Radio NZ wants to distance itself from being a public broadcaster

By Tom Frewen: Radio New Zealand wants just two changes to its Charter — insertion of a clause “embedding” the Treaty of Waitangi and removal of its description as a public radio company.

In its submission to the inquiry into review of its Charter being conducted by the Economic Development, Science and Innovation (EDSI) select committee, Radio New Zealand notes that the Charter “makes no specific reference to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi).”

“To fully reflect the responsibilities of the public broadcaster, the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be embedded in the Charter of RNZ,” the submission says.

The submission does not explain the purpose of “embedding” the 181-year-old treaty, signed decades before the invention of radio as a medium of mass communications. And while the radio receiver may have disappeared inside a device, radio as a medium is alive and well although Radio New Zealand’s board and management believe the grass is greener online.

“It is no longer accurate or appropriate to refer to RNZ as ‘the public radio company’,” according to their submission to the Charter review inquiry.

“In recent years RNZ has made the transition from a traditional live radio broadcaster to a modern multi-media public broadcaster,” the submission explains.

The “transition” from radio broadcaster to multi-media platform really gathered steam in 2013 when global sales of smartphones hit the one billion mark and Radio New Zealand appointed a new chief executive.

Paul Thompson, who took over from ABC television journalist Peter Cavanagh in September 2013, became the public broadcaster’s third chief executive since it was split from the government’s ZB commercial radio network in 1996.

After starting as a journalist with the Christchurch Press the previous year, Thompson quickly moved into management, rising to become chief executive of the Australian Fairfax/Stuff newspaper chain. Having experienced the rapid adoption of digital technology in the production and distribution of printed publications since 2000, Thompson wasted no time in stating his belief that radio was about to follow suit.

“Radio, television and newspapers are merging into digital devices that are always switched on,” he wrote in his notes for speech to the to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference in Glasgow on Monday 12 May 2014.

“The future of content delivery is multi-media, multi-platform, personalised, mobile and social,” he said in 2014.

“To stay relevant and continue our mission of serving the public, and to maintain and grow our audience, we must become and are becoming a multi-media organisation.”

At the same time, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage was calling for submissions on what was then called “convergence”.

Without making a formal submission, New Zealand on Air contributed a paper, eventually released under the Official Information Act. One of three questions it addressed was whether “a multimedia contestable funding system, with a cultural purpose, is a useful model to address the complexities of a converged media landscape.”

Contestable funding of television programmes, administered by NZ on Air, provides taxpayer subsidies for production of local content on our advertiser-driven commercial TV channels. (Radio New Zealand is directly bulk funded to provide programming specified in its charter and cannot carry advertising.)

Expansion of this unique model into “a multimedia contestable funding system, with a cultural purpose” would produce something not a million miles away from the “new public media entity” that Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi is hoping to be green-lit by Cabinet before the end of the year.

The obvious choice for running the multimedia contestable funding system would be NZ on Air. Under Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led administrations, the agency’s annual funding has risen from $132 million in 2018 to $182 million this year, an increase of 38 percent.

While the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which is responsible for NZ on Air, was asking media “stakeholders” about convergence, National’s Broadcasting Minister Amy Adams was revving up Radio New Zealand’s Charter Bill which had lain dormant for six years after Labour failed to get it passed before being ousted in 2008.

Introduced in 2016 by way of a Supplementary Order Paper and without going before a select committee, the amended Charter now included the concept of the “delivery platform” which it defined as “any method of transmitting audio, visual or audiovisual content.”

Adams said the new charter, as amended by the Government, reflected “Radio New Zealand’s role as a modern public broadcaster” — transforming it from a radio network into “a multimedia organisation that connects with diverse audiences in a range of ways.”

Passed on April 1 2016, the charter came up for review this year, inconveniently timed for Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi’s advisory group of experts in the middle of their efforts to write a charter for his new public media entity, conceived in the time of convergence and now nearing the end of a seven-year gestation period.

Initially happy to go along with the Minister’s attempt to delay the Charter review — minutes of the Radio New Zealand board’s meeting on Tuesday 2 February say: “this makes sense and will give us an opportunity to build on the Charter as part of the development of the new entity” — a submission was nevertheless received by the select committee right on the deadline of Friday 13 August.

Assuming ownership of the inquiry from the outset, Radio New Zealand’s management welcomed “the opportunity for New Zealanders to give their views on how well RNZ has responded to changes introduced to the Radio New Zealand Charter Amendment Act 2016.”

Radio New Zealand’s submission then addresses the inquiry’s terms of reference which may well have been written as an open invitation for anyone keen to express a view “on how well” the public radio company has responded to the changes that the Government made to its Charter in 2016.

Singling out amendments defining “commercial-free broadcasting” and a requirement to “take advantage of the most effective means of delivery”, Radio New Zealand said they had enabled it to provide content to “more than 50 other media partners” including newspapers and websites.

Commercial radio broadcasters, on the other hand, were more concerned with how Radio New Zealand was functioning as a radio.

“We have concerns that the Charter is not always the basis of strategic and operational decision-making at RNZ,” their Radio Broadcasters Association’s submission says.

“We have seen growing focus and pressures, both internally and externally, to ‘grow’ new and total audiences without regard to the commercial market.”

The Radio Broadcasters Association’s submission is backed by NZME Radio Ltd, owners of Newstalk ZB, who say they don’t want “what can be perceived as recent attempts by RNZ to grow audience to come at the cost of distorting audiences.”

NZME, which also publishes the NZ Herald, says: “this could create increased competition with commercial radio, and therefore could potentially undermine RNZ’s purpose as a public broadcaster.”

This is the key question as the inquiry into Radio New Zealand’s Charter continues. Stay tuned.