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Screen Turmoil Across Tassie Causes Concern

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was thrown into turmoil last week when Managing Director Michelle Guthrie was fired. Chairman at the time, Justin Milne, a political appointee and personal friend of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, questioned her leadership style and her relationships with Canberra.

Milne was then ‘forced’ to resign when it became clear that he had allegedly asked Guthrie to get rid of two ABC reporters who had written negatively about the Conservative Government.

While Guthrie won few friends inside the ABC for being a distant and absent MD, it seems she was doing a good job protecting her employees from the political pressure exerted on her.

The ABC has long been under pressure, with global media disruption, funding cuts, complaints of bias from government and attacks from the commercial media sector. With five years of government with the Conservatives at the helm, it is perhaps the accusation of left-wing leanings that has most brought the ABC to its current position.

In his opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Vincent O’Donnell, honorary associate at the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, found some fault with the ABC, but stressed that its role as a public broadcaster with bias is not a vice but a virtue.The ABC, especially ABC radio, devotes airtime to issues that are largely ignored by other media: religion, feminism, Indigenous issues, Muslim and other minorities’ interests. In doing so it paints a picture of an Australia that is at odds with some people’s beliefs about Australia, for whom Australia is white, European, Christian and male.”

There’s an abject lesson for us in NZ from all this.

As reported in an NZ Herald story back in 2003, former magazine and Radio Liberty journalist and ACT MP Deborah Coddington accused our leading public broadcaster Radio NZ of bias in her Saving Public Radio report.

In his 2015 piece, RNZ Mediawatch presenter Colin Peacock took a look at bias in the NZ media without coming up with a conclusion, although he does cite the survey of NZ journalists that found 62 percent of them lean to the left.

With the change of government to Labour in 2017 came a focus on strengthening public broadcasting. This brought forth criticism from the commercial media sector when Fairifax CEO Sinead Butcher questioned Labour’s “… approach of piling more money into state-owned media, and their plans to turn Radio NZ into a super-media platform and broadcaster.”

In an unusual about face from the commercial sector, Mediaworks boss Michael Anderson supported public broadcasting with a call for TVNZ1 to become a public broadcaster. He was transparent with his reasoning here, being to allow Mediaworks access to the advertising revenue TVNZ takes from the declining piece of the free-to-air advertising pie.

These currently timid pokes by the NZ commercial media sector at public broadcasting pale in comparison to the Murdoch empire’s all out war against the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK, outlined in an opinion piece by Martin Flannagan in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014. This railing against the ABC by Murdoch’s Newscorp continues unabated, with calls for its and SBS’s charters to be reviewed because of unfair competition.

The NZ Labour-led coalition government has a focus on enshrining public broadcasting. Former Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran said earlier this year in an address to the Public Media Trust that “I am a firm believer in the value of independent public media – both as a means of holding our institutions to account, and for its contribution to our national identity.”

Curran obviously didn’t read her own memo about political interference when it became obvious that Radio NZ’s CEO Paul Thompson and Chair Richard Griffen disagreed with her plans to turn RNZ into a TV broadcaster. She stumbled over her ‘clandestine’ meeting with RNZ’s Carol Hirschfeld, and then fell on her own sword after her discovered get-together with Derek Handley over the Chief Technology Officer job.

If the ructions across the Tassie are anything to go by, we can expect that political and commercial pressure on public broadcasting in New Zealand won’t let up, no matter who’s in power. There’s a lot at stake and we can thank the Aussies for giving us a heads up on what’s coming.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive DIrector