Merging TVNZ and RNZ: a history lesson

Critics of the government’s plan to merge TVNZ and RNZ might ponder what might have been if wiser choices had been made decades ago, writes Bob Gregory.

Radio microphone

Comment: Many years ago, I was a relatively junior staffer at the former New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC). I vividly recall an ashen-faced director-general coming into the office I shared with my boss in the Bowen State Building in Wellington to tell us he’d just had the biggest dressing down he’d received since his school days, this time from Prime Minister Keith Holyoake.

The director-general didn’t tell us why the prime minister was so angry with him, but it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

These were the days when the NZBC, a public corporation established in 1962, was committed to a huge capital works programme of television expansion throughout the country, and when the corporation had set up its own independent broadcasting news service.

Previously, though it’s hard to believe now, the daily 9pm news bulletin on national radio had been prepared by the Tourist and Publicity Department, with assistance from the prime minister’s office. Political independence in those days was not a highly valued commodity.

The Treasury had earlier advised against the creation of the corporation’s news service on the grounds that it would cost too much, and in any case the Tourist and Publicity Department was already doing it.

It was even suggested that if an independent news service was to be created then perhaps an addendum could be tacked on to each bulletin—‘And now here are some items of government news’.

The NZBC had replaced the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS), a full government department that had run radio for several decades. The corporation’s creation was intended to ensure that with the advent of TV, this powerful medium would not be subject to direct day-to-day governmental control, especially regarding programming matters.

But the top guns at the NZBC, steeped in the culture of governmental bureaucracy, had a politically demanding task. They were expected to ensure not only that the corporation could get from government the money needed for NZBC’s TV capital works programme but also see to it that its programming was politically non-partisan.

There were often several issues covered in the news and current affairs programmes that were bound to upset the government at the time and which might give the prime minister and his cabinet a jaundiced view of the corporation, thereby putting at risk the NZBC’s capital works plans. Whether it would actually have done so cannot be known, but this was the perception of the director-general and his top executives.

For some time, I myself worked as a junior reporter in the NZBC newsroom, originally located in Lambton Quay and from 1963 in the then new Broadcasting House in Bowen Street, a state of the art building that was demolished in an act of political vandalism many years later.

It was not uncommon in those days for the newsroom to receive anxious calls from the corporation’s top executives worrying about whether this or that news item might upset the government.

In short, political independence could not be achieved merely by the stroke of a legislative pen, but involved an ongoing power struggle among politicians, broadcasters, and broadcasting executives.

There were several highly publicised cases of alleged political interference in programming matters and allegations of corporation executives caving into illegitimate political pressure. However, in my view, by the early 1970s the value of genuine political independence for the NZBC had come to be much more widely accepted.

Controversies—such as the 1972 sacking of the editor of the New Zealand Listener, Alexander MacLeod—erupted from time to time and would probably have continued to do so. But such public concerns themselves demonstrated that more people cared about the political independence of broadcasting than had been the case in the old days of the NZBS.

Regrettably, the NZBC itself was abolished under the Labour government of Norman Kirk, when New Zealand’s then youngest cabinet minister, Roger Douglas, devised a plan to create four separate broadcasting entities.

So New Zealand lost the opportunity to build a single, politically independent public broadcasting institution along the lines of the BBC and the ABC, one not driven predominantly by the imperatives of the commercial marketplace.

Critics of the current government’s plan to merge TVNZ and RNZ might ponder what might have been in this country had wiser reorganisational choices been made decades ago.

Read the original article at Newsroom.

Bob Gregory is an emeritus professor in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.