Hard News by Russell Brown


Introducing: The New Zealand Media Archives

Something has needed doing about New Zealand's archives for a while now. It's a sector of silos; small organisations with incompatible policies and insufficient funding. So the recent proposal that several archives be consolidated as part of the government's strategy to drive out duplication is probably welcomed in principle by many stakeholders.

The government has already brought the two big heritage archives -- the National Library collection and Archives New Zealand -- together by moving the library, previously its own government department, into the Department of Internal Affairs. I don't know enough about the issues there to comment, but I haven't really heard any cries of distress.

The new proposal, however, is vastly more controversial. On paper, it says the government will consider merging the Television New Zealand Archives and the New Zealand Sound Archives into the New Zealand Film Archive.

It's hard to know where to start in explaining what a flawed idea this is, but I'll have a go.

One of these things is not like the others. The TVNZ Archives and Sound Archives are part of, and managed by, crown entities (in the case of the latter, by Radio NZ). Although most of its funding comes from the taxpayer, the Film Archive is operated by an independent trust -- and, as Roger Horrocks' 2009 review on behalf of NZ On Air indicated, a sometimes troubled one:

Despite the Archive’s outstanding record in some areas (such as public access), there are several aspects of its work that seem to us to need attention. In particular we have concerns about:

(1) a serious preservation backlog;

(2) a shortfall in archival storage space;

(3) the need for preservation to be accorded a higher priority in relation to other functions (collection and public access);

(4) the need for the funding of NZFA to be rationalised (as a single stream);

(5) the apparently unwieldy nature of NZFA’s governance structure; and

(6) the communication problems that NZFA sometimes has with the production industry and with some public sector organizations.

That last point is the key theme in this week's Media7 (hosted by Jose Barbosa on account of my recent infirmity). The panel of screen producers -- David Baldock, Leanne Pooley, Dave Gibson -- agreed on the difficulty of dealing with the Film Archive in comparison to the TVNZ Archive. In part, that's inevitable -- the TV archive is set up as a commercial production library, and its staff are competent and helpful in that context. I have, on the other hand, yet to hear a good news story from a producer or director dealing with the Film Archive, although I'm sure they exist.

But modern heritage archives must be much more than production libraries -- they must face the public, and the Film Archive does that in a way that the other two don't. It's right there in Taranaki Street, it has a nice cafe and screenings and events, and you can go in and request to see a work in an onsite booth. It engages with the community. That's very important.

But even if all the Film Archive's problems could be cleared up, it would still be a manifestly inappropriate holder of the television and sound archives. The nation's broadcast heritage -- a substantial body of public intellectual property -- cannot be handed to a private trust, least of all one that has experienced the ructions the Film Archive has.

The Horrocks review actually leans towards making the Film Archive a crown entity, in the way the Historic Places Trust became one, but advises against a "shotgun wedding" with another public agency.

Well, the engagement has been announced, the wedding is going to happen -- and we need to make sure that what ensues is a durable union. The responsible minister is Chris Finlayson, who has a cordial relationship with Film Archive CEO Frank Stark.

Frank is no slouch about advocating behind the scenes for his baby -- it's what's kept the archive alive all these years -- but didn't return Media7's calls this week.

But I don't think there's any choice about the way forward. As unlikely as it may seem in the present climate, there must be a new crown entity to incorporate them all. And no one gets the job of running it by default.

Leaving aside the present government's culture, there are relatively few barriers to such a move. My understanding is that neither TVNZ or Radio NZ are particularly keen to continue managing their respective archives (although both will no doubt want to enjoy full access to them).

Sound Archives would, I think, benefit hugely from being administered by a genuine archive organisation. I was on the advisory board there for several years, and it got a little depressing: good people doing good work with far too little money and no way of developing a vision or a public face.

Sound Archives has also been subject to some terrible direction from individuals within Radio NZ. The one I always quote is this:

Jolisa Gracewood was seeking to complete the memoir of her mother in law, the great and pioneering New Zealand TV producer Shirley Maddock. She knew that Shirley had given an  interview to Sound Archives, part of an oral history project to document New Zealand broadcasting history. She contacted the archive, paid the copying fee, and all seemed well.

And then the cardigan-wearers at Radio NZ found out she was going to use the interview in a book. Which might sell for actual money, and was therefore clearly a commercial project. Jolisa was then told that she would be charged a dollar for every word she used in the book. Shirley Maddock was, in effect, being posthumously charged for the use of her own thoughts.

I managed to get that changed by jumping up and down. But I had similar problems over the use of the audio of David Lange's famous Oxford Union speech. At one point, I was only to be allowed to transcribe the speech on site at Radio NZ's Auckland office. God bless the Auckland Radio NZ employee who literally handed me the CD in a brown paper bag and suggested I go home with it.

There were further problems with getting rights to place the audio online. At the commercial rates posted by Sound Archives it would have cost me something like $20,000 to put online (unlimited worldwide rights, you see). I got a letter from David Lange and Margaret Pope urging that I be given the recording to use without restriction. I enlisted the help of a Cabinet minister. And I still couldn't get the damn thing under reasonable terms. (I wanted a good-quality, non-DRM MP3 that could be incorporated in a derivative work, and I couldn't guarantee there would never be an advertisement on the same page.)

Eventually, I discovered that the recording was simply the audio of the TV broadcast -- and TVNZ CEO Ian Fraser, bless his heart, swiftly told me to just use the thing.

I'm not sure what has changed since, and whether the major users of Sound Archives are still Radio NZ and commercial clients, but the archive needs the kind of formal direction on the public good that can only come from being part of a public archive entity. I suspect many people in screen production think the same thing about the Film Archive.

But there is ... one more thing.

Simon Grigg and a few others have been working on ideas around a New Zealand music archive for several years now. Original recording masters degenerate the same way any other magnetic tape does, and we are in danger of actually losing many recordings.

Intransigence from some of the major music labels has been a problem for the idea of a physical archive, but Simon's proposal is, in the first instance, for a comprehensive, public, online database of New Zealand music and the culture around it.

RIANZ, IMNZ and the New Zealand Music Commission are behind this idea. It's sound, and there is even a brief paper in circulation. Now is the time to act.

The three existing archives, and the beginnings of the music archive, should be incorporated under a new Crown entity, one that allows each to retain its character and purpose, but offers the chance to share resources and a code of practice. It would bring rigour to the Film Archive and an overdue public face to the TV and sound archives.

Minister Finlayson, I commend to you in the strongest possible terms The New Zealand Media Archives.


NB: I haven't ventured on NZ On Screen here, and this is deliberate. I'm a member of the trust board, and I wouldn't wish anything I said in commentary to be taken as an official view. But I would note that NZ On Screen's long-term strategy is to be a service provider to other public-good organisations in the specific, important area of online access -- not preservation, not ownership, but emphatically co-operation. And I'd hold up the achievements of our excellent rights-clearance team as an example of how that can be done well.

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