During last year's election campaign, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern pledged an additional $38 million – annually, it appeared – for a public broadcasting sector whose budget had been frozen for nine years of a National-led government. It was welcome news and in keeping with past Labour rhetoric. It came packaged with a new, multimedia vision for Radio New Zealand.
"Public media, backed with sustainable funding, is essential to ensuring all New Zealanders are engaged and heard. However a commercial market cannot deliver all of this," she said.
"RNZ has consistently provided an incredibly valuable service to New Zealanders, despite a nine-year funding freeze from the Government at a time of massive change to the media sector, Labour will build on RNZ's solid foundation and transform it into something closer to Australia's ABC."
A couple of months later she was Prime Minister Ardern and her new Broadcasting minister Clare Curran was the guest of honour at NZ On Air's annual Christmas function for stakeholders in Auckland. Curran fairly basked in the appreciation of the audience as she reiterated the promise that there would be $38 million in new funding, to be shared between RNZ and NZ On Air. But, she said, beaming as if it was a feature not a bug, she couldn't tell us what the split would be.
The kind explanation would be that, per the policy, funding was to be distributed by a new Public Media Funding Commission, whose shape and composition was yet unknown. But the minister's inability to say how much the two country's two major public broadcasting organisations would receive has meant that those two organisations have been unable to properly plan their year ahead.
As Duncan Greive noted in February, the nature of the split had significant implications for the whole broadcast sector. And it was understandable that the two organisations directly involved would be jousting for their share. Around the same time, the names of the people appointed to a an advisory group to advise on the formation of the Public Media Funding Commission were announced, in a messy execrcise involving redacted documents that hadn't been properly redacted.
In the past week or two, the buzz has been that perhaps the new funding wouldn't be $38 million at all – perhaps only $25 million – and maybe TVNZ would get a look in. Still, at least everyone would know what they had to work with after Budget day.
As delivered today, the Budget contains only $15 million in new funding for public broadcasting services – and it's still not clear where the money will go. Curran's press release today read in full:
The importance of well-resourced public media to inform our democracy has been acknowledged in Budget 2018, says Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Clare Curran.
“Quality New Zealand programming and journalism are crucial to our national identity and need ongoing, sustainable resourcing. In all democracies the media has a critical role in holding public and private institutions to account,” says Clare Curran.
“That is why we have set up a ministerial advisory group to advise on how to support the contribution of public media to an informed democracy,” says Clare Curran.
“Budget 2018 sets aside $15.0 million operating funds in 2018/19 to implement any of the advisory group’s recommendations that the Coalition Government accepts this year. There will be further funding allocated for full implementation in future Budgets.
“The ministerial advisory group may recommend increased Government investment in Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and NZ On Air to support public media and programming.
“Over time we want RNZ to have the ability to turn itself into a multi-platform provider dedicated to quality New Zealand programming and journalism, and we want NZ On Air to be able to better support content that is valued by Kiwis,” says Clare Curran.
Now, hold on. The advisory group is going to determine where the new funding will go? Wasn't the advisory group established to advise on the goals and composition of the Public Media Funding Commission, which was going to allocate the funding?
One problem here is that the advisory group quite evidently isn't constituted to allocate funding itself. Of its four members (industry stirrer William Earl having mysteriously dropped out as a fifth), two have those skills: Josh Easby, a former RNZ board deputy chair who has notably broad experience in various media sectors, and Irene Gardiner, who has pretty much the perfect cv. But why would former deputy state services commissioner Sandi Beatie and corporate receiver Michael Stiassny be making what are essentially operational decisions about broadcast funding?
The other problem is that you don't need a working group to decide, at some future point, that RNZ needs some more money to do the job it's tasked with. That information was made clear, via its board, to the last government and will have been made just as clear to the new one. As Jacinda Ardern herself said back in September when she announced the policy, RNZ "has been chronically under-funded since 2007."
I fully expected this Budget to be a relatively conservative one, and that Grant Robertson would use it to demonstrate his capacity for restraint and responsibility. So maybe we write off the missing $23 million to that. But offering RNZ nothing in rescue funding until an advisory group has decided something, some time in the next year, is not competent, prudent, fair or in keeping with Labour's rhetoric.
And suddenly, there's another wrinkle in there: the implication that this is not only a matter for Labour, but for the whole of the coalition government. Whose policy was this again?
I really don't know whether this is the upshot of Curran's chaotic interactions with RNZ in the past six months – and her consequent loss of sway – or simply a result of the minister's fixation with a particular model, but a Budget day should not leave the country's only public broadcaster unable to determine its own strategy.
In the circumstances, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson's public response was an impressive act of diplomacy:
RNZ welcomes the injection of $15m to the public media sector in Budget 2018, says chief executive Paul Thompson.
“This is good news and signals the Government’s commitment to investing in a stronger, multimedia RNZ that provides freely-available, high-quality journalism and programming.”
“While we have yet to receive detail of RNZ’s share of the funding we are preparing our plans to ensure the public benefit from any increase.
“RNZ is the nation’s commercial-free public broadcaster and we will play a growing role in ensuring New Zealand is a connected and informed democracy.”
“We are also encouraged by the indication that further funding will be allocated in future budgets for full implementation of the Government’s public media policy.”
NZ On Air will be miffed as well, but it is not in danger of not being able to carry out its statutory duties. The broadcasting element of this government's first Budget really is a shambles.