NZ On Air censorship must be addressed
New Zealand On Air chairman Neil Walter is expected to stand down soon with National Party official Stephen McElrea a contender to replace him, television industry sources say.
The two men have been at the centre of a controversy over the timing of Bryan Bruce's documentary on child poverty screened four days before the election, claiming it opened the funding quango to accusations of bias.
McElrea complained to NZ On Air which sent TV3 a terse letter of complaint but TV3 went ahead anyway.
Critics have complained that NZ On Air, far from ensuring its reputation for independence, overreacted.
Walter is due to retire soon and it is understood McElrea has indicated interest to the Government in the role or in being appointed as deputy chairman, two production industry sources said.
In the past the funding agency has been headed by a senior public servant such as Mr Walter.
It is understood the Ministry for Culture and Heritage is recommending a former staffer from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
It is of significant worry that Stephen McElrea may be appointed Chairman of NZ On Air given the controversy that surrounds the Board's actions over the Bryan Bruce Inside Child Poverty documentary and his role in attempting to place pressure on broadcasters over their scheduling. NZ On Air is supposed to be independent and encourage quality programming, a mandate that is threatened by their political interference and paranoia before the previous election. As child poverty is an issue that belongs to all parties, and indeed was something that Key campaigned on in the 2008 election with his visit to McGehan Close, there is everything wrong with NZ On Air's attempt to strong-arm TV3 over its scheduling. This must be resolved before a new Chair is appointed, and McElrea's role in starting the emails should mean that he is out of the running due to his conduct.
The Screen Directors Guild have expressed their concerns over the potential appointment, with some producers stating that it is already influencing their approach to funding. This is an organization that I used to work for, and in my role teaching film at university I have many industry connections and understand the funding process well. To some extent, the damage has already been done. Directors and producers are already acutely aware of the political demands that influence funding decisions. The documentary environment is incredibly tough in New Zealand, and people are dependent on funding and the nod from a broadcaster to get funding. As their application for funding sheet notes, you need a written statement of interest from a broadcaster and also to list the broadcaster's financial contribution. New Zealand has a hybrid or mixed model of broadcasting, where despite the influence of the public service broadcasting model from Britain during the establishment of television in our country, the tough terrain and small population has meant that our television has always had to incorporate a commercial influence. In recent decades TVNZ has come under increasing political pressure to operate under a business model and return dividends, placing our sole public broadcaster in the precarious position of having to fulfill both commercial and cultural imperatives. This means that broadcasters already function as gatekeepers in a system that favors a ratings-driven model. When an hour of quality drama costs the same amount as hours of reality TV brought in from overseas, you can see the quandary that the industry finds itself in. The difficulty of balancing ratings and informative, quality works that promote the same kind of debate that is essential to a functioning democracy and society can be seen in the history of the TVNZ Charter in bizarre incidents such as Rick Ellis' 2007 claim that Police Ten-7 was Maori representation.
Some of the right wing bloggers such as David Farrar have positioned this kind of censorship as fine. With all due respect, they have little understanding of the industry. I anecdotally know of many people who have altered their applications to this and other funding bodies due to the politics of the time. There is certainly a perception among those in the industry that certain topics are sensitive and less likely to get funding already. This does not need to be entrenched further.
Farrar and the Libertarianz have argued that the documentary is factually incorrect. For the Libertarianz, this revolves around the use of the word 'free market economy'. Technically we don't have a free market, although this is tapping into debates around the moves to deregulate the market under the 1984 Labour Government. However, one would have to have been hiding under a rock since 1984 to not hear debates that have couched their argument using this turn of phrase, and semantic correctness in some senses is always at peril to a phrase's use in popular culture. It is difficult to argue that the documentary has not promoted debate and also given the right a platform to circulate their ideas, as I have seen in the numerous criticisms between the comparison of the documentary's use of Norway as a model for child development. It seems while Norway is fine to mention in the Welfare Working Group's report, it is not okay in a documentary surrounding our children. Critics have argued that Norway can only afford to do this because of their mining, for example, or that Norway has suffered economically for its reforms. The notion that the documentary only promoted one-sided debate is quite frankly a fallacy; it did what all good documentaries should do in providing a vehicle for the issue to be raised and debated. I have no idea why some on the right find this so threatening and the only conclusion that I can come to is that this is a debate that they do not want to have, even if they are capable of developing arguments over the issue. If there's one dictum that should always ring true, you shouldn't be in politics if you can't handle a debate and when it comes to the distinction between mice and men, perhaps we have mice.
The truth is that there is no one answer to this problem and the debate deserves to be raised otherwise we wouldn't be debating it. The world according to McElrea or Farrar is not a democracy, a democracy is made up of all of our perspectives, and rightly so as no matter how smart one individual is, there is always a perspective or insight that someone has not thought of yet. It is precisely during an election that I would hope that this debate can come to the forefront, rather than being swept under the carpet. This is our children, our future, and there is something quite worrying about limiting the debate to crime rather than discussing the societal factors that might be implicit in creating these conditions.
This is censorship, make no mistake, and this will have an impact on the industry. McElrea needs to apologize or step down from the Board as it is clear that his appointment, whether it be from concerns emanating from the National Party or his own gung-ho attitude to public broadcasting, is limiting his ability to perform his duties as a public appointee.