Speaker by Various Artists

A tragedy in three acts

by David Hay

The following analysis of public broadcasting policy in New Zealand was was submitted by David Hay, an experienced policy and business analyst of Wellington who has worked for CCMAU, Telecom and the New Zealand Broadcasting School, among others.

He offers a different diagnosis and a different prescription than South Pacific Pictures' John Barnett, whose speech is also posted today, but like John he is grappling with the greater issues of public broadcasting in New Zealand, and not just Susan Wood's salary. Enjoy - RB

The TVNZ debacle has been a tragedy in three acts:
Act One: The 1989 Broadcasting Reforms

The first and longest act began with Richard Prebble's broadcasting reforms in the late 1980's. Under the old Broadcasting Act 1977 all broadcasters had been required to serve the "public interest". The term was undefined, but at least the requirement existed.

Under the new Broadcasting and Radio Communications Acts (1989), there was no such requirement. The public interest would be determined by the consumers under a free market model. It took me three years and 60,000 words, in writing a Master of Public Policy thesis, to explain in detail why this was not just wrong in practice but entirely unjustified by economic theory. I won't repeat it here.

At about the same time, TVNZ became a state-owned company and quickly lost any sense of its public role. There were (as I recall) at least two general election years during which the main, or only, current affairs programme broadcast by TVNZ was Holmes (I'm not sure; I stopped watching television at all for a few years, because it was a waste of time.)
Act Two: The Charter
The second act was the passage of the Television New Zealand Act 2003, which contains the Charter. This was a "band-aid" solution to a much wider problem; it required only that TVNZ, but not any other broadcaster, must serve the public interest.

The Charter itself is a fusspot's recipe, cobbled together by officials, rubber-stamped by the Minister and tweaked by Cabinet. It prescribes what TVNZ must do, and even how it should be done, but it doesn't say why.

Good legislation prescribes who gets what, why, and under what conditions. The "who" in TVNZ's charter are alluded to variously as: audiences, citizens, Maori, varied interests and informational needs and age groups, smaller audiences, New Zealanders; and the independent New Zealand film and television industry. What these people should get is also prescribed: feature programming that informs, entertains and educates; shared experiences that contribute to a sense of citizenship and national identity; a significant Maori voice, feature programming, and... I could go on, but I'm getting bored.

The failing of the Charter is that it doesn't give a "why". There is no raison d'etre, no call to arms, and no grand vision. It doesn't inspire or motivate; it bores. Compare this with New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy; why do we have it? Because "Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible" It's a simple, eloquent and powerful statement that David Lange defend with vigour and detailed argument.
Act Three: A Failure of Leadership
That brings us to the third act of this tragedy: the appointment of uninspired, and uninspiring, board of directors to run TVNZ and their appointment of a show-pony Chief Executive.

This was a tragedy because the Charter's apparent failings are also a missed opportunity: an astute board could have stepped back from the fussy detail of the Charter and constructed a "why" for itself. Let's think, for a moment, about the Broadcasting Commission. Few people know that the Broadcasting Commission exists, why, or what it does. But everybody knows about NZ on Air. The Broadcasting Commission, when it was first established, gave itself a name that expressed its core purpose, created a CGI goldfish to communicate that purpose, and now everybody: broadcasters, television producers and the audience, knows that NZ on Air exists and what it exists for 'so you can see more of New Zealand on Air'.

TVNZ never did anything like that with its Charter. The Board failed to seize the opportunity, and it appointed a CEO who couldn't either. It would not have been difficult; here is the "why" of the Charter in three bullet points:

• So the peoples of New Zealander can understand their history, their place in the world, and what the future might hold.

• So New Zealand citizens will know who they are voting for, be able to assess the vision for the future they propose, and then judge for themselves whether their elected representatives are acting in New Zealand's best interests.

•So that we all may; in story, song, documentary and drama; enjoy each others' achievements, triumphs and laughter, and share our hopes, dreams and sorrows.

Now that wasn't hard, was it? How would you like to work for an organisation that held those goals dear to its heart and that strove, in word and deed, to fulfil them?

Is the Charter inconsistent with TVNZ's commercial objectives? Absolutely not: the three bullet points above could be boiled down into an organisational "mission statement" for TVNZ:

Above all else, deliver value and meaning to your audiences. If you do that, your advertisers and shareholders will also be satisfied.

And to prove the point, you need only look at TV3: the two television drama series that best fulfilled the Charter's vision in 2005 were Outrageous Fortune and Bro'Town. The news and current affairs programmes that rose to meet the Charter's standards were TV3 News and Campbell Live. TVNZ, meanwhile, demonstrates its innovative celebration of New Zealand's identity and culture by continuing to screen Coronation Street in prime time, two nights a week and its news is an unspeakable triumph of celebrity over substance. In these two key areas TV3 has been doing a better job of implementing the Charter, at lower cost to taxpayers, than TVNZ.

Which rather proves the point: the tragedy in this third act stems from a failure of leadership, not a failure of policy.
What happens next?
There has been much said about the "politically appointed" board of TVNZ, but that is not the issue either.

The ultimate responsibility for a company, its successes and failures, rests with the Board. What makes a broadcaster desire to serve the public interest is its organisation culture, which flows from the board's leadership. Ownership is not important in itself. Being a commercial broadcaster, rather than being tax or license-fee funded, is not important. Leadership, and how that leadership creates organisational culture, are what matter most.

The board of TVNZ is comprised of good people, but they are not capable of doing what is required; providing the leadership that would transform the culture of TVNZ. Only two members of the current TVNZ board have experience in broadcasting or journalism, and neither of them are the Chair or Deputy Chair.

The board of TVNZ is appointed by the Minister, on the advice of the Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit (CCMAU), which is full of very bright and capable people, who do a sterling job of safeguarding the Crown's investments. I know this for a fact, and I say it without irony, because I've worked there. But I can state, with equal confidence, that CCMAU does not understand much, if anything, about the production of culture and identity.
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A big part of the problem is that the rules under which board members are appointed will not produce a Board capable of leading TVNZ to deliver the Charter: members are appointed for only a three-year term and paid a pittance; the boards of Crown-Companies tend to be appointed for their management experience, rather than vision or strategic comprehension (read "The Fish Rots from the Head", by Bob Garratt, for an explanation of why this creates poor governance); and appointment to a Crown Company's board doesn't always require significant expertise in the company's core business.

The crown company Boards can overcome these deficits by appointing highly skilled Chief Executives, who can run the company under the board's oversight, but without its leadership. This works, in many cases, but it hasn't with Ian Fraser's.

I don't mean to insult Mr Fraser by calling him a "show pony" CEO; I mean that his appointment was clearly made for his symbolic value, rather than his expertise. He may be a very capable manager in many respects, but did not have the experience or ability needed to lead organisational change at TVNZ. His three years in the position have proven that.

But this is the board's fault, not his: a board with real experience in broadcasting would never have appointed a presenter into a CEO's role; the board should have known that presenters tend to have volatile, egotistical characters and are temperamentally unsuited to management. Ask any radio station manager and they'll tell you an ex-journalist, maybe, but never a presenter.

The key to improving TVNZ's performance, under the current broadcasting policy arrangements (which are less than ideal), is to review the TVNZ Board and how it is appointed. The problem is not that it's appointed "politically", but that it is appointed under rules and assumptions that ensure it cannot deliver the Charter, as it is required to by the Television New Zealand Act 2003.

David Robert Hay
021 255 9071

Appendix: the TVNZ Board
(TVNZ website, 20 November 2005)

Craig Boyce, Chairman (Christchurch)

Craig Boyce is Chairman of Smiths City Group Limited, having previously been its Chief Executive for 10 years. He is also Chairman of Connexionz Limited and Snowy Peak Limited and a member of a number of other boards, including those of Bernard Matthews New Zealand Limited, Christchurch City Holdings Limited, Datacom Group Limited, Trade and Enterprise New Zealand Limited and Orion Group Limited.

Robert Fenwick, Deputy Chair (Auckland)
Robert Fenwick is an environmental businessman with a background in brand marketing, sustainable development and broadcasting. He is Chairman of the Crown Research Institute, Landcare Research Limited, a founding director of Living Earth Limited and former chairman of Mai Media Limited. He also holds a number of not-for-profit governance positions.

Bryan Gould (Hamilton)
Bryan Gould was born and educated in New Zealand before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he gained a postgraduate law degree. Mr. Gould was the Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University for ten years. Bryan Gould previously served in the UK's Labour Shadow Cabinet and spent a number of years in the British Foreign Office. He was also a presenter and reporter on Thames Television's current affairs programme 'TV Eye.'

John Goulter (Paihia)
John Goulter was appointed a director of Television New Zealand Limited in June 2005. The former managing director of Auckland International Airport Limited, he is currently chairman of the New Zealand Lotteries Commission, a director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Vector Limited and United Carriers Group Limited. He is also an external advisor to ABN AMRO New Zealand Limited and a trustee and board member of the New Zealand Business and Parliament Trust. In 2002 he was the Deloitte/Management Top 200 Executive of the Year and also the NBR New Zealander of the Year. He was inducted as a laureate into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 2003. In December 2003, he was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Business and the Community.

Dame Ann Hercus DCMG (Christchurch)
Dame Ann was Minister for Social Welfare, Police and Women's Affairs from 1984-87. From 1988-90 she was NZ Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of Mission for the United Nations Forces in Cyprus from 1998-99. She is currently a Director of the Crown Financing Agency and serves on a number of charitable trust boards.

June McCabe (Auckland)
June McCabe is Director of Corporate Affairs for Westpac New Zealand. She holds directorships including the Board of NZ Venture Investment Fund and the General Church Trust Board. She is also involved in the Research Centre for Families, Anglican Trust for Women and Children, Business in the Community, Books in Prison Trust and the Business and Parliament Trust.

Philip Melchior (Wanaka)
Phillip Melchior has held a range of senior positions with the Reuters Group plc culminating in his appointment as the London based Managing Director of Reuters Media. Before his international career with Reuters, Mr Melchior had an extensive career in journalism in New Zealand (both press and television). He has also held governance roles with a number of international media companies.

Trish Stevenson (Wellington)
Trish Stevenson's career has included working in television, education, marketing and publishing. She is a former director of New Zealand on Air and a former manager of educational publisher Learning Media's international team.