COLIN SCRIMGEOUR was the John Campbell of his day. A fearless radio broadcaster whose influence over the victims of the Great Depression was so great that the United-Reform coalition government jammed his election-eve broadcast. Remember that the next time the National Party presents itself as the champion of media freedom!
Michael Joseph Savage, the prime minister elect, was interviewed by Scrimgeour on the night of Labour’s historic 1935 victory. Scrimgeour later recalled: “When we were off air he told me Jack Lee would be the Minister of Broadcasting, and the next time he unveiled a transmitter he wouldn’t be tearing scrim off it.”
That last comment was a direct reference to the fact that the transmitter used to jam Scrimgeour’s broadcast had been hidden behind a thin wall of scrim. “Scrim”, or “Uncle Scrim” was also the name given to Scrimgeour by his tens-of-thousands of avid listeners. Savage’s message was crystal clear: Labour had a plan for broadcasting, and the country’s most influential left-wing broadcaster was an integral part of it.
That was how Labour rolled back in the 1930s. Its socialist leaders understood what today’s Labour politicians do not. That the media – be it print, electronic and/or digital – is crucial to the success or failure of any government; and that without the support of at least a very substantial fraction of that media, the government’s ability to implement its policies will be severely compromised.
Savage was well aware that his right-wing opponents could rely upon the unwavering support of the daily newspapers. That is why he was so keen for the new Labour Government to take control of the airwaves and appoint someone he could trust to run them. The Left needed to even-up the odds.
It still does.
Since the more-market reforms of the 1980s and 90s, and especially since the transformation of Television NZ into a state-owned enterprise (i.e. a publicly-owned institution legally obliged to conduct itself in the manner a privately-owned company) there has been a pronounced ideological shift in the news media’s political orientation. Increasingly reliant upon advertising and, therefore, upon ratings, the operational culture of TVNZ has grown less-and-less receptive to the public service broadcasters’ contention that it has a duty to elevate and educate – as well as to entertain.
Efforts to reinstate the public service broadcasting imperatives under Helen Clark’s fifth Labour government were unsuccessful. Not only were they resisted from within TVNZ (many of whose personnel now considered the whole concept of public service broadcasting to be elitist and condescending) but from within the Labour-led government itself.
Almost before she had got her feet under the Minister of Broadcasting’s desk, Marian Hobbs found herself fiscally hog-tied by the Finance Minister, Michael Cullen. It was the latter’s refusal to put up the money necessary to carry through a root-and-branch reform of TVNZ that left Radio NZ as the country’s sole purveyor of genuine public service broadcasting.
If they could have got away with it, John Key and his National Party colleagues would have commercialised (literally) Radio NZ in exactly the same way as the fourth Labour government (in the person of Richard Prebble) made TVNZ dependent on the advertisers’ dollars. Prevented from doing so by the many thousands of middle-class Kiwis who rely upon RNZ for intelligent and informed journalism and programmes of genuine cultural merit, Key’s government did the next best thing – it attempted to starve the publicly-owned radio network to death.
Only in the ninth year of Key’s Government was RNZ’s funding increased. By then, of course, National had stocked the RNZ Board with the sort of people who regarded the Right’s tendentious epithet “Red Radio” as a political critique which RNZ had to be seen to be taking seriously. With this sort of board overseeing RNZ, its employees’ operational options were strictly limited. ‘Do more with less’, and ‘Don’t upset the Board’ (i.e. the National-led government) became RNZ’s watchwords.
Enter Clare Curran. Labour’s broadcasting spokesperson came to her job already convinced that TVNZ was a lost cause and that if public service broadcasting was to be resurrected, then RNZ was the only state-owned institution remotely capable of doing the job. Hence “RNZ-Plus” – Curran’s plan for using public service radio to rebuild public service television.
Except that Curran, like Marian Hobbs before her, not only had to contend with the intense opposition of private broadcasters (many of whom found sympathetic ears on the RNZ Board) but also with the unhelpful interference of her own cabinet colleagues.
Was that the reason she was so keen to meet with RNZ’s Head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld? To learn from a person she clearly believed to be sympathetic to her cause, the precise location and identity of the forces resisting her plans for RNZ? Beleaguered by National’s “stay-behind” resistance-fighters, and foot-tripped by the reservations of her own overly cautious colleagues, did the Minister stumble with naïve enthusiasm (desperation?) beyond the mere pleasantries and personal networking which Hirschfeld had mistakenly assumed to be the purpose of their tête-à-tête over coffee at the Astoria café?
And once appraised of Curran’s hopes and fears, and quite possibly, of her intentions vis-à-vis the reappointment – or not – of RNZ Board Chairperson, Richard Griffin, did Hirschfeld suddenly find herself in possession of information as sensitive and compromising as it was potentially career-destroying? Did the Right and its media allies, informed of Curran’s meeting with Hirschfeld, simply seize an opportunity to kill two potentially very dangerous birds with a single stone?
It remains to be seen whether Curran’s opponents prefer to keep her in place – disgraced and powerless – or, by replacing her with someone considerably less committed to RNZ’s cause, allow the Right’s jamming of public service broadcasting to continue?
And this time, alas, there is no Jack Lee to track down the jammers’ transmitter in the Newmarket railway yards, and no Michael Joseph Savage to even-up the democratic odds by making sure that the voices of those who cannot afford to own shares in radio and television stations continue to be heard.