A select committee last week recommended a host of changes to the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill. Photo: RNZ

A focus on “bread and butter” issues likely signals the end of the RNZ/TVNZ merger, writes Mark Jennings

Opinion: It is highly probable new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has decided to scrap the plan to create a new public media entity, he just hasn’t announced it yet.

His election-year pitch to voters, of focusing on “bread and butter” issues, means a battle-ready Labour Party needs to jettison a jam of costly distractions, like the planned merger of RNZ and TVNZ.

A select committee last week recommended a host of changes to the enabling bill but those are unlikely to save the day.

Presumably, Hipkins and Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson are trying to work out what they can do instead of melding the two public broadcasters.

The problem the Government was trying to solve can’t have miraculously disappeared so they need to come up with a plausible, face-saving plan, given the millions of dollars Labour has spent on this project.

For most of 2022, National hedged its bets as it assessed the public and media industry mood. Then, a few months before Christmas it decided to put Labour in a corner. Leader Christopher Luxon and broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee stated categorically they would roll back the merger if National leads the next Government.

The decision confirmed National was going to make Labour’s spending on the merger, and ongoing financial support for the new entity, an election issue. 

The party laid out its position in a minority view attached to the select committee’s report on the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill. The committee recommended a significant number of changes to the bill but National was sticking to its claim the costs far outweigh any benefits.

“National members do not accept that the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee has been able to effectively scrutinise the financials behind the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill.

“As a result, we cannot in good conscience support the RNZ/TVNZ merger on the simple basis financials revealed to us indicate the cost to taxpayers will be upwards of $6+ billion over the next 30 years in addition to the upfront costs of $370 million revealed in Budget 2022. The merger of RNZ and TVNZ into a ‘media monolith’, ANZPM, will have massive implications for the wider commercial media sector, for advertisers, for consumers of content, and for the public of New Zealand forced to pay for its existence.”

Lee later told Newsroom the $6 billion cost figure was revealed at a briefing she was given by an official from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and a consultant from Deloitte. “In fact, they indicated that it could be considerably more than $6 billion,” she said. “I was appalled.”

The briefing was organised for Lee by Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson, she said. “I expected it to be with just the ministry but they brought the guy from Deloitte. He wasn’t even an expert on public media but he will be one of those costing $9000 a week. The whole thing is despicable.

“The $370 million they are spending just to set up this monolith could be used to clear the cancer medication waiting list.”

The select committee’s recommended changes to the bill include strengthening the new entity’s editorial independence with a clause to “prevent ministers, or any person acting on behalf of a minister, from giving directions on any editorial matter to any person connected with ANZPM”.

Another clause “would prevent ministers from removing members of ANZPM’s board for any reason related to editorial matters”.

In a clear concession to the country’s privately owned media, the committee wants the bill to ensure that the board of the new entity takes into account the impact on existing media before it introduces new services or brings any content production in-house.

The committee is also recommending the term “broadcasting” be dropped from the legislation because “the bill should not use language that suggests that television or radio is dominant, or prioritised over other means of providing content”.

The committee’s recommendations haven’t lessened criticism of the bill by Auckland University think tank Koi Tū.

“There are many outstanding issues that have yet to be properly addressed and it would be unfortunate if this was still progressed on the original timetable rather than given deeper reflection,” Koi Tū director Sir Peter Gluckman said in a statement.

“There is an open question, for example, over how the commercial and non-commercial activities should be structured and managed. A more pressing question, however, is whether the Government intends to proceed with the bill.”

National references Koi Tū’s analysis in its minority view at the select committee.

“National members agree with Koi Tū. National believes the only appropriate course of action is to cease this bill in its tracks and to allow RNZ and TVNZ to continue in their present form.

“Questions over the future of the media landscape need to go back to square one after years of incompetence and bungling by Labour as they have time and time again through their merger attempts and meddling in public media sparked the undermining of trust in public and wider media institutions at large.

“National has pledged to reverse this merger of RNZ and TVNZ. It is not needed, it is not justified, it is unsafe, it is detrimental to the media landscape of New Zealand, and, above all, it is dangerous to our democracy. This bill must be withdrawn by the minister.”

On the off-chance Hipkins has decided the bill should proceed then he needs to clearly articulate the reasons for the merger something Jackson and previous broadcasting minister, Kris Faafoi, failed to do.

If he thinks the new entity can provide more compelling content for New Zealanders than the current public broadcasters, and distribute it more widely than YouTube and social media channels, he should tell us what it is and how it will be delivered. He also needs to articulate how putting two organisations with very different cultures together is going to work in practice.

National MP Michael Woodhouse laid out the major issues with the merger when responding to Labour MP Barbara Edmonds in Parliament in July last year. Edmonds, speaking in support of the merger, said she wanted her children to be able to access great public media but that couldn’t happen because they were only watching YouTube.

Woodhouse: “The first question is what problem are we trying to solve, and it was not clear from Minister Faafoi’s press release in March this year what problem we were trying to solve. He talked about New Zealanders continuing to have access to reliable, trusted, independent information, which is a concession that they already had it. They already had through TVNZ and RNZ, in his view — and I agree with him — access to reliable, trusted, independent information and local content.

“Then he went on to say, ‘Well, we know the media landscape is changing.’ That’s true, but it’s about changing content and making that content available on the multiplicity of platforms that are now available. Ms Edmonds talked about YouTube, just one of a plethora of digital platforms that our children watch. I can’t remember the last time they watched television to get information or entertainment. What Mr Faafoi’s press release doesn’t do is say why and how, and those are the important questions that would enable us to understand what problem we’re trying to solve.”

Lee says if National gets back into power, the party will let TVNZ get on with its commercial activities, and look at how to “properly fund RNZ”.

When Newsroom put it to Lee that RNZ endured a 9-year-long funding freeze under the last National government, she responded by saying that back then it had been dealing with the tail-end of the global financial crisis, and Luxon was committed to giving RNZ the resources it needs.

Hipkins now has a clear opportunity to cut Luxon and National off at the pass. He can give RNZ more money to help it cater for under-served audiences, expand its digital footprint, and modernise its systems. He can then scrap the merger and spend the billions saved on things voters think the country really does need.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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