Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says doing nothing to address the challenges facing public broadcasting in New Zealand is not an option, after news of a proposal to replace RNZ and TVNZ.
RNZ has reported an advisory group, with representatives from both media companies and a range of public service agencies, has presented three options to Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi: a merger of the two, increasing funding to NZ On Air, or this third – and preferred – option to disestablish both companies and replace them with a single entity.
The advisory group concluded the status quo was “unsustainable” and recommended the government agree to establish a new public media entity. This proposal is in its very early stages. The paper for the Cabinet committee to consider has to be drafted; if it gets through Cabinet committee it then goes to the full Cabinet.
Ms Ardern would not confirm whether ministers would soon consider the proposal for a new public media entity.
But it was obvious public broadcasting was needed now more than ever before, she said.
“We are seeing a change in the way companies access revenue, we’re seeing a decline internationally in journalism in terms of their revenue sources, it’s become a really difficult environment, so we do need to support public broadcasting.”
The government was actively looking at the best way to support public broadcasting, and recent events reinforced the need to do that, said Ms Ardern.
“We have set up networks of advice and that’s coming into government but we haven’t made any decisions yet.
“We haven’t finalised timelines but obviously the minister has been working on this issue for some time – as soon as we’ve made decisions of course we’ll make them known.”
The Broadcasting Minister is staying mum over any plans, saying he’ll make an announcement next month.
“We’ve been saying for some time ‘we’re working on it’… given the situation with the media at the moment we’re certainly wanting to support public media as much as we can.
“We haven’t taken it to Cabinet, we said we’ll make decisions and make announcements by the end of the year, and that’s what we’re still focused on,” Mr Faafoi told reporters.
Reports about a potential plan to replace RNZ and TVNZ with one public broadcaster were “unhelpful”, said Mr Faafoi.
“But it doesn’t mean we’re not focused on making sure that we get to a decision before the end of the year and set public broadcasting on a course to make sure it can survive the troubles that media in general are facing.”
New Zealand First MP and broadcasting spokesperson Jenny Marcroft said there were some fundamentals being discussed with the minister.
“What do we do to ensure our public broadcasters remain in a position where they are relevant, that they are providing news that is trustworthy and that they hold those in power to account.”
Greens co-leader James Shaw said his party was also talking about possible changes, but hadn’t yet settled on a position.
“We’ve always thought that good public interest news and information is critically important…the media’s under huge pressure, I don’t need to tell you that…so it is going to require some intervention.”
But National immediately came out against the idea, warning it could dismantle any plans to form one single entity if it is in power after next year’s election.
Leader Simon Bridges said the government lacked a mandate to make such a major change.
He said a combined state broadcaster would be “worrying”. “Where it took an editorial line – and it inevitably would – that would become the received wisdom … a liberal democracy needs many voices that check each other.”
Ms Ardern shot back saying allowing the decline of journalism in the face of new, competing forms of advertising was bad for democracy.
“We cannot afford to have our journalistic integrity compromised by being unable to fund and run decent, both journalism and broadcasting.
“I do think there’s a risk here, but bolstering public broadcasting is the answer, not the problem”, she said.
Ms Ardern was asked whether Labour would campaign in 2020 before making any major changes.
“We already campaigned on a platform of public broadcasting and I think what we’re seeing now demonstrates why that’s important.”
In terms of certainty for public media in New Zealand, she said ultimately the choice was either making decisions that “bolster public broadcasting, or we choose to do nothing”.
“And I don’t think doing nothing is an option.”
Mr Bridges said National accepted it was a “difficult media landscape” with constant change but there were alternative solutions like increasing funding to NZ On Air “to ensure there’s good quality news in New Zealand.
He said he believed any change should be a bipartisan decision “so that it is an enduring set of solutions. And if it’s not, I think National would need to consider unwinding a solution it disagreed with in office”.
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