Mark Jennings assesses the short-term political handling of the Government’s decision to proceed with creating one public media entity to swallow TVNZ and RNZ

Kris Faafoi has struggled to live up to his billing in the past couple of years. Cabinet’s rising star was loaded up with portfolios on the basis of being a safe pair of hands with plenty of political nous – but more recently he has had the fumbles.

His attempts to explain proposed hate speech laws went awry and there’ve been numerous times where he hasn’t looked on top his of immigration portfolio.

Last week’s announcement of a major shake up in public broadcasting loomed as another land mine.

The reasons for merging RNZ and TVNZ haven’t been well articulated and it has taken two years to even come up with a possible business case. The desire to bring TVNZ back into the public media realm looks to be more ideologically driven than a prudent economic move.

Still, Faafoi and the Government will be happy with the way their announcement has played out so far.

The plan to merge RNZ and TVNZ could have provoked strong negative reactions from passionate RNZ listeners and commercial media companies worried the behemoth broadcaster, might take their revenues.

The muted response (apart from some grumbling out of the NZME stable) is partly due to Faafoi’s understanding of the media and lessons learned from the RNZ Concert fiasco.

It was smart to spike the guns of RNZ diehards by emphasising that all RNZ programming, including Concert will remain the same, continue to be exempt from advertising, and the RNZ brand will stay, at least for the time being.

The Government has also been careful to cover-off claims that the new entity will suck all the oxygen out of the market. Papers released immediately after the announcement specifically pointed out the need for plurality and diversity.

“The Government recognises private media make a valuable contribution to public media outcomes by providing for a variety of audience needs, and a diversity of views and perspectives. Therefore, future arrangements for public media should ensure plurality in New Zealand media is maintained. Any new entity must operate in a way that is complementary to private media and recognise the role and contribution of the wider media sector”.

The papers also make it clear that the new entity will share content and infrastructure with the private sector. RNZ’s CEO Paul Thompson has been a big advocate of sharing news content and many private media companies have used this to plug gaps in their own coverage.

Having access to TVNZ’s news video would be a bonus for the private sector but is likely to be resisted by the TVNZ executives who will be involved in establishing the new public broadcaster.

The Government papers indicate it is not looking for much in the way of cost savings out of the merger which might mean the large newsrooms at RNZ and TVNZ will be allowed to continue to operate independently.

When journalists tried to dig into these more controversial areas during a zoom media conference with Faafoi, the former TV journalist turned politician, showed he is still a wily operator. 

After partially answering or deflecting questions with “that’s for the establishment board (which hasn’t yet been established) to work out” Faafoi quickly went to the next reporter who had flagged they wanted to ask a question.

Zoom conferences don’t make it easy for sustained follow up questioning and the 20 or so reporters on the call didn’t persevere as they knew Faafoi was controlling proceedings.

Faafoi now seems, quite cleverly, to have left it to the CEOs of RNZ and TVNZ to sell the merger publicly.

Thompson made himself widely available for interviews. Newsroom asked him what the merger would mean for RNZ.

“What I see is that we are going to become part of something that will be stronger, more comprehensive and sustainable and we will be able to take our valued public media services and expertise and form critical building blocks within the new entity.

“There will be a degree of continuity in that RNZ commercial free services continue in the new world but I think there is going to be opportunity as well just by being part of that comprehensive entity.

“While we don’t know the details of the funding yet the assumption is there is going to be new investment and that will be a positive thing to be involved in. So, if we think about the change there is [an element] of sadness as well because a lot of us have put life and soul into RNZ and it will no longer exist as a standalone entity. The next bit looks a bit daunting as it is going to be a lot of work, a lot of things to think through, but my overriding view is that this is positive for RNZ and our audiences,” he said.

“There are a lot of forces impacting the media and I think I think it is good to have a well thought-through, well resourced plan before we are on our knees and really need it.

“Those forces include changing audience behaviour, the sustainability of revenue and funding streams, the rise of misinformation and the power of the global platforms.”

Thompson was essentially reinforcing Faafoi’s stance that this is about future-proofing public media even though both RNZ and TVNZ are currently strong, trusted and well performing brands.

TVNZ’s new CEO Simon Power gave an interview to his own news service saying that he expected the new entity would mean “more New Zealand stories on-air”.

This also accords with Faafoi’s long espoused view that public broadcasting needs to be a strong pillar of our own culture and act as a bulwark against the influence of social media platforms.

Thompson and Power will both be keen to lead the new entity. Thompson has vastly more media industry experience and a deep understanding of public media.

Power will be counting on his political acumen and wider business experience. He also has the better part of a year to further his media industry knowledge before a decision is made.

In the meantime, Faafoi needs them both to work closely together to help shape a public broadcaster that combines the best of RNZ and TVNZ, doesn’t alienate private media companies and holds the line against the influence of the global giants.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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