By Clare Curran
The fight to save our only public television broadcaster came to a head nearly five months ago, with the Government refusing to back down on their decision to shut down TVNZ 7. The Save TVNZ 7 Campaign collected nearly 40,000 signatures, and it became clear to me that the people of New Zealand want a public broadcaster they can rely on, one that is strong, independent, modern, and commercial free. The Government deliberately ignored the widespread pleas for an independent television channel.
If New Zealand wants to continue to showcase itself as a country with high ambitions and creative talent, it needs to ensure it has a healthy media environment. Public broadcasting is an essential ingredient of that because it provides a forum for discussion and for content not covered by the commercial sector. At our recent party conference Labour pledged to provide funding for an independent, commercial free public television network. As Labour’s Broadcasting Spokesperson, I am committed to seeing this through and I am working through possible funding options. I am also committed to transparency in the media and believe media must be seen to be free from political interference.
Which leads me to the recent appointment of Richard Long to TVNZ’s board On paper, Richard Long has all the qualifications for the job – he’s a former journalist with many years’ experience in the media. He was also Chief of Staff in the National Leader’s office to Bill English and Don Brash from 2003-2005.
For many Kiwis, even the perception of political influence - at any level of our media organisations – is distasteful.
They want an independent media that is willing and able to discuss the issues of the day without fear or favour - regardless of the opinions of the Government of the day. As a state broadcaster, TVNZ is particularly vulnerable to accusations of political interference.
Richard Long will know that, just as he knows how important it will be for him maintain political neutrality in his new role.
Of course, his is not the first such appointment. John Key’s electorate party chairperson, Stephen McElrea, is on the board of New Zealand on Air. He clearly demonstrated that he is unable to separate his political views from the responsibilities of his position with his complaint about the timing of a child poverty documentary.
Another example of a ‘bad look’ was the Government’s decision last year to allow MediaWorks to broadcast Kiwi FM on a public frequency while reducing its local content requirement. Kiwi FM frequencies were granted to MediaWorks in 2005 on the basis that they were to be non-commercial and to be used for New Zealand music only.
A deal was done to hand over 40 per cent of the Kiwi FM frequencies to MediaWorks, allowing it to reduce local content from 100 per cent to 60 per cent. This was a huge slap in the face to the access radio stations which couldn’t get on the FM spectrum.
There are some big and important issues here. The Leveson Inquiry currently underway in the UK, investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal, underpins the lessons the Government should learn and why we need a public broadcaster. Having free press is the public’s right, and a free public broadcasting media service not driven by commercial interests is essential to an informed democracy.
Labour is committed to the values of public broadcasting, knows what it means and knows how important it is for democracy to function. That commitment is growing, not lessening.
Clare Curran is Labour Broadcasting Spokesperson