TVNZ has no charter now, so it will feel most exposed to the wind of change: navigating a future under a new entity with government societal goals yet still meeting commercial imperatives

Steps to shape the future direction of public broadcasting are being taken in a series of closed door meetings currently underway.

More than 45 organisations have been invited by Ministry of Culture and Heritage consultants to “engagement sessions” designed to collect feedback, primarily on a charter document for TVNZ and Radio NZ when they are revamped into a new public media entity.

During the last two weeks commercial media outlets and other industry stakeholders have been attending sessions facilitated by KPMG, attended by MCH Public Media Project team staff, along with Governance Group members who were appointed to oversee the project.

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Separate engagement workshops for Maori media outlets and organisations are being held over coming weeks.

In documents circulated in advance,  government officials say the engagement sessions are designed to help shape a Charter which will be foundational for the future of TVNZ and RNZ, and shape advice given to Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi.

The reading material says the Charter would define the purpose, objectives, and operating principles of the new public media entity, and also be part of a “social contract “ with New Zealanders.

While no draft Charter document is provided, the government officials and consultants say they need stakeholder feedback before “detailed work on drafting the charter document starts.”

At the top of the list for discussion in the meetings is the Treaty and how it would mould the future character and operations of TVNZ and Radio NZ.

Or, as the pre-reading document given to stakeholders asks, “what should be the responsibilities of a mainstream public media entity in respect of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the relationship between the public media entity and Māori”.

As well, officials are seeking feedback on services to be provided by the public media entity, its operating principles, audiences it needs to reach, and its role in providing high quality international content to local audiences.

It’s a sign the government’s public media project team is now navigating potentially difficult waters on how future public broadcasters reflect national and cultural identity.

And time is short. A business case for a new public media structure for TVNZ and RNZ is due to be presented to Cabinet in October, with legislation scheduled for 2022.

A governance group, led by former NZ First minister Tracey Martin and seven industry representatives, is steering the project with a $6 million project budget, funding a staff of 11 contractors and consultants, as well as three Ministry of Culture and Heritage employees.

Assessing the influence the media industry and Maori stakeholder engagement is having on the future direction for TVNZ and RNZ, and its charter document, is premature. The process is only part way through, and is not a public process.

However,  the ministry is upbeat.

“So far, the input from stakeholders has been fantastic and the emerging themes are very much aligned to the parameters set out by Cabinet’s earlier paper,” said a ministry spokesperson.

The ministry says the future public media parameters are that the broadcaster is:

  • operationally and editorially independent;
  • securely and sustainably funded;
  • able to respond effectively to an evolving operating environment and relevant to changing consumer preferences, in particular younger audiences;
  • complementary to and collaborative with private media.

Wrestling with Treaty obligations is also at the forefront of government thinking. The Cabinet paper from earlier this year said the governance group needed expertise for an “integration of Maori perspective and Treaty of Waitangi considerations into the options for the business case.”

Without doubt, a revamp of state media was always going to face questions around Treaty obligations.  The question is really what level of obligation the Government will expect of the state broadcaster, how this is reflected in content,  and how it will balance this with other audiences and ethnic groups.

Possibly the only safe conclusion is TVNZ, which is not currently beholden to a charter, will feel the wind of change the most and have the toughest mandate.  It faces a future under a new entity with a charter, Government societal goals, and still meeting commercial imperatives.

As for wider public engagement in the process, there is no opportunity for a voice until next year. 

The Cabinet Paper establishing the governance group and its terms of reference in March did say there would be public consultation on drafting the charter, and indeed Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi announced this in his press conference earlier this year.

However, the terms of reference were only a draft at that stage.  When the governance group ultimately finalised its terms of reference with the minister in April, the consultation plan was watered down to “targeted” stakeholder groups only.

Assuming the Cabinet approves the new public media entity and its charter later this year, a new Broadcasting Bill will be put before Parliament in 2022. 

And that’s when the wider public will have its first say on the new public media “social contract” charter already being written.

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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