Hard News by Russell Brown

44

And The Mission Is?

National has a broadcasting policy. It could be worse. The policy statement begins with the words "National has a clear commitment to public broadcasting," and, really, the bulk of it is business as usual.

The headline-grabber is something that, strictly speaking, does not appear in any of the material released by National's broadcasting spokesman Jonathan Coleman: the scrapping of the TVNZ Charter.

What is proposed in writing is the freeing up of $15 million in Charter programme funding to be administered on a contestable basis by NZ On Air. For all that Trevor Mallard has been protesting, this is really an extension of his recent removal of TVNZ's discretionary power over the Charter funding.

I still believe there is virtue in fixing part of the public broadcasting obligation with a publicly-owned broadcaster, but I don't see the sky falling so much as the situation returning to what it was in 2003. The policy doesn't solve anything. TVNZ had the dual-remit problem before 2003; it would still have it under a National government.

Indeed, National would have to instruct TVNZ, a crown-owned company, to draw up a mission statement, which is what it had before it got a Charter in 2003. Although, as a state-owned enterprise (until 2002) TVNZ was primarily charged with being a commercially successful television business, it was also committed to (and this is a paraphrase from a 1997 government document, rather than the original wording) "social responsibility in the provision of quality services, in particular the provision of television programmes which reflect and foster New Zealand’s identity and culture, both in New Zealand and internationally, and which are in the overall national interest."

Coleman gives no hint as to whether TVNZ would simply revert to something like the old mission statement, but it hardly seems that National could maintain -- as it says it would -- a publicly-owned broadcaster without some sort of public rationale. If only because, as public submissions on the Charter review last year demonstrated, the public has quite clear expectations on that score. The fiddling with the text that followed seems far less significant than the spirit of those submissions.

The plain fact is that TVNZ has not done a good job of handling Charter funding, which is why the current minister has all but relieved it of the job already. I would, nonetheless, expect it to pick up the bulk of the $15 million in newly-contestable public-good funding. Whether this money will be specifically tagged for Charter-stye programming isn't clear.

There is no detail of this nature in the one-page policy released this week (this may well be a characteristic of most or all of National's policy releases this year) and the real questions about the policy aren't of the "who?", but "how much?" variety. It's all very well to say that National will continue to fund Radio New Zealand, but the words "at the current level" are notably absent. Will it go back to the starvation diet of the 1990s? National cannot blame observers for feeling suspicious.

Coleman himself would probably be a reasonable broadcasting minister; perhaps even a more interested one than Trevor Mallard. He is sufficiently interested in the future of communications technology to have been a participant in the cross-party Parliamentary Internet Caucus, and he asked a couple of good questions at the meeting of the caucus where TVNZ's Jason Paris and I presented last year.

At the least, the wording here is an improvement on the crazy-ass press-releases about Freeview that have formed the bulk of Coleman's contributions so far. After obsessively kvetching about Labour's lack of a plan for taking all viewers digital as soon as possible, Coleman now has the security of knowing he doesn't have a plan either, even though he has now set a digital switchover date of 2015.

The polls say that Coleman and his colleagues will be in the position by the end of this year of not only making this policy -- presently no more than a statement of intent -- work, but meeting some quite clear public expectations. I would suggest that they have plenty of work to do yet.

PS: Here's some next shit: Nat Torkington tipped me to this fairly amazing bit of star-gazing about massed PVRs leashed in a storage network that feeds a BitTorrent cloud of all "good" British screened at any time. Amazingly, the guy's day job is with Ofcom.

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