I am hoping beyond hope that speculation over changes to the Television New Zealand board are wide of the mark. I’m banking on the conjecture being a product of the mischievous side of Willie Jackson’s personality that keeps people guessing.
The Minister of Broadcasting and Media, in a recent interview with the New Zealand Herald’s editor-at-large Shayne Currie, made it clear he wants to see change and a much stronger commitment by the state-owned broadcaster to a “New Zealand identity”.
His interview with Currie left no doubt that changes to the TVNZ board, whose members come up for re-appointment or replacement on June 30, will be political appointments. Unlike commercial boards, where replacements are usually sought out by existing directors and confirmed (or rejected) by shareholders, it is Jackson’s office that is managing the process with both TVNZ and replacement directors at Radio New Zealand.
“My team of officials is interviewing people now in terms of the two different boards – we’ll see how that goes. Over the next couple of weeks, they’re interviewing people: there’ll be some good people on both boards and some of them will stay and then there’ll be new people who want to come through. We’ll just see how it all works out.”
From the tenor of the conversation with Currie, it was quite clear that how it works out will be significant strategic redirection for TVNZ.
Jackson made no secret of the fact that he was unhappy with TVNZ’s misgivings (sensible, in my view) over the proposed merger with RNZ. For its part, RNZ scored points with him for embracing the merger plan.
He told Currie he would be meeting with TVNZ to discuss its commitment to a public-media strategy, adding that “I want to see change”.
The quickest way he will get that change is by seeding the TVNZ board with people who share his vision.
Chief among those appointments will be a new chair. The present incumbent, Andy Coupe, is not seeking reappointment. Media speculation has centred on Tracey Martin, who headed the now-disestablished Establishment Board that was shepherding the merger through its various stages until new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins turned off the studio lights. However, conjecture over her appointment to what has to be the consolation prize of the century has begun to cool.
The identity of a new chair will speak volumes about the part politics has played in the appointment and its influence on board decisions. The same can be said of appointment of new directors.
The current board is a mix of business and industry experience. Coupe is a professional director whose other appointments include the board of retailer Briscoes. His deputy, Kevin Malloy, has a background in advertising and marketing and fellow director Meg Matthews also has a background in marketing. Keiran Horne is an expert in strategic risk management while Trish Carter and Aliesha Staples have extensive television and film backgrounds. Toko Kapea has brought twin strands of experience to the board – strong legal knowledge as a corporate lawyer, and Kaupapa Māori as a trustee of Māori trusts and incorporations.
The incoming board will need to reflect a similar range of skills and knowledge if it is to steer TVNZ through what may be its greatest period of commercial uncertainty (and opportunity) as it transitions from linear broadcasting to multi-platform digital distribution and on-demand services.
Coupe, in another interview with Shayne Currie, alluded to a five-year development plan that that board had endorsed and which he described as “a whole of business transformation”. It is clearly designed to support the company’s ongoing financial viability and no doubt was led by outgoing chief executive Simon Power.
That financial viability will be vital for TVNZ, even given the legitimate desire for it to reflect more public service imperatives. The abrupt demise of the TVNZ/RNZ merger was a clear message that the government has more pressing funding priorities. TVNZ will need to continue to be a strong generator of revenue if it is to meet public service aims.
Coupe and the current board have been pragmatists. They know that local content – “more than Country Calendar” as Willie Jackson told Currie – is expensive to produce and often does not garner large audiences. That means TVNZ has to achieve an odd sort of equilibrium that is not measurable with a set of balance scales. It must generate revenue from populist (sometimes mindless) programming in order to fund more significant production of the sort that the minister hopes to see.
That says that the incoming board of TVNZ must be skilled practitioners with deep knowledge across a range of disciplines, not least the media business. Given the rapid changes in the digital media landscape, they must also be nimble. A board table populated by ideologues would be a disaster waiting to happen.
However, let me be clear: I do not subscribe to the view that TVNZ’s sole objective is to return a dividend to its owner – the state. As a publicly owned media organisation it has clear obligations to provide content that reflects the New Zealand character, and to act in the public interest.
However, I am also a realist. In this small country with a myriad of pressing claims on the public purse we do not have the luxury of full funding of all our publicly owned media We must accept a hybrid system, and that requires TVNZ to endeavour to provide the best of both worlds – strong revenue streams that fund its public service obligations.
Governments of whatever political hue can make clear how they interpret those obligations, but TVNZ must then be left to run the business in ways that meet its challenges and serve its binary purposes. It should, for example, be left to choose Simon Power’s replacement without any hint of political interference, subtle or otherwise. That appointee must be capable of running all aspects of the business, not just a minister’s manifesto.
There is a further reason why the upcoming appointments must be free from the taint of political patronage or affiliation. Anything less will do immediate damage to trust in the media (and, arguably, trust in government).
How can Television New Zealand assert its independence if its governance is in the hands of people appointed to effectively do a minister’s bidding?
To New Zealand Geographic for its special issue Being teen. The magazine spent a year documenting the lives of nine teenagers around New Zealand. It investigated their lives, their dreams, the pressures they face, and the fears that teenagers do not deserve to face – from Covid and climate change to the cost of living.
Funded by a grant from the Public Interest Journalism Fund administered by NZ on Air, the issue is a much-needed insight into the lives of some ordinary yet extraordinary young people. Editor Catherine Woulfe described the project as “simply an exercise in listening”.
NZ Geographic’s journalists proved to be very good listeners and its photographers captured what couldn’t be put into words.