Comment: In recent times, Labour has had a journalist (Kris Faafoi) and a radio broadcaster (Willie Jackson) in charge of the broadcasting portfolio. Both have struggled to explain why the Government wants to merge two successful broadcasters, TVNZ and RNZ, into one entity and spend $100 million more a year on it.

In an Interview with Q + A’s Jack Tame, Jackson, perhaps inadvertently, threw some light on the reasons the Government is pushing on with a merger most people don’t understand or support.

Willie Jackson’s bid to sell merger to TVNZ/RNZ
Media merger a ‘chilling prospect’

“We want a BBC, we want an ABC, we want New Zealand stories, we want Māori stories …” a clearly frustrated Jackson told Tame.

But a public service broadcaster similar to the British or Australian model is not what we are getting. The BBC and the ABC do not carry advertising (apart from a small amount at BBC online). The TVNZ/RNZ merged entity will carry advertising on television and almost certainly some on digital properties like its news website or app. Jackson is yet to spell out how much he thinks advertising should be reduced on linear television. 

For Jackson to say he wants New Zealand stories is also odd. RNZ specialises in New Zealand stories and domestic coverage.  If anything, it could be criticised for not providing enough international coverage in the way the BBC and the ABC do.

And, in response to the global giants streaming services in New Zealand, TVNZ has moved aggressively to lift its local content. 

Eight of its top 10 shows over the past year have been local productions. Moreover, NZ On Air has been spending about $80 million a year paying local producers to produce local content, for all media platforms.

And, while the call for more Māori stories may be fair enough, where does this leave Māori TV? The broadcaster’s annual budget is $38 million, and back in September Jackson indicated the Government was pumping another $80 million in over three years to “raise the status of te reo Māori and build cultural and national identity”. Does Jackson not think Māori TV can do a job here?

Jackson ruled out any likelihood that the Government will delay or scrap the bill enabling the new entity but he expects it to come back from the select committee stage with better protections for editorial independence. The minister said he believed in editorial independence but did little to back this up with comments to Tame about his “negative” interviewing style, and “your mates in National”.

Jackson seemed irked when Tame quite rightly asked him about the costs being incurred to set up the new entity and transparency around the work contractors are doing, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis.

Deloitte is being paid $5 million on top of the $4 million already paid to other consultancy firms, and 17 contractors are earning between $5,000 and $6,000 per week. It is likely that these contractors are leaning heavily on TVNZ and RNZ executives for industry knowledge.

Jackson responded by saying that’s what governments have to pay and tried steering the interview back towards what he sees as the big problems confronting TVNZ and RNZ – “declining revenue and declining audiences”.

Again, this is questionable. TVNZ’s revenue has been steady around the $340 million mark for the past couple of years and has been growing this year. RNZ’s revenue or funding comes from the Government and that has also been increasing under Labour.

It is true, audiences are declining for linear television and live radio, but overall consumption of content is increasing. Viewers and listeners are shifting to on-demand platforms. TVNZ says its streaming services reached more than two million New Zealanders in the past year. RNZ has been at the forefront of the local media industry’s push into podcasting.

There is a problem with making money out of digital advertising due to the social media giants having such huge scale and depressing the price, but the merger will not solve that issue. 

If leading local publishers like Sinead Boucher, owner of Stuff, are correct, the merger will hurt New Zealand media companies and have little impact on Meta (Facebook) and Google. 

Jackson’s earlier announcement on Q + A that he will introduce legislation to force the social media platforms to pay local news organisations for content may be partly aimed at hosing down opposition to the merger from the likes of Stuff, MediaWorks and Discovery (TV3).

Digital bargaining strategy

Jackson told Tame he is giving Meta and Google three to six months to come up with decent deals for local media companies or he will act. He expects them to inject between $30 to $50 million into New Zealand media.

He said he had been lobbied by The Spinoff which he then conceded had already done a deal. Under pressure he then named The Northern Advocate and the Otago Daily Times as “small players” needing help to survive.

Jackson’s research seems seriously astray. The Northern Advocate is owned by one of the biggest local media groups, NZME.  NZME already has deals in place with Google and Meta.

The Otago Daily Times is owned by Allied Press, which has extensive operations across the South Island and according to its website employs 400 people. It is not a small operation.

Questioned by Tame as to whether he would guarantee that money from the social media giants would go directly to journalism and not shareholders, Jackson went out on a limb. “That’s something that I will ensure is in the legislation,” he said.

Challenged by Tame if that was even possible, Jackson said there “were ways of doing these things”.

Jackson revealed he is giving ‘Broadcasting Standards Association’ the job of shaping the bargaining process. Presumably he meant the Broadcasting Standards Authority. This is a slightly surprising move as the skill set required seems quite different to adjudicating on viewers’ complaints.

The decision to wave the big stick at the social media giants might quieten down the campaign against the merger but it is debatable if it will have much impact on Google and Facebook.

Google has been very active in the local market doing deals with big and small players and is going to be very reluctant to increase the amount it is offering. It has told the media outlets already signed up that the money is as good as it’s going to get.

Meta has sent clear signals that it is not particularly interested in news, and news providers can elect to stay off Facebook if they don’t like what the company is offering.

There is no doubt Willie Jackson has the media’s interests at heart but it would be good if he prepared better before he gives interviews – good, clear explanations beat train wrecks any day.

Disclosure: Newsroom has deals in place with both Google and Meta.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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