The Opinion of the People: Some Thoughts on Labour’s Non-Existent Broadcasting Policy




I WATCHED KRIS FAAFOI’S performance on The Nation last Sunday with mounting concern. It wasn’t that Kris was saying anything that other Labour spokespersons for (and Ministers of !) Broadcasting haven’t said many times before, it was simply that, once again, a Labour MP was demonstrating how poorly his party comprehended broadcasting’s importance to an effective Labour government.

Why is broadcasting so important? Because social-democracy – as its name suggests – is about extending the reach of citizens’ power beyond mere participation in the formal rituals of voting, and into those parts of our daily existence where the writ of formal equality does not run. First and foremost, that means the workplace, but it also includes “the public square” where opinions are formed and tested, and where policies first acquire the imprimatur of popular support.

Over more than two centuries, the functions of the (formerly quite literal) public square have migrated: firstly, to the output of the rotary press; and then, from the 1920s, to the airwaves carrying radio broadcasts; and finally, from 1960 in New Zealand, to television.

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Since 1992, the duopoly of influence over the public square which the print and electronic media enjoyed has been challenged by the Internet. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, for the overwhelming majority of citizens, the news of the day still arrives via a newspaper, the radio and/or television. Even the news carried on the Internet is (mostly) still drawn from “traditional” media sources.

When the First Labour Government was elected in 1935 one of the incoming Prime Minister’s, Mickey Savage’s, first moves was to place the airwaves under public control and arrange for Parliament to be broadcast, live, to the nation. Savage was fortunate to have as his adviser the famous “Uncle Scrim” – Colin Scrimgeour – a radical Methodist cleric whose “Friendly Road” programme was so influential that the “National” government actually went so far as to jam his 1935 election-eve broadcast.

Scrimgeour understood the power of radio to circumvent the private sector’s near monopoly over the printed word. Public radio could ensure that the formation and testing of opinion, and the assessment of public policy, were no longer the prerogative of those with sufficient capital to own and run a rotary press. Progressive ideas, hitherto the targets of capitalist censorship, could now be given a hearing.

With radio firmly in public hands, the First Labour Government was even able to leverage the rapidly rising demand for detailed information about forthcoming programmes into the creation of The Listener. With a guaranteed readership in the tens of thousands, this state-owned weekly magazine was able to act as the proving ground for New Zealand’s most influential writers, poets, artists and critics. Through the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, Listener editors steadily expanded the magazine’s purview to include some of the best political reporting and social commentary then available in New Zealand.

It is a sad fact that the mere suggestion of a future Labour government launching another high-quality, outspoken and publicly-owned weekly magazine is enough to give your average Labour MP heart palpitations! And, regrettably, any suggestion that Labour promise to reassemble a large, publicly-funded, radio and television platform under the control of a statutorily independent but government appointed board, is likely to produce a very similar response.

The conventional wisdom is that such an organisation simply could not be established “in the current climate”.

That the weather conditions are, apparently, perfectly suited to the creation of a vast, privately-owned, highly-profitable, subscriber-based, digital television platform called “Sky”, which is rapidly consolidating a near monopoly over broadcasting rights to the world’s best television content, does not seem to bother the conventionally wise in the slightest.

A truly radical Labour Minister of Broadcasting would announce the wholesale nationalisation of Sky TV.

The cost of an average annual subscription to the new state-owned enterprise would be reduced from its current $1,000, to a much more reasonable $300 (that’s just $25.00 per month, $6.25 per week or 90 cents a day!) and the rest of the country joined up free-of-charge.

Radio NZ and TVNZ would be merged into the new corporation and the funding currently allotted to NZ on Air would be redirected in its entirety to the new body, which would immediately take over the role of prime commissioner of local radio and television production.

The right to broadcast “nationally significant” sporting events, along with the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, would be exclusive to the new state broadcaster.

A New Zealand-based, 24-hour, news and current affairs channel would be funded out of the advertising revenue derived from the most popular entertainment channels. New NZ-based documentary and drama channels would, similarly, be advertising free.

If that radical Labour Minister of Broadcasting was of a nostalgic disposition, he or she might call the new entity the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation – an excellent logo is already on file.

The neoliberal architects of the present structures of radio and television broadcasting would, of course, scream blue-bloody-murder at what they would undoubtedly call a “sinister state takeover” of the news media. Our radical Labour Minister of Broadcasting would not be daunted.

“Where were these same staunch defenders of an independent NZ media scene when Maurice Williamson oversaw the most radical deregulation of a national media industry implemented anywhere in the world?” He or she would demand to know. “Where were these magnificent democrats when it was made possible for a foreign media mogul to acquire not just an entire chain of newspapers, but also, if he was of a mind, an entire network of radio stations and television networks? Did we hear these passionate voices raised” he or she would ask, “when one by one every independent, Kiwi-owned publication – including the now privatised Listener – was acquired by foreign media corporations? And did any of them cry out in righteous anger when TVNZ was stripped of its obligations to inform and educate and reduced to producing entertainment in which stupidity and cruelty constantly vied for the upper hand? Where was their rage when the state broadcaster was slowly and deliberately transformed into a braying ass? Nowhere!”

Our radical Labour Minister of Broadcasting would then assure the New Zealand public that under the legislation setting up the new NZBC the editorial independence of its producers and journalists would be absolutely guaranteed and protected. Any attempt by the Executive Branch of Government to interfere in the operational affairs of the corporation would be a criminal offence.

What’s more, he or she would say, the Labour Government would be introducing a new media law ensuring that any private broadcasting or publishing company must be run by, and 51 percent of its shares must be held by, New Zealand-born citizens.

If he or she was of an historical bent, and fond of quoting the great champions of liberty and democracy from the past, the following quotation from Thomas Jefferson might find its way into the parliamentary address introducing the most radical reform of the New Zealand media scene in more than twenty years:

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Saving only that a significant quantity of those newspapers – and radio stations and television networks – must be collectively owned by the people themselves.


  1. “Why is broadcasting so important?” Because the left wishes to ‘re-educate’ the poor misguided masses to support their vision of a socialist utopia and keep them from being seduced by the ‘evil’ capitalists.

    Why don’t you just do this with your own resources rather than expect the State to pay for it?

    • “Why is broadcasting so important?” Because the right wishes to ‘de-educate” the poor misguided masses to support their vision of zombie capitalism, and to keep them by being seduced by the “evil” socialists.

      Why don’t the right use their own resources rather than get hand outs from the state to pay for their de-education process?

      Never heard of the 4th estate Gosman? Never cottoned onto the fact NZ is quite small have you – and rather than let a few greedy buggers eat all the pie – which has happened before in our history. A independent media funded by taxes is a reasonable good idea – if you like democracy and all. I know, I know sorry, (neo) cons hate democracy and freedom – they just use it as a slogan.

      And if you don’t like freedom or democracy, why not go to the USA or North Korea – I’m sure you’d fit right in.

    • It is more difficult to use our own resources now that the right-wing bastards have sold most of them.

      I think it is more of a social utopia we want.

      Why do you have to politicize everything Gosman? Please stop using worn out old thoughts. You sound like a propaganda tape stuck on replay.

    • Gosman –

      “Why is broadcasting so important?” –

      Because the neo-liberal, laissez faire market adherent, sell what is not nailed down “right” wants to have media that has the sole purpose of dumbing down the wider populace, to inundate them with endless commercials, with incessant messages, to make them give in 100 per cent to total consumerism, to buy, buy and buy, from the money they are allowed to earn as modern day servants or even slaves.

      Democracy is the greatest danger to the top capitalist stakeholders and their associated circles, as that can take control and power out of their hands, leaving them powerless, and that is what they hate so much.

      So Chris is totally right with his concerns and the ideas he has presented, as only INFORMED citizens can make for a true, functioning, participatory democratic society.

    • What would you rather watch on TV Gosman?

      “The Civil War by Ken Burns” — Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series about the US Civil War?

      “Battlefleet” — an excellent history of the Royal Navy?

      “The New Zealand Wars” — presented by James Belich, an excellent history of the the wars and turmoil in post-Treaty NZ?

      Or grotty old X Factor and NZ’s got Talent. Because if you ask me, Ken Burns Civil war should be in prime time on TV1, instead of the crap we have now..?

  2. Duncan Garner, Paddy Gower, Tova O’Brien have all proved that journalists working for privatised media will take money at the expense of knowledge. An interest-free bribe is enough for these leeches to do the dirty work of the greedy.
    Labour’s leadership primary was a joke. Those three reporters, along with the rest of NZ’s lamestream reporters, did nothing but advance NZ’s journey to Idiotsville. NZ Herald are simplistic and ideologically blinded, and they have reduced journalistic integrity to far beyond a joke. I have more respect for the local chapter of the Mongrel Mob, the only difference is that the Mongrel Mob don’t pretend to be ethical.
    Garner, Gower and O’Brien will continue to slant the news towards a brain-dead spectacle so long as their pockets are bulging with Joyce’s bribes. Despite repeated attempts to frame the Labour leadership race as a drunken fight, the ‘gloves never came off’, and we never heard about the ideological future that each one proposed. We heard a lot about somebody calling someone a ‘gaybo’…or something, I don’t really remember, I’d smashed my TV by then.
    Its time for real news, tax the hell out of anyone who wants to make money in the name of news. A complete overhaul of TVNZ is needed, and advertising on those stations is an idea that should not be considered in any way or form.
    As for Garner, Gower and O’Brien, I’d put them in prison for the violence they’ve committed against the public of NZ.

  3. More state broadcasting would be fantastic, but I don’t see why private and public broadcasting can’t co exist? Why is Trotter suggesting that the state remove all private broadcasting whatsoever? That just seems ridiculous.

  4. I used to really enjoy TVNZ 7 before National canned it, and it would be fantastic to get the old Listener back, the current one has the odd good article but is mostly an extension of the light weight shit we get fed from media obsessed with maximising their ROI.

    We definitely need some more public broadcasting, RNZ cant do it on its own.

  5. There’s so many aspects of your post I could comment on but it’d turn into an essay.
    You’re right though – the ‘public square’ – or as Habermas envisioned – the public sphere – free from commercial, (or any other hegemonic force) as much as is possible at least, in order to give ‘voice’.
    JUST on the basis of a population somewhat larger than a village inhabiting a relatively small space with a ‘square’ – Public Service BROADcasting represents the public’s voice – or should do. RNZ does its best – though lately somewhat unsuccessfully. TVNZ hasn’t, nor has it even attempted to for the past decade or so. Managerial empires within have been built. (Btw – actually no loss if they were told to take a walk tomorrow)
    Anyway …. It supposedly tells ‘our’ stories, listens to ‘us’ and reflects our identity.

    OK I’m beginning to rave.
    That doesn’t mean there’s no room for commercial interests to be represente also – JUST that the Public Sphere (or ‘square’) is a priority. It should come first in any democracy.

    No need to nationalise SKY TV either. If they had to operate on a ‘level playing field’ (does the lingo sound familiar?), and pay their way without what is effectively corporate welfare, they’d not be in that good a shape.
    They’ve driven up the cost of content, commercialised, transactionalised, commoditised and monoplised the electronic public square and they’re not reflecting ‘us’, telling ‘our stories’, they’re not taking risks, being prepared to fail, representing minority interests, let alone providing basic information (the shipping news even).
    Indeed they’re even guilty of intellectual property theft!
    No no – SKY doesn’t need to be nationaiised. There’s one VERY effective way of calling them to account.
    Firstly, they should not be allowed to occupy frequencies or satellit slots they don’t use (or use for duplicatio of services), AND nor should they be taking content from elsewhere that is intended for wide, unimpeded release, and rebroadcasting it behind a paywall.
    NOR should they have been given intellectual property paid for by the public to make money off.
    I’ve heard the argument that private production houses own the intellectual property for a lot of content on Heartland (for example). Except that such content would never have occured, and often not have received funding had not their been a broadcast agreement on a Publicly owned and paid for network, or with public funding.

    THEN we could go into the shameful TVNZ management class (many of whom would rather see TVNZ privatised – which was often their hope).
    Their complicity in effectively knobbling Freeview.
    Their preoccupation with the profit motive rather than delivering to a Public (even when we had a charter that many deemed unworkable – it was only ever unworkable in its interpretation by those who had profit as their priority)

    No no, SKY doesn’t need to be privatised. It can work on a level playing field (including the points above) – AND also under a regime that operates elsewhere in the world – where its model is often levied in order to support an electronic Public Sphere (square).

    Given the above though, and given blind satellite scans et al, We’d have Freeview customers receiving (at the very LEAST) things like Heartland, Kidzone24, …. I haven’t checked … but last time I did: BBC World News, RT, Aljaz and a heap of other shit (on the basis of both the intellectual property above, and the theft of material intended for wide release that’s rebroadcast for the purposes of clipping the ticket, AND holding slots/frequencies unused or held simply for the purposes of occupation)

    • oh and yes .. Kris should actually be a little bolder. He has a moral mandate at the very least, as well as a practical means of achieving public service broadcasting to the masses that could be legally argued.

      If ever there was an example of TVNZ’s direction – it was ditching BBCWORLDNEWS in favour of infomercials overnight.
      No no – Any Pandy et al – time to take a walk and take your chances in … umm OZ? maybe – or perhaps err Uganda? No? How about the US then, or SKY UK, or SKY OZ even ….. which reminds me (don’t get me started on the PRIME TV/SKY thing!!!)

  6. For a non-corporate media, an activist funded newspaper like the Hankyoreh might be a good model – for decades it kept the worst of Korea’s government and corporate scoundrels circumspect. Hard to keep it going but the shallowness and self-censored inability of MSM to grapple with real issues is increasingly evident.

  7. Timely and well-written, thanks. It hits the nail on the head for me. It’s nearly 40 years since I came to this country. I have watched an incredible dumbing-down take place – not that NZ was particularly clever in the first place.

    I performed a vox-pop survey, gathering ratings of 20 people aged 18-24 on Queen Street in October 2011, just prior to the election, for a postgraduate journalism course.

    The most telling result was that that a majority felt TV did not inform them well about politics, and 80% stated that television “turned them off politics”.

    I suspect this is because our television is paper thin.

  8. ps. And another thing relevant to television coverage of politics: on local current affairs panel discussions, I have never seen so much shouting and talking over each other as we getl it’s always ruins the discussion which ends up going nowhere and descends friendly digs and insults as they pretend to make up with each other, having left us not wiser, not entertained, and not even feeling good! The public space (agora) should not come across as being a school playground at lunchtime! There should be some gravitas, just a bit pretty please?

  9. Unlike Tim, couldn’t help writing an essay:

    TL;DR is I can’t see how such a unified state corporation could do any better at maintaining editorial independence than its privately-owned, ad-funded counterparts. What we actually need is a plethora of independent, publicly-funded media organisations, whose news and current events works are licensed under CreativeCommons. This would allow them to be freely reproduced in whatever media people wish to receive them through, and allow the organisations to freely quote, analyse, and critique each other’s work, whether it is in print, audio, image, or video. The real questions are how public-interest journalists, social critics, artists, scientists etc get funding to live, and create and publish their work, without having to self-censor to remain commercially viable, and how the public gets access to their work.

    • Well that would be the optimum of course – it’s the ‘plethora of publicly funded independent’ bit that’s the problem when we don’t appear to be able to even fund one.
      Your solution would probably also get past the ‘capture’ of our one and only ‘RNZ’ by the same old hacks (Hooten/Williams/etc) as occurs elswhere (such as on Q+A and the Nation).
      SO yes …. the optimum. A Publicly funded PS TV and Radio system as a FIRST step.
      Actually when I look back – you could always tell the so called neo-lib ‘left’ dressing themselves in drag the minute we got Ralston referring to the publicly-owned TV as ‘State TV’ – way way back.
      Keep those buggers well away from it all – they’ve had their way for too long!

      • Oh, and it isn’t JUST about news and current affairs either. The arts – drama, music including things like opera, up and coming and established bands, etc. …. telling our stories, taking risks, fostering new and existing NuZill artists, authors, script writers, musicians, actors et al., sport that isn’t behind paywalls including womens teams …. Some of it might be painful but without it we’re well on the way to becoming Mc Zealand with simply the global formulaic approach to everything.
        No doubt we’ll soon have a NZ “who Do You Think You Are” series – as an example. The risk taken elsewhere, proven successful and worth a punt. Had the BBC not started it … who knows. Let’s get some originality back ffs

  10. Kia Ora: I agree with what Chris says about social democracy via a public owned media. I would be a lot more enamored of corporate media but for the endless cooking crappy shows, copycat USA talent shows and xfactors, and other boring commercial rubbish. Good social docos are rare and for obvious reasons. They are too truthful. TV and commercial radio is also largely boring crap. Also isn’t it about time we stopped making these media moguls like Murdock the hacker mega rich? Bring back non-commercial NZ and Kiwi TV and make those horrible corporates pay for it through tax.

  11. If putting more money into Radio NZ and establishing an indepedent, free-to-air advert free national TV channel isn’t on the top of Labour’s priorities as a new government, then it’s still the old Labour Party of the past 30 years and everything it is saying since David Cunliffe became leader is meaningless. If in doubt, vote for the Green Party which is 100 percent behind free public broadcasting.

    • How about a free public wireless network connecting every home in the country? See the Free Network Federation wiki for the tech required. How about journalism, arts and sport producers being able to apply to NZ on Air without the support of a commercial broadcaster, provided they release the resulting work under a CreativeCommons license, so people can stream it, or download and share it, via the public wireless network?

      How is putting more money into RadioNZ isn’t going to fix it? What do we need it for? For producing podcasts? There are plenty of struggling producers out there who could and would make high-quality public interest media, and share it freely, if they could access the funding to cover their costs and pay their workers. RadioNZ could access some of this funding to make stuff internally, and play the best of the independently-produced material at will, thanks to the CC license.

      The same applies to television. Freeing production companies from ties to commercial networks by funding them directly to make public-interest programs or live-stream events of public interest. Put the work under CC license, so any member of the public can freely access them through the public wireless network, the commercial internet, or through their choice of scheduled television, be it a public station or a private one, using FreeView, or another system.

      • My point is: at the dawn of the age of television, creating a free-to-air, commercial-free television station was radical. Creating or de-commercializing a public-interest radio station would have been valuable in some ways, but would have missed the point. The net is replacing television, and will continue to, and creating a free wireless network and funding public-interest content for people to share over it would be the most radical thing a Labour/Greens government could do for broadcasting.

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