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MediaFebruary 27, 2018

RNZ and NZ on Air are battling over Labour’s $38m media funding windfall

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Redactions which disappeared due to a technical glitch point to a standoff which pits NZ on Air and the big private media companies against RNZ. The stakes? A huge funding boost which could shape the future of our media.

A standoff is brewing between RNZ and NZ on Air over who will control the annual $38m in additional media funding likely to be revealed in the Labour-led coalition’s first budget this May. Cabinet and Terms of Reference papers reveal the makeup of the panel convened to look at the allocation of this funding, and investigate the role of a public media funding commission. The documents had a number of redactions, thought all were able to be copied and pasted. What is behind the black bars hints at the shape of the media turf war.

At stake is who controls the money, which has profound implications for the future of public media funding in New Zealand. Currently NZ on Air dominates the space, receiving around $130m a year, with around $30m of that earmarked for RNZ. Labour announced prior to the election its desire to see RNZ expand its work in digital and television, a service it dubbed RNZ+. To help accomplish this there will likely be $152m allocated over four years – which, if RNZ were to receive it all, would more than double the organisation’s current budget.

The issue is the role NZ On Air plays in the allocation of content funding – whereby all platforms aside from RNZ apply for budget from a contestable pool, currently dominated by projects for television. The larger private print media companies in New Zealand are understood to be keen on maximising the contestable portion of the $38m for their digital platforms. The cabinet paper notes that the current commercial environment is “straining the business models of private and other commercial media companies… threatening their ability to practice journalism in depth.”

On the other side of the debate sits RNZ, which is believed to favour a direct allocation of some or all of the funds. While the public broadcaster’s relationship with NZ on Air is thought to remain on good terms, the funding system is already convoluted. At present RNZ has three paymasters: NZ on Air, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and Treasury. Why, some have asked, look to add another layer through Labour’s mooted public media funding commission? 

The makeup of the panel provides few clues as to the likely direction it might head in. Michael Stiassny is amongst the most experienced board members in New Zealand. Sandi Beattie has spent nearly two decades in the public service – her background suggests a drive for streamlining and efficiency might be pushed, potentially favouring RNZ. Josh Easby is a journalist, executive and recent former deputy chair of RNZ. He and Irene Gardner, a former TVNZ commissioner who ran the NZ on Air-funded NZ on Screen website until 2016, provide the bulk of the industry-specific experience of the panel.

“Serial advisory group founder Clare Curran,” was how Chris Keall acidly described the new Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media. Her new group has been allocated $1.381m over 18 months to complete its work. Curran’s office say this is to provide fees, meetings, research and support for the group, and that  “the Minister expects this to be used prudently”. Whether this represents value for money remains to be seen. The sector has been consistently reviewed over the decades, though given the pace of change it has experienced there is a case to be made for caution and care with the allocation of this new funding. 

The decision has major implications. If it breaks toward private media the $38m could provide for a major expansion of public good media and journalism within the private sector, and the large scale adaptation of our current model of funding television for the digital age. Under changes announced last year NZ on Air has become more platform agnostic – allowing a much broader range of bidders for funding (declaration of interest: The Spinoff TV received funding in December for a multi-platform show airing on Three in June).

There remains a preference towards television outcomes for big projects, though, with an effective $500k cap on pureplay online content. What the big private media companies will tell the panel, not without justification, is that they have the biggest online audiences and the journalists to provide the kind of public good content Curran appears to desire.

Over the other side a resurgent RNZ will point to its huge digital growth, its buoyant radio survey numbers and Labour’s push for RNZ to grow in digital and TV as reasons it should hold the money. The state broadcaster would point to the inefficiencies of reporting and applying, and the way they will eat into its precious budget without any tangible benefit to its audience.

For evidence of just how seriously this is being taken by both organisations, look no further than the cabinet paper itself. There were 11 separate redacted sections – all of which were swiftly revealed after NBR reader (and NZ Initiative research fellow) Sam Warburton discovered the sections were readable due to what Curran calls a “technical issue with the redaction process”. Which is to say someone screwed up.

Those sections often related to the fact both NZ on Air and RNZ are assembling business cases for holding the funding directly. This seems relatively innocuous, except that it is likely only one business case will prevail – or that the outcome will be a lot closer to one case than the other. Whichever that is will have massive influence over the future development of publicly-funded media in this country – and likely whether that is predominantly manufactured by the private or public sector.

The four person panel, then, holds the future of our media in its hands. And while they will research and interview and contemplate for another 18 months, the decision about backing RNZ or NZ on Air’s vision for that funding will likely be made by the time the budget comes out. So while it will all happen in whispers and behind closed doors, these discussions will be up there with the merger as among the most keenly fought in recent media history.

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