Not such a simple 'yes, minister'

In the middle of last year, Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman proudly told radio broadcasting students in a deliberate and detailed speech at Auckland University of Technology that the new Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill was "a stronger statement than its predecessor about Radio New Zealand's role as a public broadcaster".

He added that it "clearly states Radio New Zealand's purpose is to serve the public interest, and that this is to be achieved through public interest principles".

Was this the same Dr Coleman who was shown last week to have been having a spat with the board of the public broadcaster?Documents released to TV One, and dating from November last year, quite properly addressed rising costs and a static budget.

However, they also revealed an imperious, not to say impatient, minister: "Members of boards who are not able or prepared to meet these expectations might need to move on or be replaced by members who can."

Which is about as clear as possible a warning that if the board did not do the minister's bidding, it would be sacked.

All this preceded the board's appearance before the commerce select committee at which it would be required to rehearse options for making ends meet. And in the event, despite something of a sideshow in which Green MP Sue Kedgley repeatedly questioned Dr Coleman on whether he had threatened to sack the board or interfered with operational matters, board chairwoman Christine Grice downplayed suggestions of tensions between her board and the minister.

She said the board was confident it could meet his expectations and, as many other public organisations are having to do, could cut its cloth to meet the prevailing economic conditions.

So what was all this about? A beat-up? A piece of overplayed political theatre? Money - a small per centage variation on a rather piddling overall budget of $38 million? The KPMG report from 2007 that said Radio New Zealand was very efficient, and already underfunded, and cuts would be to its detriment?No, not in essence.

Rather, it would seem to be one more small sortie in what might be termed our very own version of the "culture wars".

It is no secret that to those on the right of the political and economic spectrum, Radio New Zealand has long been anathema.

Failure to conform to a set of viewpoints dearly held by such critics, or to fall into the line propounded by the same, is seen as opposition and therefore as "bias", "liberalism", "socialism", "leftism", "elitism".

They would find it so much more agreeable if Radio New Zealand was more directly answerable to the rules applicable to most other media in this country: that is, to the commercial and cultural imperatives of "the market".

Hence we had at the weekend one of the country's more lippy libertarians pronouncing in a newspaper column upon "the nonsense that is public broadcasting.

"Especially the overstuffed shibboleth that is Radio New Zealand".

Michael Laws is quite entitled to his views, and regularly expounds them on his talkback show for a rival radio station, through his columns and in the voluminous press releases sent out by his office, the mayoralty of Wanganui.

But more to the point, was Ms Grice capitulating in her seemingly contrite appearance before the select committee? After all, boards across the country have been stripped of recalcitrant incumbents and replenished with "friends" of the Government - part of the habitual political goalpost-shifting that occurs with incoming administrations.

ACC is a notable example, as is, more locally, the sacking of Richard Thomson as ODHB chairman.

More likely she was in fact calling Dr Coleman's bluff.

After all, as the minister's prized new charter makes clear - yes, the very same he was boasting about last year - Radio New Zealand is not any old state-owned entity.

In light of the minister's Jekyll and Hyde menace, and the heat the issue has occasioned, it may be worth reciting two or three of the foremost principles set down in the Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill and which Ms Grice and her board are statutorily bound to observe.

- As an independent and commercial-free public service broadcaster, the public radio company's purpose is to serve the public interest.

- Freedom of thought and expression are foundations of democratic society and the public radio company as a public service broadcaster plays an essential role in exercising these freedoms.

- The public radio company provides reliable, independent, and freely accessible news and information.

It is, of course, quite understandable that some people might find such provisions threatening or inconvenient.

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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