Myles Thomas: Debate over public media merger is the proof we need it

The planned RNZ/TVNZ merger
The planned RNZ/TVNZ merger . . . reliance on commercial media for political discussion is prone to being style over substance, posturing over policy, soap operas over documentaries. Image: New Zealand Herald

COMMENTARY: By Myles Thomas

How the RNZ/TVNZ merger went from its first reading in Parliament to the legislative extinction list is an example of why New Zealand actually needs more public media and not less. Let me explain.

It has been labelled a grenade, a dog and a monolithic, monopolistic monster. Yet it is actually a reasonable policy that would bring New Zealand public media in line with most other developed countries.

No other developed country has separate national television and radio networks. They have seen how it fails us and said, “no thanks”.

Most other developed countries spend quite a bit more on their public media platforms too. Brits pay $81 each, Norwegians $110, Germans $142, but Kiwis just $27 each year to fund RNZ, TVNZ and NZ On Air.

Even with the government’s funding increase over the next three years, we’ll still be spending less per person than Australia, Ireland or any other country we like to compare ourselves to.

A big part of our public media underspend is successive governments’ policy that TVNZ pay its own way and rely on advertising dollars.

Other countries subsidise their public media because they realise that a reliable source of news and information is too important to be left in the hands of marketers and advertising departments.

Other end of the spectrum
At the other end of the spectrum is the US spending just $3 per person on public media. You have to wonder how different US politics might be if it had fully-funded public media.

It is true that TVNZ does receive funding for programmes through NZ On Air but those shows still have to be simple and entertaining because TVNZ sells adverts around them. Only Sunday mornings have programmes for minorities or long-form political interviews, and of course, that is when there is no advertising.

That is the big difference between public media and commercial media. Public media doesn’t rely on advertising so it isn’t so desperate to get your attention and blast adverts at you.

Public media has time to examine public issues in-depth.

Commercial media needs to make money and with advertising dollars drifting to Google and Facebook, they work even harder to make content as eye-catching, entertaining and easy to understand as possible.

You may have noticed it on TVNZ, Newshub, Stuff or at the New Zealand Herald. These days there are more articles about crime, car crashes and weather bombs because they catch people’s attention.

Political reporting also wants to catch your attention. While public media can spend half an hour discussing a policy in-depth, commercial media want eyeballs so they go for the fun stuff — who’s up and who’s down in the pugilistic soap opera of daily politics. It is entertaining and it’s quick and easy to explain.

Complicated issues
Unlike this opinion piece I’m writing for you now — I’m already halfway through my allotted word count, yet I’ve spent all of them just explaining the background. Complicated issues take more time to explain. I had better get on with it.

It was in this commercial political reporting soap opera that the media merger lost its way. Like many politicians, opposition broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee exploited commercial media’s focus on simplification and pugilism to attack the government. She repeatedly claimed the government could not explain why we need the merger, but the government had tried to explain it, only the public hadn’t heard because it is too complicated to explain quickly and simply on commercial media (as I’m trying to do here).

Political reporting fixated on Willie Jackson’s various stumbles as though this reflected the policy, rather than analysing the policy itself.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon also exploited commercial media’s lack of examination. He criticised the merger for being “ideological”, claiming it would destroy TVNZ’s business model, and saying he would demerge it if National win the election.

But none of the interviewers asked Luxon to explain his figures or why the destruction of TVNZ’s business model would be a bad thing. None asked him if demerging would also be “ideological” and none asked if he would get a cost-benefit analysis done before demerging.

Lee and Luxon’s criticism worked. A Taxpayers Union poll in November claimed 54 percent opposed the merger and 22 percent supported it.

Different polling outcome
My organisation, Better Public Media Trust, also polled on the subject but we added some information about the merger, its costs and benefits. We got quite different results with just 29 percent opposing and 44 percent supporting the merger.

That shows what a little bit of information can do to public opinion. It also shows that reliance on commercial media for political discussion is prone to being style over substance, posturing over policy, soap operas over documentaries.

That is why the merger should go ahead. People would see it’s not a dog, grenade or monster, but intelligent, diverse and informative public media. Just in time for the election.

Myles Thomas is chair of the Better Public Media Trust (BPM). He is a television producer and director of various forms of “factual” programming, and in 2012 he established established the Save TVNZ 7 campaign. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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