Does Radio New Zealand Need a Television Channel?

Probably most people who regularly read Pundit are in the cyberspace equivalent of the ‘beltway’ – the term for those who live in or work in inner Wellington and are intensely interested as to what is going on there, not just in parliament but in policy-making. (OK, OK, they are interested in the gossip too.) Much of what goes on there is not transparent. One can spend hours poring over an opaque public government report not quite getting it. Mention it to a mate you bump into on Lambton Quay and a cryptic remark makes it transparent.

If I am right, you are probably disappointed by the quality of the commentary which appears in our public media. It so often seems superficial, not getting to the bottom of things. In part this is because so much of the national media is based in Auckland. True they may have staff in the parliamentary press gallery but that is only part of the beltway. Admittedly there are a handful stationed out of it. One values Brian Fallows, of the New Zealand Herald, often seen walking in a jaunty bow tie along LQ. (Tim Hunter in Auckland provides an equally valuable service to Fairfax readers.) But few of the editorial staff are inside the beltway trotting along LQ, so they are not in touch with it.

Of course, the majority of the media’s audience is not particularly into the beltway – a bit of parliamentary froth is sufficient. However beltway addicts may feel deprived (some will take a little consolation reading the Wellington local Dominion Post); Bryce Edwards’ regular summary of the blogs is great too.

There is, however, one national media institution which is of the beltway: Radio New Zealand, whose new chief executive, Paul Thompson, has certainly sharpened its coverage. You may say that is because it is public service media. That cannot be quite true. There are many overseas private-owned newspapers which provide great coverage of their ‘beltway’. Or consider Maori TV which provides a terrific public service but it is hardly of the beltway (and should not be).

New Zealand democracy would be the better if RNZ also provided a television service. I understand that they are interested but the politicians are not. Of course they are not; what politician wants Radio New Zealand on screen, even if the public does and it would enhance democracy? It is not that RNZ is anti-government, although that is the way the government – any government – may feel about it. Rather, it is a proud example of the fourth estate which, like the other estates, is part of the institutions of democracy.

I am told RNZTV is technically feasible although I do not know the details of how it might be delivered. I worried a bit whether a channel would distort RNZ’s current high quality material. It would change it of course. But the digital and cyberspace convergence means that steam radio’s website already has images including some video (radio with pictures?).

Cost? Maori TV gets about $35m a year from the public purse (as does, currently, RNZ). That suggests an advertising-free RNZTV channel could be provided for about $35m a year too – perhaps a little less given the synergies with radio provision. Could the government find the amount from the public purse? You betcha if it were, say, for the Americas Cup. It is a question of what our national priorities are.

Sadly, the polys would not be enthusiastic. Satisfied with the coverage of the theatre of parliament, why disturb the system with critical information? It will come only if the public insists.

Let me finish with a prediction. If we ever get a public service RNZTV channel you can be sure that the Auckland-based national media would relocate some editorial weight to the beltway; there will be a rise in the quality of their analysis too.