Churchillian view of public media’s future

 The New Public Media Entity has turned into a Churchillian quotation, and it is not “their finest hour”.

Following last Thursday’s Budget, the project to replace Television New Zealand and RNZ has become “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

The Budget told us the project would receive $327 million of Government funding over three years in roughly equal annual instalments. The total appropriation for the “Strong Public Media” project over the next four years is $370 million, meaning $43 million will be used to establish the new entity and for the Ministry for Culture & Heritage to “monitor’ it.

That is a sizeable chunk of money, but the Government does expect some pay-back from the commercial operations of what is now Television New Zealand. It estimates a dividend of $306 million over six years.

And that is where the detail ends.

What is the shape and scope of the new entity? What is its organisational structure? Where are the detailed assessments of where the money will be applied? Why does it give with one hand and take with the other?

Who know? We are told that these are details for the Establishment Board to determine. And that is putting the cart before the horse, although a cruder idiom springs more readily to mind.

The public deserved to have a much clearer picture of the Government’s intentions for public media before such a sizeable commitment of public funds was made.

What we have seen to date are a report by a Business Case Governance Group chaired by former New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin, and a Cabinet paper presented by Communications Minister Kris Faafoi. Both are heavy on good intentions and very light on detail about how the new entity will be organised and operated. Faafoi’s Budget announcement added little beyond the numbers.

The new entity will require comprehensive empowering legislation with knock-on effects on a raft of existing Acts and Regulations. Given the timetable – the new organisation is to be up and running by next July ­– draughting the new statute must be well-advanced. Like the Budget provision, it too is being carried out in the absence of a clear knowledge of the organisation it will govern.

The new entity’s Establishment Board, chaired by Tracey Martin, is apparently tasked with filling in the detail. However, that board’s deliberations will be circumscribed by the legislation, three years of financing that have already been determined, and a daunting timeframe.

The dangers should be obvious.  Either these foundational underpinnings preordain the structure, or the timetable requires the new entity to be established in such haste that it will be reduced to a mechanical exercise of fitting existing pieces together. Either way, we may wind up with nothing more than a merger that amounts to a back-to-the-future version of the NZBC, or the two public broadcasters will be rearranged into a piece of eccentric architecture combining Radio New Zealand House on The Terrace and the TVNZ Television Centre on Victoria Street West.

Clearly that is not Faafoi’s intention, but the absence of a detailed blueprint may see the result fall short of expectation. So many questions remain unanswered, and so many more are unasked because our vision remains blurred.

The Budget raises its own questions.

The new entity will be direct funded through the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, rather that the current NZ on Air funding stream. The ministry also will be charged with ‘monitoring’. Does that mean NZ on Air’s current ‘due diligence’ applied to contestable funding will move over to the ministry, which will then assume a form of programme oversight? If so, how will that sit with a legal prohibition on government interference in content? If not, who will ensure the money allocated over three years in the 2022 Budget is well spent?

The Budget allocates an additional $1.2 million to the Broadcasting Standards Authority over the next four years. Given Kris Faafoi’s statement that “the new entity will be multi-platform and designed to reach new and existing audiences”, does the broadcast-only BSA have a four-year future?

The minister’s statement was less than upfront about the Government’s real commitment to the Strong Public Media project. It mentioned the $327 million allocated in the Budget but made no reference to the $306 million clawback from revenue generated principally by commercial television. This is the estimated ‘dividend’ generated by a surplus after all programme and operating costs are considered.

Recent dividend payments to Government have been erratic. TVNZ recommenced paying a dividend last year ($15 million) after several years of losses and had previously been allowed to retain earnings for building refurbishment. Given TVNZ’s track record and the relatively modest sum returned last year, how can a return averaging more than $50 million a year be justified when the overall media market is so volatile? And why does the projection run out to six years (good luck with the accuracy of that) when the Budget expenditure is over three years?

The multi-year allocation of funding is welcome, as it will give the entity some degree of certainty. However, is that simply a device to bridge an election year or will the multi-year approach be enshrined in legislation? It should be.

A month ago, in this column, I made a plea for the parties involved in creating the new entity to produce “a world-first public media organisation specifically designed for the digital age” (see A new suit cut from old cloth). Nothing in the Budget or the minister’s accompanying statement led me believe that such a dream will come to fruition.

That does not mean we should abandon hope. Perhaps the questions that I raise here have already been addressed. However, if the answers are there, why haven’t we seen them? If a comprehensive set of architects’ plans exist, why have they not been shown to the client – the public of New Zealand?

The Establishment Board has the task of fashioning the public media future. If the blueprint is already in its hands, it must release it for public scrutiny. If the many questions are still unanswered it has a herculean effort in front of it.

It should dwell on another Parliamentary speech by Winston Churchill after the First World War: “The whole map of Europe has been changed…but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.

Disclosure: I was an advisor to the chief executives working group, convened by the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, that preceded the current initiative.

Fake alarm

It dominated mainstream media last Wednesday and rightly so: A report on the spread of disinformation associated with the Parliament Grounds protest was alarming.

The report was the work of the Disinformation Project and concluded that the misinformation and disinformation around Covid-19 play out as “a Trojan Horse to push followers towards more violently exclusive, supremacist, xenophobic, racist, far-right and extremist ideologies”.

Two elements of the researchers’ comprehensive monitor of social media during the protest were particularly alarming.

The first was that only 12 “protest figureheads” were responsible for a significant proportion of the disinformation associated with the protest. On one day alone (March 2) 73 per cent of interactions were generated by these dozens accounts.

The second finding was that on the same day, disinformation posts on social media outstripped the traffic of mainstream media. On Facebook alone 357,000 interacted with ‘alternative’ protest sites compared to 248,000 hits on protest news carried on all mainstream media sites combined. In other words, more people were seeking their ‘news’ from conspiracy theorists than from professional journalists. The researchers termed this “splintered realities”.

The Disinformation Project sees these, and related developments during the protest, as significant, unprecedented shifts in the country’s media and information landscapes, impacting the integrity of democratic discourse, social cooperation, the negotiation of difference, perceptions of trustworthiness, and truth.

The researchers see parallels between developments here and “information disorders” in other countries. They describe them as “significant challenges facing Aotearoa New Zealand society and government that must be addressed”.

New Zealand mainstream media have known for some time that there are issues of trust that must be addressed but, surely, the findings of this report will jolt them into action. They need to combine their resources into a unified effort to determine why they are losing the battle to malign forces, and find the common strategies they can employ to turn the tide in favour of truth and accuracy.

Vale Brian Gaynor

Much has been written about the phenomenal abilities of business commentator and co-founder of Milford Asset Management Brian Gaynor who died last week. I was editor of the New Zealand Herald when business editor Rod Oram enticed him to join us as a columnist in 1997.

Brian was one of our greatest assets. He brought to the Business Herald a level of knowledge, judgement and integrity that made his column in the Weekend Herald a “must read”.

In his final column in 2019 before moving to BusinessDesk (following his substantial investment in its holding company), he recalled his best-read piece, published on September 21, 2007 under the heading How Muldoon threw away NZ’s wealth:

The column argued that New Zealand would be a very wealthy country, the Switzerland of the Southern Hemisphere, if Prime Minster Robert Muldoon hadn’t abolished Labour’s compulsory Superannuation Scheme immediately following the 1975 election. 

New Zealand would have a massive savings pool, a buoyant economy and a thriving stock exchange, if the 1970s scheme was still in place and most retirees would be facing their golden years with few financial concerns. 

This has been New Zealand’s worst economic decision by a wide margin.

Brian was forthright and had foresight. We were richer for his presence and are poorer for his passing.

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