The Minister for Broadcasting and Media appears committed to establishing a new broadcaster to replace RNZ and TVNZ. But strengthening public interest media will be complicated and potentially costly, writes Stephen Parker.

It’s understandable that Radio New Zealand is feeling the need to stake a claim for its future as the Government pushes ahead plans for a new state broadcaster.

There were signs of this when RNZ, along with TVNZ and the Broadcasting Minister, all appeared back-to-back before the Social Services Parliamentary Select Committee last week.

The hearing offered the public a rare chance to gauge the respective positions of the RNZ and TVNZ executive teams on the future of state-owned media.

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Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi confirmed a design and costing business case is underway under the guidance of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. It’s scheduled to be completed this year. Cabinet is due to make final decisions by the end of the year.

TVNZ and RNZ both acknowledged the proposal is for the broadcasters to be disestablished in favour of a new single public media entity.

Sounds simple and clean. It’s not. And that is because the Government has signalled a new state broadcaster would have a commercial function.

And if there is a commercial remit, this probably favours TVNZ in controlling the new broadcaster.

A commercial objective makes it easier for TVNZ to be more like TVNZ, and harder for RNZ to be more like RNZ.

Ultimately is comes down to the design. Including simple questions like, will it be an state-owned enterprise? And will the TVNZ channels be split into commercial and non-commercial channels ?

TVNZ’s chief executive Kevin Kenrick told the committee the mandate of the new structure is key, along with what content it is expected to deliver to which audiences.

And he set out an existential choice. “When you start to look at the public media mandate you would tend to start to look at the more niche appeal activity which wouldn’t be commercially viable,” he said.

RNZ is pitching hard to shape that new mandate.

As RNZ chairman Jim Mather put it: “We can effectively create a new culture that looks at the effective streams of both TVNZ and RNZ and enables us to really critically review what we believe is important and that must underlie the foundations of this new entity.”

RNZ’s chief executive and editor-in-chief Paul Thompson took a step further saying his organisation’s public media ethos is a transferable skill.

“We do that really well, our staff know to how do that, it’s in our muscle memory, it’s woven into our DNA. How to be impartial, independent, to provide commercial-free services … that will be a vital capability to shape that culture under a new entity,” he said.

RNZ management may see this as the best way to stay true to its public broadcasting DNA, within a merger structure. It may also give them a shield against the larger TVNZ corporate team and its commercial objectives.

One way RNZ hopes to secure public broadcasting kryptonite within the future organisation is to have a charter.

“To make sure any new entity, if it actually does happen, does have a strong public media charter at its core and enshrined in law. And really, really strong consultation with all of the New Zealand public to make sure there is not only an understanding but a support for that entity’s mandate,” said Paul Thompson.

Yet not so long ago, New Zealand experimented with a charter. Some will recall former Labour broadcasting minister Marion Hobbs and the TVNZ charter. Even to this day officials may be attracted to the language it offered. But the charter made no serious tangible difference to TVNZ at the time. It was canned by John Key after a decade.

And the Government needs to understand why. 

It’s probably to do with an inherent contradiction in asking a state broadcaster to meet its commercial and public ethos imperatives at the same time. It hasn’t worked in this country in the past. Finding a middle ground is intensely complicated.

Of course, the simplest design would be to combine RNZ and TVNZ into a commercial free public broadcaster. But that would come with a massive price tag, and there is no sign the Government is interested in such a bill.

Building a public broadcaster with a semi-commercial brief in itself is not necessarily a bad outcome for the country. It depends if it solves the problem.

The question is less about how to blend RNZ and TVNZ into one entity.  

It is about whether this addresses the digital disruption of media, declining reporter numbers, and meets a demand for trusted content in times of misinformation and disinformation.

And that applies to commercial media outlets just as much as state-owned media.

So far the signs about those questions being answered are not encouraging.

In the meantime, it’s hard not to regard TVNZ as having the strongest card in the construction of a new state broadcaster.

Kenrick, who would not be drawn by committee members into giving his opinion on the merits of the revamped state broadcaster, also outlined the financial performance of the publicly-owned company.

He pointed out that TVNZ will not draw down on millions of dollars of bailout credit offered by the Government last year to get through the Covid storm, and that the company currently has $100 million in cash.

TVNZ has also repaid to the Crown the $4.9m it received in wage subsidy.  

And Kenrick also described a 27 percent increase in revenue from its digital stream in the last six months as “one of its success stories”.

It’s a tangible money stream. And follow the money arguments won’t be lost on Treasury officials, nor the Minister of Finance.

Stephen Parker is a former political editor for TV3. More recently he was the Chief Media Adviser at MFAT, and also worked in the Foreign Minister's office of both National and Labour-led governments.

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