Ten key takeaways from a major interview with the new broadcasting minister.
Willie Jackson has the longest media CV of any broadcasting minister in recent years, with substantial careers in the music industry, radio, television and print. He now oversees a noisy portfolio undergoing profound change, with RNZ and TVNZ merging, a major review of digital media, including the role of social media platforms and a news media seeking Australian style deals with the tech giants.
He joined The Spinoff publisher Duncan Greive’s podcast The Fold to discuss all those issues and more in a wide-ranging and frank conversation. The following is an edited and condensed sample of their kōrero.
On what the RNZ-TVNZ merger aspires to achieve
What I’d like to see is a lot of what we had in that first decade [of the 2000s]. I’d like to see more voices out there. People say “oh, it’s just about the Māori voices”. It’s not. Obviously, I want to see those much more prominent. I want to see the Pacific voice. [National’s broadcasting spokesperson] Melissa Lee talks about the Asian voice, and she’s quite right to. This is a different New Zealand.
I know, the opposition keeps saying everything’s still the same. They talk about “our democracy hasn’t changed”. Clearly there was a new democracy from 1996, when MMP came. Absolutely there’s been a new democracy. And, I think, an improved representation. We need to mirror that in the mainstream media, that’s what I’m saying. Because parliament has become diverse. The new democracy gives us more women, more Pasifika, more Māori. I want that type of public media – more diversity, more opportunity.
People actually like the principle. The Nats, of course, are going, “oh, everything’s fine. There’s no problem. [RNZ] is great. Everybody’s being heard.” No, everybody’s not being heard. Everybody’s not being seen.
On the RNZ/TVNZ merger and NZ on Air
You know, you can’t just say nothing will change. Because that’s been our line, right? Nothing will change, nothing will change. So I think we’re going to find that out. I really respect what New Zealand on Air has done. But when you get into a direct funding model, as we’re going to do with a new entity, obviously there’s going to be some effect. And I think that our establishment board will work that out. And I said to Ruth [Harley, NZ on Air chair], I gave her a commitment that we’re going to just keep talking here, because you’ve got a hole in terms of funding, so there’s obviously consequences that will happen.
On the merger’s impact on Māori and Pacific media
You can’t have it crush setups like Pacific media or Māori media… That’s the fear of the public entity. So I want to talk with some of our Pasifika brothers and sisters, because we have to put in protections there. The other side of it is we’ve got to, we have to stop talking to ourselves too. While we’re talking to ourselves, it’s really important, but we need to get those specific messages, those Māori messages on mainstream. And right now, they’re absolutely minimal. You know, I was on Te Karere two days ago, with Scotty Morrison. And I was saying, in our language, that despite what Te Karere does, the Māori voice on TVNZ is minimal, apart from half an hour on a Sunday. It’s the same with Pasifika.
So I want to see the best of on mainstream, but I also want that autonomy maintained. I don’t think it has to be either/or – I think we can run both. Before, you’ve had bureaucrats who’ve said it’s either this or this. I want both.
On the relationship between RNZ and Māori
When I said [on Mediawatch that no Māori listen to RNZ] I was exaggerating a bit. My wife listens to national radio. And people who are in the game, they listen, there’s a few Māori who do. But generally they don’t.
It’s gonna be a challenge to get them on. I like [RNZ chief executive] Paul Thompson very much. And I think he’s made an effort in terms of Māori programming, but they’re still way off, you know, they’re still around about 2%. My disappointment with them was that they cut the Māori programming, they cut Māori news, they cut Māori language, and they don’t have Māori presenters.
I always said, over 100 years, you don’t have a Māori presenter in primetime. They’ve got Māni [Dunlop] now at midday. And I just think if you imagine if we get some of the best of Māori, and whether it’s a Māni or a Julian Wilcox, our people might start listening if they hear themselves or see themselves.
On the Public Interest Journalism Fund, and suggestions the media has been bought off
I think it’s rolled out really well. In terms of the government “buying off” media, what a load of nonsense. You think the Māori media that I’ve been a part of cut me any favours?
There’s always little bits of things that are true. You know, if you look at the application that New Zealand on Air rolled out, they talk about the Treaty and all that sort of thing. They might have gone a bit too far. I think they’re trying to do the right thing. Sean Plunket would say that you have to swear allegiance to the Treaty. I say, no, I don’t want that. I want them to understand the Treaty. But I don’t want anyone to swear allegiance to the Treaty.
On the collective bargaining between tech platforms and news media
I think the challenge now is how are we going to replace [the PIJF funding, which runs out next year]? That’s why these deals with the big players, the Googles and the Metas, are really, really important.
That’s the type of kōrero I’m going to be having with them over the next couple of weeks. I know that they’re irritated that I haven’t been able to face them yet. But I’ve seen what you see, I hear what you hear. I think you only bring legislation if they can’t cut proper deals with the industry. But the reality is when they decided to do [legislation] in Australia, you and I both know, bang – the deals came very quickly.
I have to go through this process with [the tech platforms] and show them respect. But I come from the background I come from, so I hear the small person. I’ve heard them. And if I hear NZME struggling to get a proper deal, RNZ struggling to get a deal, then what chance for the small player? I’ll be asking those questions.
On the social media platforms, information disorder – and regulation
The social media platforms are, in my view, out of control. You’ve got people disappearing down rabbit holes. I’ve got relations, they hear anything, they see anything, [they think] this is the real deal.
I suppose [it is me in charge of the platforms]. And we’re going through a whole content regulation review right now. Look, there’s a lot of things out of control, but I’m trying to bring some balance to it. Yesterday I was meant to meet with Google – that’s been put off till next week, [but] they’re itching to get on with me. Then I’m meeting with Meta, or Facebook, in the next couple of weeks.
With this content regulation, we need to bring a set of rules to the table, right? At the same time, you have to balance those rules with freedom of expression. I think there should be consequences [for disinformation]. What’s my job as a minister? It’s probably to protect some people, particularly young ones – they can’t actually work out what’s real and what’s not real.
And there’s no rules around that. Where are the consequences here? We have to be brave and courageous as governments, to say these are the rules, these are the consequences. And if safety is your first priority, then that’s the way we should be going.
On that Roast Busters interview…
It’s the biggest regret of my broadcast career. I don’t have many regrets. It’s probably just about the only regret really. First and foremost, you never want to hurt anyone. That’s not our style. People might not believe that about John, but it’s not his style, either. We work with women and we work in domestic violence areas. We run domestic violence programmes. So even though we never knew who that person was, because things never identified themselves, first and foremost, you don’t want to hurt anyone. And that’s why I apologised then, and I’ve apologised a number of times since. We weren’t even concentrating at the time. We were just sort of half listening. And it just shows you’ve got to concentrate all the time when you do this job.
So you know, we made a mistake. It’s not something we did. That’s not us. If that was me, Ali Mau wouldn’t have worked with me for the next three years. Right? She’s the queen of the Me Too movement. It was just a bad moment in our time. We weren’t concentrating and we hurt a lot of women. It was a terrible way to finish out our careers. It was sad. It was a terrible way to finish.
…And how some cannot forgive him
What I find interesting is how some people say that they’ll never forgive us. And I think, really? I mean, I’ve I work with murderers and rapists. We find ways to forgive them. We work with them and we rehabilitate their lives. Paul Holmes was forgiven for [calling Kofi Annan a] “cheeky darkie”. John Key is forgiven for pulling people’s hair. But for us, we were just the scum of the earth for forever and a day.
On what Willie Jackson the broadcaster would make of Willie Jackson the broadcasting minister
My style doesn’t change. You know, I like to challenge people, challenge organisations, despite what Mr. Peacock tried to make out [on Mediawatch]. I’m not a bad tempered person who gets into scrapes with everyone, but I don’t mind a scrap. But that’s not my preferred way of working, I like to work respectfully with people. And then if you reach a point where you’re going nowhere, then I will always challenge.