Hard News by Russell Brown


Do these people even talk?

The All Blacks can rest easy. As incoherent as some of their team play has been this year, it looks orderly and disciplined in comparison to their government's handling of 2011 Rugby World Cup TV rights.

The news today, presaged in this morning's Herald, is that the government has effectively scuppered Maori Television's solo bid for free-to-air screening rights by promising millions of dollars for TVNZ to lead what the IRB has described as a "compelling" consortium bid for the rights. If it is successful, TVNZ, TV3 and MTS will get games.

Which, according to this NZPA story, is what the government wanted to do all along.

Apparently, someone forgot to tell Pita Sharples. And he in turn forgot to tell Cabinet and responsible ministers that he was quietly kicking in $3 million from Te Puni Kokiri's development fund. Were it not for the news being broken by journalists, it appears that the rest of us might have stayed out of the loop until the IRB awarded the rights – which could have been as soon as last weekend.

Many of the objections to MTS getting the rights are piffle: given its track record, I think there's little doubt that the company could have pulled off the job. The channel has some excellent broadcasters, and experience in sports coverage. And only the most thoroughgoing bigot could have objected to 5-10% of the language in broadcasts being te reo.

On the other hand, the plan to use the development funding as a non-contestable slush fund was troubling. It was three million dollars for which other Maori ventures wouldn't even have the chance to make a case. (I'm told the full budget was $6 million: $2 million from MTS base funding; $3 million from TPK; and a million from the Maori Language Commission, which, it seems, may have been news to the commission.)

Pita Sharples' performance has been woeful. It took him a week to put together a coherent rationale for the use of the TPK money – effectively a communications sponsorship to advertise the culture – and along the way he promised things he couldn't deliver, such as the handing on of audio rights to iwi radio; and, most notably, near 100% coverage for MTS in two years' time.

The 15% of viewers presently not reached by MTS' terrestrial broadcasts would be impossibly expensive to reach on the UHF band. TVNZ, on the other hand, does have near-100% coverage via its VHF broadcasts, to the extent that it plays a de facto civil defence role. When public money is going into the right to screen what will be a major national event, this isn't trivial.

It might be asked exactly what Broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman was doing at the time too. If the government's preferred strategy was a shared bid with TV3 and MTS – rejected by MTS in favour of solo glory - were he and Murray McCully effectively communicating with Sharples? Do these people even talk?

The result, as Audrey Young put it, is that:

The issue has pitted the governing National Party against the Maori support party, department against minister, minister against minister, television station against television station, and potentially viewer against Government.

It is divisive on many levels, as the response has shown since last Friday when the Herald revealed that Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development) will spend $3 million as part of the bid package.

The upshot was an urgent meeting in Wellington, attended by ministers, MTS CEO Jim Mather and TPK CEO Leith Comer, who, said Young, needed "to explain why such a patently controversial and new spending decision was not referred to the Cabinet or senior ministers earlier."

My sense is that the MTS bid is broadly supported amongst Maori, and Finlay Macdonald mounted an impassioned defence of the bid in his Star Times column. But drawing equivalences with the spending of money on waterfront or stadium development is really a diversion. It wasn't good enough in the Shipley years when Murray McCully spent taxpayers' money without telling Cabinet and it's not good enough now.

Finlay says that "If state TV or its private equity-owned rival Mediaworks couldn't find the cash, maybe they too should have courted a state agency willing to subsidise their bids – for the public good, of course."

If only we'd had the chance to hear a discussion about where the public good lay. Getting the rights to such an event would have been a huge boost to Maori Television, and the culture in general. But there was also a case to aid the national broadcaster, particularly given its comprehensive broadcast coverage.

I'm assuming there's a great deal I don't know. Perhaps TVNZ was high-handed in its original offer of a joint bid to MTS. On the other hand, it appears that MTS played hardball too.

The sad thing is that had they been able to stand together, we'd be pouring less into the IRB's coffers than will now be the case. The rights owners would, in the end, have had to sell New Zealand free-to-air rights to someone.

Instead, we now have our government bidding against itself in a rights auction.

To say that this could have been handled better is an understatement. Hopefully, like the All Blacks' home World Cup dream, it will all work out. But I think I'll leave off complaining about the All Black midfield for a while now.

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