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Does ‘No-Surprises’ Also Apply To TVNZ News?

Coalition for Better Broadcasting, 31 October 2014: When you stand back and look at NZ media outlets, most of them have at least one or two people who attempt to hold the government to account: John Campbell on TV3, Guyon Espiner and others at Radio NZ, David Fisher in the Herald, Andrea Vance at Stuff…

TVNZ doesn’t.

TVNZ News reports adequately on the events of the day. They’re generally unbiased apart from obvious clangers like choosing Mike Hosking to moderate Election Debates and choosing Mike Hosking to host NZ’s foremost daily current affairs show. Apart from that, TVNZ follows a safe path.

What’s noticeable on TVNZ is the lack of serious criticism or investigation of the government. They haven’t taken the lead on a government scandal. They don’t pursue, hound or even take serious aim at the government. Not in any of the daily news shows, not on the website, not in its comedy shows and not even in its current affairs. The closest I can think of was Nigel Latta’s programme on child poverty, which never actually drew the connection between rising poverty and and policies of the government.

Why is this? Could it be a result of the government’s famous no-surprises policy? It’s not just a recent thing. Plenty of right-wingers thought TVNZ was scandalously left-wing under the Clark government and perhaps they were right (by that I mean correct).

Whether the government be left or right flavoured, it is vitally important that TVNZ is politically neutral. Government influence on the state broadcaster is not only morally wrong, it’s against the law.

Although the Minister of Broadcasting may not influence TVNZ editorially, as the sole shareholder he or she can make life pretty uncomfortable by demanding a large dividend, as they have for the last few years. Also the government of the day appoints the TVNZ Board, which perhaps unsurprisingly now contains quite a few ‘friends of the National Party’. So TVNZ is already very much under the thumb of the prevailing political party.

But when the government choooses to tightly control and bully government departments, as this government is known to (as did the previous Clark government) they don’t need to overtly tell TVNZ what editorial line to follow. Any smart media organisation knows how to self-censor themselves to keep their bosses happy.

Perhaps this explains a lot of what happens at TVNZ.

The Television New Zealand Act should be adjusted so that our most powerful broadcaster is truly independent of the current government. The Board should not be appointed by government but by a separate independent body.

That also goes for the boards of New Zealand on Air and Radio NZ, lest they also fall into the trap of not-biting-the-hand-that-feeds-them (some say they already have fallen into that trap).

Meanwhile, a plaudit to the incoming Minister of Broadcasting, Amy Adams. When replying to Kris Faafoi’s questions about the demise of TVNZ’s Maori and Pacific Island Department, she said she will “continue to monitor whether there is any drop in the quality, the content, or the quantity of programming as a result (of the closure).”

She also announced that “the Government’s interest from a broadcasting perspective is that good quality, locally relevant content is available, particularly reflecting things like ethnic minorities and Māori perspectives.”

We seem to have a Broadcasting Minister who cares about public service values. Hopefully the role she takes with TVNZ is to preserve those values rather than to preserve the ‘no-surprises’ policy.