Chris Trotter


MELISSA LEE should be deprived of her ministerial warrant. Her handling – or non-handling – of the crisis engulfing the New Zealand news media has been woeful. The fate of New Zealand’s two linear television networks, a question which the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media could have settled long ago, remains inexcusably obscure. Given the simplicity of its answer, Lee’s failure to offer it is unacceptable. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon should sack her.

He won’t, of course, for the very simple reason that Luxon and his colleagues do not believe that Lee has done anything wrong. National and Act have a visceral aversion to state participation in cultural affairs. Were it not for the practised intervention of elite patrons of the arts, it is probable that the leaders of both parties would decree that if cultural producers cannot attract paying customers, then they should share the fate of every other business that fails to satisfy the market. Though they could never afford to admit it, National and Act would likely find much to commend in the words of the Nazi-sympathising poet and playwright, Hanns Johst, who famously admitted: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my pistol.”

Winston Peters and NZ First almost certainly do not share such extreme attitudes towards the arts. They are as much cultural, as economic nationalists, with an altogether firmer grasp on the vital relationship between a nation’s culture and its politics. It is even possible that Peters and NZ First understand the vital role played by free-to-air television networks in the fashioning and preservation of social cohesion. But for one thing, NZ First and its leader may well have been filling the policy vacuum created by Lee’s inaction.

Unfortunately, that “one thing” is the television networks’ history of unrelenting hostility and, at times, active sabotaging, of Peters’ political career. Winston wouldn’t piss on the NZ news media if its bum was on fire – which, of course, it is.

So, what is this “simple” answer to the television network’s problems? The resolution to the financial difficulties afflicting both TV3 and Television New Zealand requires nothing more than this nation adopting the solution long ago arrived at by the countries with which we like to compare ourselves: Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada.

Nominally publicly-owned TVNZ should become a genuine, non-commercial, public broadcaster like the ABC, the BBC, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), and the CBC. This would allow TV3 to pick up the advertising revenue currently accruing to TVNZ. There may not be enough advertising dollars in our economy to sustain two commercial television networks, but there are more than enough to sustain one. The money currently allocated to New Zealand on Air would go to fund the public broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ.

If more financial support was required, then it wouldn’t be hard to find. According to Myles Thomas of the Better Public Media Trust: “TVNZ’s annual budget is roughly $300 million. For the cost of just $5 a month per capita, New Zealand taxpayers could fully fund TVNZ so that it need no longer rely on any advertising at all”. Given that a huge number of Kiwi’s shell out in excess of $15.00 per month for streaming services such as Netflix and Neon, a broadly comparable deduction for public broadcasting shouldn’t be too big a shock to the nation’s system.

A blindingly obvious solution? Of course it is! So, why on earth didn’t Labour and the Greens, in office for six years, do the blindingly obvious thing? Knowing the answer to that question would certainly help New Zealanders understand why the parties of the Left failed so comprehensively to accomplish so many other blindingly obvious things.

One possible answer is that the sort of people who now inhabit New Zealand’s political parties are loathe to approve anything that might turn out to work brilliantly. The idea of a state-owned entity rising boldly and innovatively to the challenges of the twenty-first century makes them uneasy. Very few politicians in this country are comfortable with people and/or institutions that take the independence vouchsafed to them by the system seriously. The New Zealand state may hand out the crayons and the colouring books to its creative children, but it expects them, always, to stay inside the lines.

Maori Television, for example, was formally guaranteed full editorial independence and supplied with the money to make that promise real. The result? Its initial headquarters, in Auckland’s Newmarket, quickly became a buzzing hive of questing creativity. Its broadcasters, equally quickly, proved themselves to be among the best in  New Zealand. In very short order, MTV began to show up TVNZ and TV3 for the crass, commercially-driven behemoths they had become.

What happened? What do you think happened! Maori Television’s journalists, in full accordance with its charter, began to ask questions – embarrassing questions. Not just of Pakeha politicians and bureaucrats, but of their own elites. What followed bore out the old trade union observation: “The bosses give you all the rights and privileges of free and independent citizens on only one condition – that you never use them.”

Pressured by the outraged Maori elites and their political mouthpieces, MTV’s Newmarket studios were shut down and its studios relocated to East Tamaki. The channel’s fearless journalists found it expedient to offer their talent to less “traditional” employers. Responsibility for MTV’s future was deemed to require an extremely safe pair of hands. Questing creativity no longer fizzed through its corridors.

Ask yourself. In all the fuss about Newshub closing down and TVNZ ceasing to produce “Sunday” and “Fair Go”, has there been any mention of Maori Television – sorry, “Whakaata Maori”? How many New Zealanders are even aware that it’s still broadcasting?

Now, some may say that all that bad stuff happened under National. But, in the six years they were in office did Labour do anything at all to restore Whakaata Maori’s questing creativity? Nup. Too risky. Even in its own caucus. Even in its own Maori caucus.

The contrast between the present Labour Party’s approach to public broadcasting and that of Norm Kirk’s Third Labour Government could hardly be more stark. The Broadcasting Minister of the day – a young, questing, entrepreneur of a politician called Roger Douglas – set in motion what most media historians still regard as the “golden age” of New Zealand television.

Kirk and his ministers understood what Labour politicians of the twenty-first century only fear: that giving creative and intelligent producers and journalists the freedom to make the best television they can is never going to work against the cause of developing a vibrant national culture; and that developing a vibrant national culture is never going to disadvantage the Left.

Pretty obviously, Melissa Lee, understands that too.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...

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