carrying quality programmes in return for being allowed to forgo its dividend and collect some of the additional money earmarked for RNZ, it would be hard to ignore the industry benefits.
RNZ would be left to concentrate on producing a quality radio product and Faafoi could, if he wanted, extract some concessions from MediaWorks and Prime because the change would put them on a firmer financial footing.
Potentially, he could get them to lock in a commitment to local news and current affairs or possibly more “quality” local programming.
In his short time as minister, Faafoi has shown himself to be a competent operator. The broadcasting portfolio will reveal whether he is bold and brave enough to press the reset button.