Public broadcasting under threat in New Zealand
A move to censor television programmes likely to embarrass the government during election campaigns is being considered by the broadcasting funding agency, NZ on Air.
The minutes of the NZ on Air board’s December meeting reveals a decision "to seek legal advice on whether NZ on Air could require an additional clause in the broadcast covenant requiring broadcasters not to screen programmes likely to be an election issue within the Election Period as defined in the Broadcasting Act".
A reaction to TV3’s screening of Bryan Bruce’s documentary on child poverty four days before the general election on Saturday 26 November, the proposed ban on television programmes "discussing topics likely to be an election issue" during an election campaign would be an extraordinary first for a western democracy, giving total control over television current affairs to a government agency run by political appointees and bureaucrats.
The emails released under the Official Information Act in regards to allegations of political interference at New Zealand On Air over Bryan Bruce's documentary Inside Child Poverty should be seen as a warning signal that our fourth estate is not working well in New Zealand, and we are witnessing a climate of fear that is threatening the independence of our government departments. That New Zealand On Air feels that it cannot do is job without pandering to politicians during the election shows that the Board members feel that they do not have the mandate of independence that the legislation grants them.
There are several points that are of interest here. The first and most obvious one is that while Inside Child Poverty mentioned past policies, it was certainly not structured as a political attack. Sure, the documentary was aired four days before a general election, but the issue of child poverty in New Zealand is much broader. The claim that the issue of child poverty was not one in the election before this documentary are blatantly untrue: child poverty had been the launch pad for at least three political parties - the Maori Party, the Greens and Mana. Labour had also launched policy around the establishment of a children's commissioner. The issue had been a recurring one in the media due to the UN Report on children and reports of food banks running out of food. In fact, one could argue that the issue of child poverty went back at least three years, with Key's speech on McGehan Close and the 'underclass' for the previous election. With 25% of our children living in poverty, the notion that a documentary such as this could not be screened because it was seen internally as an issue that would annoy National signals that National are interested in controlling the agenda for debate, and despite their election platform of welfare reform to supposedly reduce long term benefit dependency, they are not interested in talking about poverty.
New Zealand On Air is, as Neil Walters states before he goes into his bizarre explanation of how being paranoid is political independence, bound by legislation to be independent. That the emails then evidence New Zealand On Air attempting to strong-arm TV3 into influencing its programming decisions demonstrates that something is deeply wrong at New Zealand On Air. As Tom Frewen reports for Scoop, New Zealand On Air Board member National Party Northern region Deputy Chairman Stephen McElrea complained that a quality documentary that actually does advance public service broadcasting principles replaced reality television programmes, evidencing the sad state that we may find our public broadcasting in if we leave National in too long.
These board members have a conflict of interest and have demonstrated an inability to make sound decisions. It is clear that from incidents such as John Key's claim to be able to shift Coronation Street last year or his accusations that the Human Rights Commission had violated Paula Bennett's human rights through their need to have a judicial enquiry that this government is quite keen to blur the boundaries of its influence through little respect for the independence of the institutions it is supposed to protect. However, it is also clear that as guardians of the public service mandate of our mixed model system of television that we need people on the Board of New Zealand On Air that can actually stick up to Government and are able to fight when politicians cross the line.