Official Channels

Broadcasting will never be just another business, whoever’s in charge.

Listener 14 April, 2001.

Keywords Governance; Taxation & Regulation.

I leave readers to recall nostalgically events from the pictures and anecdotes of Pat Day’s Voice and Vision: A History of Broadcasting (and to add the story of Aunt Daisy and the chimp). This column is about the policy process which underpins it all. There was a minister of broadcasting, and he (they were all hes) and the cabinet made decisions which affected the broadcasting system, what we heard and saw, and our nation’s culture. But there was no ministry of broadcasting, which meant that each minister was faced by a series of conflicting interest groups, which had to be sorted out without any independent advice.

The book begins about 1960 when New Zealand was facing the overt issue of the introduction of television and the covert one of private broadcasting. (Recall Radio Hauraki?) (The earlier period is covered in Day’s first volume The Radio Years, and in Ian Carter’s Gadfly, the biography of James Shelly, New Zealand’s Reith of public broadcasting. The Public Broadcasting Trust, which funded the three books, is commissioning a biography of Colin Scrimgeour, Shelly’s commercial broadcasting equivalent.) Official policy advice was dominated by state broadcasters who wanted to maintain the monopoly. While they did not, the book leaves the impression that the NZBS/NZBC/BCNZ advice favoured its own interests, and they were not always the same as the public’s.

At various times there were (quasi-)judicial tribunals, including a Royal Commission on Broadcasting in 1986, but it is rare for a court to be able to make good public policy. And there was the Treasury. Now I know many Treasury officials who are as committed to our culture as the ordinary New Zealander. But one hopes that their personal preferences do not influence their policy advice. Because the Treasury is the keeper of the public purse – of the crown treasure – they ‘guard the fisc’, ensuring the government has a prudent fiscal position, raising its revenue as efficiently as possible, spending it as wisely as possible, and not borrowing too much.

I am not sure Treasury’s broadcasting advice from a fiscal perspective is entirely to blame for making the public broadcasting sector’s revenue increasingly dependent on advertising – politicians like Rob Muldoon saw it to their political advantage too. Maybe the burden of advertising on our ears and eyes reduces the burden of taxation on our purses and wallets, but the result was to push broadcasting in a commercialist direction. (An implication of Day’s book is that the pressure for commercialisation of broadcasting began in the 1970s, well before Roger Douglas. Was broadcasting policy the precursor of rogernomics?)

A commercially driven broadcasting system is socially inefficient. It turns the medium from a consumption item to an advertising seeking audience one. Advertiser-pays is not user-pays, so broadcasting does not even function properly in terms of a standard economic market.

After the 1988 reforms, ‘independent’ broadcasting policy became located in the Ministry of Commerce, but its function was to regulate the radio frequency spectrum. Like guarding the fisc, resource management is a proper activity for government. But it has nothing to do with the cultural aspects of broadcasting policy, and can be as unfriendly to it as fiscal policy has been.

More recently and rightly – I argued this in 1988 – the cultural aspects of broadcasting have been shifted to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. But it has only the equivalent of three people working on broadcasting policy, and the Minister had no policy adviser in her office. (‘Her’? Until recently we had our first woman minister of broadcasting in her office: Marian Hobbs.) The policy problems are no less today than those Day’s histories cover: How to run broadcasting for cultural purposes; How to deal with Maori broadcasting (which in my view is a prototype of the general issue of the degree of devolution of broadcasting facilities to all ethnic and other social groups); How to deal with new technologies.

The new technological issue is how to combine television with the internet: whether your TV set is going to be at the front end of your internet access or whether your internet is the back end of your set. The outcome is likely to have a major impact on our life, our culture, or nationhood.

The practical question is who is going to be in charge. Obviously TVNZ wants to be, and quite properly they are making a vigorous case to the minister. Other commercial ventures are lobbying just as forcefully. Because of economies of scale there is no purely competitive outcome, and the consumer will have to accept (suffer from or benefit from) whatever business settle on. The government, by involvement or neglect, will influence that outcome. Hopefully it will steer it in our interests. But how a barely supported minister will make wise decisions is not obvious. We will have to await the third volume of the history of broadcasting to get an overall perspective, but in the interim our viewing and listening will tell us much. Broadcasting may be a small industry, but it has an enormous impact on our lives.