A new suit cut from old cloth

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The public media entity Establishment Board announced last week by broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi is well placed to successfully amalgamate Television New Zealand and RNZ. Sadly, that is all it will do.

The board has a full complement of experienced broadcasters, broadcasting executives, and board members from both existing organisations. It will be chaired by former New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin, who ably led the body that examined a business case for the new entity.

Faafoi says their job will be to “oversee the detailed design of the new entity and the change required to create it”. He also states that the new entity would be built on “the best of Television NZ and Radio NZ” but would be future-focused to meet the challenges of technology changes and global competition.

While they are beavering away, the government will be introducing the legislation that will govern the future organisation. I have no doubt that a draft already exists, given the timetable to have the Bill introduced by mid-year and through all its readings before the end of the year.

This suggests that much of the form of the new organisation will be pre-determined and the Establishment Board will be dealing with internal structures and functional issues. It will be watched over by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage which is charged with providing assistance, and with reporting independently to the minister.

We are witnessing a mechanical process – the merging of two Crown agencies, no more than that. The only unique aspect is an imperative that the public service broadcasting mandate of RNZ is not lost in the re-organisation. The Establishment Board has all the necessary credentials to successfully see through that process.

There is no real aspiration in the announcement and, indeed, in anything we have seen recently on the proposal. There is no sense that the new entity will usher in paradigm change and realise untapped opportunities.

In short, there is no vision. In an effort to avoid alienating both audience and staff, a project that could fashion a new media future has become past-dependent.

John Reith had no experience of broadcasting when he took the role of first director-general of the BBC in 1923. He did, however, have a vision of broadcasting as a social, cultural, educative, and moral force (with worthwhile entertainment thrown in). Reith looked beyond the technology of wireless to its social and political functions and saw a means of bringing together Britain’s social classes and distinct regional populations. Libertarians may have later questioned his legacy but there is no doubt that his vision fashioned one of the greatest cultural forces in his nation’s history.

At around the same time in New Zealand, Otago University physicist Professor Robert Jack was experimenting with radio. He saw it as a tool for social cohesion and told the Otago Daily Times it would “strengthen the bonds by which a civilised community is held together and formed into an organisation whole”.

Neither man was simply gazing into a crystal ball. Both had a clear and specific vision of what the future of ‘wireless’ should be. And both looked beyond the obvious in technology , much as a century before them Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace had predicted a problem-solving function for Babbage’s number-crunching engine. In 1843 she foresaw today’s computers.

In contrast, the Establishment Board (and the legislation) will be looking for ways to ensure that the non-commercial functions of Radio New Zealand and the revenue-earning potential of TVNZ are knitted into the new entity. It will be striving to embed the core ethos of each organisation and will juggle with the vexing issue of which should gain the most ground. Much of its thinking will be based on what they already know. As American academic David Teece and his colleagues noted in a paper on strategic management: “Bygones are rarely bygones”.

And while it is grappling with what might be seen by politicians and bureaucrats as the ‘fundamentals’, the real opportunities will slip away because they are not on the table.

I am an admirer of Carlota Perez, a scholar who specialises in the relationship between technology and socio-economic development. She has charted the effects of five technological revolutions from the Industrial Revolution to the present Age of Information. In each revolutionary cycle there were socio-economic effects that went well beyond the machines themselves and created what she calls “opportunity spaces”. Social media, for example, fills an opportunity space created by digital networks. The roads and cars in her Age of Oil opened the way for massive suburban housing development. In turn, such innovation creates a need for both business and society to find new ways of organising their activities.

The re-organisation of New Zealand’s public media should have been predicated on identifying and exploiting such opportunity spaces and creating a structure to dynamically manage their development. Instead, the minister’s statement talks of a need to “better meet the challenges of technology changes” – threat rather than opportunity.

I’m not suggesting our broadcasters are Luddites. TVNZ has already identified streaming services as an opportunity and RNZ is exploiting podcasting. Neither of these developments, however, amounts to a paradigm shift. They are details in what should be a bigger scheme.

The public media paradigm in New Zealand would shift if the new entity (even the absence of a name betrays a lack of vision) effectively started with a blank sheet of paper and, like John Reith, created an organisation based on a vision. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that we will have a vision based on an organisation. If that sounds a little too obtuse, let me explain.

To date, the approach has been institutional – creating a structure that can accommodate the existing functions of both broadcasters with room to undertake additional roles as they emerge. Its raison d’etre will be an alloy created by melting two different approaches in the same pot.

Time is running out on realising the full potential of the re-organisation, but the opportunity is not yet lost. Yes, the makeup of the Establishment Board preserves the interests and outlook of existing players, and the Ministry for Culture & Heritage shows little sign of paradigm-changing thinking but considerable influence on outcomes. However, within both TVNZ and RNZ are people on whom the potential is not lost.

TVNZ chief Simon Power and his RNZ counterpart Paul Thompson can exert considerable influence on their representatives on the Establishment Board. Both men have the capacity to fashion a true vision for public media in the digital age and there are people within their respective organisations who can think in the holistic way that is so clearly required.

They should also rapidly engage with people outside their organisations, people whose heads are differently wired. These are the sort of individuals who can see a World Wide Web rather than simply physicists communicating with each other, or turn people with a car and a mobile phone into a taxi fleet. These are people who see beyond the technology to the opportunity spaces, unencumbered by legacies.

Carlota Perez is a follower of economist Joseph Schumpeter, who popularised the phrase “creative destruction”, the process of continuing renewal through invention and innovation. There needs to be a measure of that thinking here. Some things must be left behind and forgotten if the reorganisation is to realise its potential.

Note I say, “some things”. There are principles in public media that must be carried forward. Not least is the concept of robust editorial freedom and separation from the funder – the Government. It was reassuring to see Simon Power tell the Association of New Zealand Advertisers:

“…it’s critical the structure ensures there is watertight editorial independence from the shareholder, the Government. And that it’s seen to be so. It’s imperative that independence is there for all to see. The new entity must be absolutely free from influence of any type and it must be able to survive political change. We at TVNZ are absolutely committed to ensuring that happens, and I know from talks with Paul Thompson at RNZ that they are likewise committed.”

In his speech Power made it clear there were still questions to be answered over how the Government’s aims for the new entity would be met. I would add that there are still questions to be asked over whether Government has been ambitious enough in its thinking.

The ambition should be to create a world-first public media organisation specifically designed for the digital age. And it must begin with the questions that John Reith surely put to himself: To what good purposes can we put this awesome technology and how should we do it?

 

One thought on “A new suit cut from old cloth

  1. A compelling overview.

    Penny-pinching parochialism is the approach that has defined New Zealand’s approach to public broadcasting for as long as I can remember.

    Board members might do well to compare existing arrangements with best practice globally, especially in countries showing much greater equality and cohesion than ours, eg Finland.

    This would, ironically, adhere to notions of globalisation promoted since 1984 – that we must be much more outward looking to survive as a small nation in the world. That should not mean slavish adherence to corporatisation and free-market user-pays as a fits-all solution to everything.

    We need a public broadcaster that offers a public service, not more market failure when it comes to journalism functioning as a fourth estate.

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