Here’s to Public Broadcasting

robinson  and mercepIn praise of Public Broadcasting

By Prue Hyman

Listening to Geoff Robinson (and Simon Mercep) anchoring their last Morning Report show was wonderfully nostalgic.

I liked the human touch – including that they tossed a coin when they both wanted (or didn’t want!) to interview someone.

The programme also made me reflect on the future of Public Broadcasting, an absolutely essential part of the fourth estate and any genuine democracy.

Core programming, at least, needs to continue to be free of advertising, while political independence and reasonable funding is essential.

I hope their successors will deliver as good a programme though I have some concern about Guyon Espiner’s comments about bringing a more aggressive style to the show.guyon espiner

Reassured by his attitude

Nevertheless, I was somewhat reassured by his saying his return to public broadcasting was due partly to its freedom from advertising, with contents on Third Degree on TV3 being highly ratings driven.

The first few days of the new presenters have been a reasonable start in my view, and it’s good to have a woman presenter (Susie Ferguson) again and an Auckland-Wellington combination.

Radio New Zealand (RNZ) has had its funds frozen for six years, a major problem, and its new Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, is portrayed as a changemaker brought in to modernise and shake-up an allegedly tired organisation, and do more with less.

According to Nikki Macdonald’s interesting article on the changes in March 29th Sunday Star Times, ratings have held up but with 40% of listeners being over 65, RNZ “desperately needs to tap into younger audiences.”

Yet the proportion of the population 65+ is increasing, has more time and motivation to listen to radio, and needs to be catered for. Many in current younger age groups may well want its informed coverage as they age.

‘ Dumbing down?’

I fear, as one of those largely happy with the old format and content, that the attempt to get more younger listeners may well lead to the dumbing down already seen in TV current affairs.

Sure, it would be great if more younger people would listen (as I always did – maybe I was always temperamentally over 65?!) – they would learn a lot – but not if it means going more downmarket

And yes, some changes are important – more ethnic diversity in presenters (not yet seen) and content: more adaptation to the digital age.

But the basics of RNZ need to be preserved. And despite the forebodings, Thompson may actually agree, and his changes prove more cosmetic than major.

Hymns for Sunday Morning’s move to the concert programme is not a problem for me, though I am sad that Weekend Worldwatch has gone. So far these are the main content changes and the rest is personnel and style.

But neither radio nor TV adequately covers international POLITICAL affairs, preferring blanket coverage of disasters, so Worldwatch is a loss, while TV3’s relatively new Three60 is to be welcomed.

‘ I prefer intelligent probing’

As for aggressive interviewing, we already have too much of that. I prefer intelligent probing, including not letting people get away with non-answers.

However, even this can at times go too far and be politically biased. In a recent interview on TVs’s The Nation, Russel Norman was repeatedly battered with questions concerning a possible coalition with Labour about Greens ‘bottom lines’ (such as their policies against fracking and the TPPA).

Ever since an election when the Greens articulated an anti-genetic modification bottom line, they have wisely refrained from specifiying any.

They (AND Winston Peters) correctly point out that the relative power of political parties to form a government and have the major say on policies in any coalition will be decided by voting numbers and hence MP numbers.

Those who support their policies should party vote Green. The question was being answered, but not in the way the interviewer wanted – which was a trap hammered unmercifully in an attempt to make Norman look evasive or make a blunder.

Failure of Ministers to ‘front up’

The main problem Morning Report has, in my view, is the failure of government ministers to front up at all.

TV and its ratings attract them more, while most of TV’s current affairs programmes escape any accusation of left wing bias, as some unfairly assert about RNZ. I am of course more alert to right wing than left wing bias and also view total objectivity/ neutrality as a myth, but RNZ as left wing biased is laughable to those of us with real left wing views.

On public broadcasting TV, I regret the abolition of the license fee in 1999 by a National led coalition. It was a revenue stream that reduced dependence on the ratings driven advertising dollar and the annual government budget allocation, as well as supporting local content and production.

Of course it was still dependent on government decision making, and had for many years failed to increase with inflation

The best local TV current affairs programme is in my view Native Affairs on Maori Television. I am less bothered than many about other worthwhile ones, The Nation and Q and A, being tucked away on weekend mornings – most of us have recording devices or can use TV on Demand on our computers.

Delayed and non-traditional viewing appears to be the way of the future – I just hope that the economics and politics of this will not endanger the production of these types of programmes.

The changing nature of communication with all the new technologies and social media provide both threats and opportunities for newspapers, TV, radio and all other types of outlet.

I don’t trust any government to use funding, regulation or their own appearances in the media for the good of press freedom, healthy debate, and equal opportunity for all parties.

So we have to be vigilant and use our voices, our time, and our own preparedness to pay for good media to help ensure a healthy range of voices continue to be heard. Sue Kedgley has suggested making the future of public  broadcasting an election issue (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11229714).

She says: “If Radio NZ’s half a million loyal listeners made it plain that they would vote only for a party that was committed to adequately funding it, perhaps the Government would sit up and listen.”

Now, there’s a thought.