MUST READ: The Politics Of Public Service Broadcasting

By   /   March 29, 2018  /   36 Comments

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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?

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.


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  1. esoteric pineapples says:

    For Richard Griffin and others to claim Carol Hirschfeld brokes the rules of RNZ political neutrality is the height of hypocrisy considering they are all National Party cronies

  2. Sanctuary says:

    Scrim, to younger readers, is Hessian fabric derived from Jute and was once widely used as a wall lining and packaging material (sacks of spuds, for example).

  3. Sanctuary says:

    Oh and Clare Curran is no Jack Lee. Putting such a clearly out of her depth minister in charge of this reform is a gigantic lost opportunity.

    Elevate Louisa Wall to the cabinet to get the job done.

    • Kat says:

      Where is the scrutiny around Richard Griffin first informing National party MP Melissa Lee about the meeting between Carol Hirschfeld and Clare Curran.

      And is RNZ National….that’s “Blue Radio”.

  4. Jack Ramaka says:

    Sounds like Carol H was beautifully set up by Melissa Lee and Richard Griffin.

    Clare Curran was particularly naive and dropped Carol H into a bed of stinging nettles.

    The Right Wing Media will stop at nothing to cover the real news getting out via MSM. Media in NZ and Worldwide is rotten to the core.

    Some evil little goblins out there at every turn of the road and around ever corner ?

    • Nick says:

      Curran should fall on her sword.

      The only reason Hirshfeld will have denied the meeting arranged by Curran, will have been on Curran’s request.

      Curran then seemed happy to throw Hirshfeld under the bus, presumably in the forlorn hope either of living to fight another day, or to save her own political career.

      Neither seem likely.

      • bert says:

        Did Gerry fall on his sword when he used his position of power to try and breach security protocol going through an airport?

        Did English fall on his sword when he clearly was involved in the saga of Todd Barclay and lied to the police?

        Did any member of the National party fall on their swords over copyright infringements with Eminem?

        We still yet don’t know what was discussed during their meeting? Anyone commenting is only guessing but I guess that’s why Key disposed of the Teapot tape, he clearly had something to hide!

  5. Jack Ramaka says:

    Labour and NZF have still not figured out that they need to control the media to control the narrative going out to the people.

    We still have the right wingers controlling the media and putting their spin on all the media stories.

    The Clare Curran/Carol Hirschfield Debacle was an organised Co$k Up INMHO ? Very unprofessional by Clare Curran ?

  6. Pete says:

    In a couple of paragraphs we see the span – “RNZ for intelligent and informed journalism and programmes of genuine cultural merit” to “Red Radio.”

    The ones using the latter term know enough to call it “Red Radio” because they listen to it all the time. They listen because they know that regardless of how they label it they will still hear superficial politicians in simpleton mode for them to fawn over.

    Witness Mark Mitchell, twice in a fortnight. He will be there again, criticising a Government member for breathing or walking, knowing RNZ will help turn it into the crime of the century for fear that if they don’t they’ll be accused of being Red Radio.

    The National caucus must be great fun as they come up with the daily plan to accuse the government of some pathetic thing, or for doing nothing. They know that regardless of the ridiculousness of what they’re on about and how they say it, it will be mana to RNZ and other media outlets. Do they have a weekly prize for the weakest effort which gets the most mileage? Simple Simon is lapping it up seeing as leader he gets to pick. He hasn’t disappointed.

    The hoo-ha about Curran and Hirschfeld has the calls about the Government being out of their depth.

    It is clear the opposition is not out of its depth. It is on top of it, swimming strongly in it, right in its element. Swimming in shit.

    • Nick says:

      RNZ is far far from being Left in its coverage. It just isn’t either complacent or inevitably antagonistic to the Left like every other outlet.

  7. J S Bark J S Bark says:

    You could elevate the Lord Jesus Christ to be minister. New Zealand is an intrinsically conservative and reactionary culture that is reflected in its voting habits.

    Don’t hold your breath for real break throughs with this mob of sheep…

  8. Gosman says:

    You are aware that if the Government wanted to do as you suggest then the best way would be to ask for the immediate resignation of ALL the board and to reconstitute it. Going behind the board has led to the situation Curran now faces. Thjis is the result of not being open and honest about her intentions if you are correct. Most ironic given her other Ministerial obligations.

    • Jack Ramaka says:

      Good thinking Gosman sack the whole Board at Red Radio and start off fresh otherwise we the NZ Public are going to have to put up with this B/S on a Daily Basis ?

      This is one of your best and most constructive statements made to date.

      Keep up the good work.

    • WILD KATIPO says:

      Um,… is this the kettle calling the pot black???…

      The great big list of John Key’s big fat lies (UPDATED) « The Standard

    • Nick says:

      I doubt that Curran knew exactly what she wanted to do. She would be more likely to get some ideas talking to Carol Hirshfeld than talking to Richard Griffin. The new media scene is complex. Finding how to balance information will take some smarts.

    • Mjolnir says:

      Perhaps that should indeed be the next step, Gosman. Starting with former National party media advisor, Richard Griffen. It seems remarkable the media havent picked up on the curious fact that Griffen rang National MP Melissa Lee to inform her the Carol hirschfeld had tendered her resignation.

      That one act by Griffen speaks loudly where the push-back to Labour’s plans to build RNZ Plus is emanating from.

      It is Griffen who should be resigning next, not Clare Curran.

  9. Observer Tokoroa says:

    RNZ TV1

    It Is the mouth piece of the wealthy, the bloated, the misshapen and the dishonest.

    Do not confuse it with an impartial Public Broadcasting Facility. It is made in the image and likeness of Goebels Hooton and ChinaDoll Collins. God help us.

    How do I know this? A ranting Hoskings who fronted TV1 for years, was as biased as a blind bat – the disturbed lackey of National Dishonesty.

    More rotten than Middlemore.

  10. CLEANGREEN says:

    “That is why he (MichaeL Savage) 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”

    Yes we need a concerted effort by Labour/nz first to ram through these changes and sack all those right wong cling-ons to free up a balanced ‘free of bias media’ for our tax paying citizens.

    “lets do this” – credit to Jacinda.

    • Jack Ramaka says:

      Labour and NZF do not have a clear media strategy, and Clare Curran’s antics shows they really do not have a clue ?

  11. Zack Brando says:

    Obviously News Hub, One News, Stuff, The Herald, etc are not considered quality news. No thinking person would expect The Herald to publish meaningful truth about property/housing issues in NZ. No thinking person would expect New Hub to be rational about taxation or Russia. Support for a ‘capital-gains-tax’ at One News would surly make you an instant pariah.

    So let’s call a spade a spade. Pretty much all of the big news outlets (see above examples) don’t do quality journalism or look into issues deeply – National benefited enormously from these only half baked news agencies. Conversely the smaller news agencies (Interest, Scoop, RNZ) were serving up quality news and questioning more ..

    When National had ministers to be interviewed on RNZ, by all accounts they couldn’t wait to leave – ‘leave the crown limo running’. So back to calling a spade a spade, here goes it ..

    National thought because the news media was so advantageous for them while they were in power, this same media would pile on and attack Labour. Unfortunately for National, the main-stream-media (aka MSM) have lost their ability to investigate and present truly informed opinions. National’s media buddies have been so trained to ignore lies, they have forgotten how to find them. This brings me to RNZ ..

    National have gotten as much mileage out of the MSM as they’re going to get for now, but a bigger RNZ could really hurt them. Labour, as this article pointed out has been dealing with a very unbalanced media. Labour wants a bigger RNZ and both Labour and New Zealand would benefits form a bigger RNZ. Down here in ChCh we love RNZ Checkpoint.

    Simply put; Labour are willing to stand in the light of RNZ questioning. National are willing to occasionally stand in the light, all the while in their minds screaming “it burns!!, it burns!!”.

    • Observer Tokoroa says:

      Where too from Here

      RNZ + TV! have been a huge part of the appalling negligence of the previous cruel and wealth biased, and dishonest Parliament.

      The entire staff of RNZ + TV! should be stood down for treating the millions of New Zealand Citizens as fools and retards. RNZ staff be treated forcefully in line with the cruelty they poured on New Zealanders.

      RNZ + TV1 has no idea of “impartiality” , “honesty” “Achievement”.
      They are total lightweights. Best put out with the rubbish.

      Goodbye – Garbage.

      • GreenBus says:

        +100 Tokoroa – except at last look there are over 40% polling as “fools and retards”. That’s a chunk of viewers that believe everything, hook, line and sinker.

    • bert says:

      The New Zealand Herald is a big business organisation and big business and National are bedfellows, that will never change.

    • Mike the Lefty says:

      Television news ceased to be a credible news source many years ago. This is largely because the political right have worked unceasingly to take over public broadcasting and mould it into the kind of dumbed down uncritical yawn fest that best complements their selfish ideals.
      A complete clean out of RNZ and TVNZ would be a good start, but these goons have so much power and have the backing of the 1% that it is unlikely to happen

  12. Jack Ramaka says:

    Labour/NZF need to flush out the Neoliberal Rats that have been strategically placed in State Organisations by Joyce, Key & English.

  13. countryboy says:

    Anybody’d think our politicians had something to hide?

    Our beautiful NZ’s been redesigned as a bland, bleak, queasy, ignorant little shit hole in the middle of nowhere yet we think the sun shines out our arses.

    That’s our agrarian hinterlands. Nasty, spiteful, racist, sexist, judgemental, ignorant and dysfunctional. So, in their eyes, special, wonderful, in-the-know and sheltered.

    That’s entirely based upon how we see ourselves, and how we see our selves is nothing more than a projection beamed at us by a corrupted M$M.

    The wondrous thing about the internet is that we no longer rely on the surety of having our heads fucked with by the m$m. We can, if we have an enquiring enough of a mind, search and compare and discuss.

    As the political rats are forced to retreat into their respective corners we’ll find that they’re not going to go quietly.

  14. Jack Ramaka says:

    Labour and NZF do not have a clear media strategy, and Clare Curran’s antics shows they really do not have a clue ?

  15. Jonathan Roe says:

    A good piece Chris, and a nice bit of history.

    How can Griffin maintain a conflict of interest – director a spin doctor agency – and be the chair of the board of governors of RNZ? He’s not the only one in a compromised position. Bill Francis – commercial radio zealot and investor. And nearly all the others smack of Tory leanings.

    I assume all are govt appointees, so let’s hope for a clean out, starting with Dickie boy.

  16. Nick J says:

    This is a real test for the government. If National have stacked the boards of SOEs and the public service with patsies, then they can expect that they will be thwarted in every direction.

    To show real intent I would advise Labour MPs to get behind Curran and blitzkrieg the likes of Griffin. It’s a test of who wears the pants, and that must be seen to be Curran and the government. It’s the Admiral Bung principle, shoot the Bugger on his own quarterdeck to set an example to the others.

  17. Nick says:

    I agree Curran’s naivete and incompetence has caused this mess. But remain hopeful that she will be eventually replaced by someone with strength, savvy and vision. It doesn’t have to be a backlash against reform.

    Who that person may be I don’t know. Whether there IS such a person, I also don’t know. But the government of the day does have control of appointments to Boards. We might start there.

    Or take another step back, and ensure that Jacinda understands the issue of balanced political information.

    I do believe that Carol Hirshfeld has a longer shelf-life than Clare Curran, but that remains to be seen.

  18. Peter Thompson says:

    Curran’s meeting with Hirschfeld would never have been provblemativ had the latter not misled her bosses at RNZ. Some will say there’s no smoke without fire- but if the meeting stuck a match, the opposition lobbed smoke grenades into the building, the right wing trollerati fanned the imaginary conflagration, and the media called the fire brigade.
    Given some of the RNZ board’s rather lukewarm comments about not wanting a stand-alone tv channel and the chair’s unwillingness to challenge the funding freeze under the last 3 governments, it was entirely understandable if Curran wanted to check out whether other RNZ managers were behind the RNZ+ proposal. Meeting informally with the head of content looks like a bad idea in hindsight, but the magnitude of the political scandal presented in the media is surely disproportionate to the scale of the offence.
    Where Curran can be criticised is for not being clearer in her directives about the scale and scope of what RNZ+ is supposed to look like and setting up an advisory group quango devoid of any substantial expertise on public service broadcasting to decide how to disburse the promised funding.

  19. R.P McMurphy says:

    time for the NZLP to create its own media services. its not difficult and if they dont take steps to counter foreskin and dunnycan then they will get rolled next time. line of sight micropulse transmitters are cheap and dont believe what the neo-nitwits say radio is still the best way to go.

  20. mary_a says:

    Media is the proxy of the people. It is not and never should be the tool of government or political parties as it is at present working for and protecting National!

    To be seen as the government of the people, Labour must take a leaf out of Mickey Savage’s book, be pro active, put a reliable strong minister of broadcasting in place who will have no qualms sacking Griffin, Thompson, the RNZ board and put in some trusted fresh blood who’s aim is to keep the public informed.

    In such a scenario, Carol Hirschfeld could be reinstated, this time as Chairperson, or CEO, while at the same time, promote John Campbell. Who could be better trusted to administer RNZ, while getting RNZ+ established?

    Come on Labour grow some. Do NZ a favour. Rid the nation of the, disgraceful, corrupt Tory bias in media and get it working for the people for a change.

  21. Andrea says:

    Is there any circumstance under which a public service employee could meet with the minister of the entity the employee works for – without getting the approval of the head of department? If prior consent had already been granted?

    Did Ms Hirschfield have delegated authority to respond to such invitations?

    What if (sorry) it really was a friendly, no ministers need apply, post gym meeting? Basic Networking 101. Two-way sowing goodwill.

    Why is Ms Curran not standing up for the person she invited for a catch-up? Is this the typical nature of Labour showing up so early?

    Why did Mr Griffin put the boot in instead of having a stern word with his employee? Had she given him previous cause to blush? Or was this a ‘one false step and your career’s toast’ job. In which case – why isn’t Labour pulling on the hemp rope in defence of a worker?

    There’s a lot that’s smelly about this one.

    PS does anyone know the demographics for viewers of TVNZ – and the numbers? Somebody must because they need to let their advertisers know. It can’t be top secret.

  22. Andrew says:

    Chris: Explaining is losing 😉

    They both were caught out and subsequently lied to hide their mistake.

    This affair still has legs – as you’ll see in the coming weeks.

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