‘The Case for a Non-Commercial Public Broadcaster’

Published on STUFF, 16th June 2021

The Government recently established a working group to look at the possibility of establishing a new public broadcasting entity. At present Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is almost the only agency that adheres to a public broadcasting mandate largely free of commercial imperatives. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) is in public ownership, but in all but name it runs like a standard private television station, with slightly less of the brashness of its commercial counterparts.

So, why go to all the trouble of even considering a public broadcaster when the proposed melding of the disparate cultures of RNZ and TVNZ is running into opposition, the last attempt to graft public broadcasting values on TVNZ in the 2000s failed, other experiments such as TVNZ 6 and 7 were closed down with a change of government, and there is likely to be little new money for a venture of this kind?

There is a strong case for a free-to-air, non-commercial public broadcaster and online media outlet. This case needs to be renewed in the light of the dramatic technological developments of our era, the strengthening of cultural and commercial globalization, and the hints of a deepening political polarization anchored by social and mainstream media, all of which have occurred since “state broadcasting” was first initiated a century ago. This case rests on three arguments.

First, we need to re-establish and protect a free-to-air-and-online “commons” that is non-commercial and inclusive and that can nurture searching and even-handed journalism alongside opinion, controversy, and cultural exploration. What we are seeing in social (and increasingly in mainstream) media is an algorithm-driven business model where companies establish and feed increasingly distinct and separable market segments with content that builds the loyalty and activity of those targeted audiences.

The social media companies have gone the furthest with algorithms that develop and deliver market segments of opinion and related buyer and audience habits. This is a commercial imperative in a competitive environment, and no amount of handwringing about its unfortunate consequences – antagonistic opinion bubbles, the purveying of “fake news”, the fanning of conspiracy theories – can alter this direction of travel. The best that can be hoped for is to mitigate the worst consequences. The Helen Clark Foundation has contributed to public discussion about how this can be achieved both domestically and internationally. Public interest media was flagged as a key measure through which governments can counteract polarisation.

Mainstream media is not immune to this in New Zealand and elsewhere as loudly-expressed opinion increasingly comes to crowd out even-handed journalism, and journalism itself is tending to be dominated by hyperbole, stridency, and emotive impact.

Second, we need to protect New Zealand’s “cultural sovereignty” against an onslaught of brilliantly-crafted films and shows produced by the overseas streaming giants such as Netflix, YouTube and Discovery. Increasingly the sheer technical and cultural virtuosity of these behemoths threatens to overwhelm our puny resources. Aside from a continuing and brave series of documentaries on RNZ, the likes of Country Calendar on TV1, and Māori TV’s coverage of ANZAC day, it is a long time since I have seen a broadcaster help New Zealand to tells its own stories in a compelling way that could compete with the overseas tech, film and media giants, despite the efforts of New Zealand On Air.

Finally, there is the consideration of “soft power”. This might seem pretentious for a small country in the South Pacific, but “Brand New Zealand” and our distinct cultural and political mix are points of difference and interest internationally that play to our advantage. New Zealand should not be apologetic about telling its story and projecting its image in its immediate neighbourhood.

How, then, could we structure and fund a multi-platform but unified non-commercial public broadcaster and online media outlet from our current ingredients? TVNZ 2 should remain a commercial SOE and generate an income stream for the public broadcasting and online entity. New Zealand On Air needs a boost in funding from a digital advertising tax on the tech giants that have sucked much of the advertising base out of the New Zealand media. With that, it could take the ABC across the Tasman as a possible model of a combined radio and TV entity and expand its public broadcasting brief from RNZ to progressively incorporate the main components of TVNZ 1.

We might find that a TV-enhanced and suitably modified multi-platform mix RNZ has developed works well across the entire merged organization as it helps New Zealand to establish an inclusive commons where we can tell our own stories, conduct a national conversation, and hold a mirror up to our increasingly diverse and vibrant society, leaving plenty of room for the domestic private sector as well as the overseas streaming, broadcast and social media giants that otherwise threaten to overwhelm us.

Peter Davis

Chair, The Helen Clark Foundation

Published on STUFF, 16th June 2021

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