The debate over TV3's scheduling of Inside Child Poverty should prompt us to get back to some pretty basic core principles surrounding independence

Scoop yesterday lived up to its name and revealed New Zealand on Air minutes showing that the government's broadcasting funding agency is, in journalist Tom Frewen's words, considering "a move to censor television programmes likely to embarrass the government during election campaigns".

While the use of the word "censor" may go too far, this is a chilling turn of events in more ways than one, raising questions about freedom of speech and government influence over supposedly independent agencies of the state.

Here's what happened: Four days before the November election, on November 22 at 7.30pm, TV3 screened a NZ on Air-funded documentary Inside Child Poverty by Bryan Bruce. Scoop reports that NZOA board member Stephen McElrea raised concerns about this screening several days earlier, on November 17. Seemingly under the misapprehension this was a comedy rather than a documentary, McElrea wrote to the NZOA Chair and CEO, "To me, it falls into the area of caution we show about political satire near elections."

As a result, NZOA CEO Jane Wrightson wrote to TV3 just before the doco went to air saying she was "deeply disappointed" by the network's scheduling decision. Subsequently, at NZOA's December board meeting it was agreed "to seek legal advice on whether NZ on Air could require an additional clause in the broadcast covenant requiring broadcasters not to screen programmes likely to be an election issue within the Election Period as defined in the Broadcasting Act".

With this story now doing the rounds, NZOA says it is "anxious to safeguard our reputation for political impartiality". Sadly, by buying into this argument in the first place, the agency has done the reverse. Rather than simply saying that a network's schedule is its own concern and pointing any complainants to TV3, NZOA has unwisely entered into a political debate where the word censorship can be used and its independence questioned.

The decisions of its board and actions of its management as revealed in those minutes have exposed it to questions about who it serves and raised concerns amongst those in the business. The problem, put simply, is that NZOA has put itself on the side of restriction rather than freedom, which can only harm its reputation for impartiality – exactly the opposite of what it was trying to achieve.

There's one key fact I haven't mentioned yet; let's deal with that before we go any further. Board member Stephen McElrea who first complained about the screening date is also John Key's electorate chairman. The suggestion vexing some critics is that his complaint may have been motivated by politics and friendship rather than principle, or could even have been at the behest of politicians. I have no way of knowing one way or the other, but for someone so close to the PM to be questioning coverage of a serious national issue that may not reflect well on his party should sound alarm bells for anyone concerned about an independent media.

Let's be clear on the principle at stake here – political parties or their servants should have no say on what journalists and media organisations choose to report and when they choose to report it. Should they try in any way to influence the work of independent agencies such as NZOA for their own ends, it would be a serious breach of trust and anti-democratic.

Having said that, for as long as anyone can remember, governments both red and blue have made overtly political appointments to government boards, using them as rewards for loyalties and jobs for their mates. While this shows why that's such a bad idea, it would be unfair to hang one person and one agency for a sin so often committed by so many.

NZOA is hardly to blame for having political chums foisted upon it. It has been put in the invidious position of having to manage these inherent political tensions, including the simple fact that any complaint by McElrea must raise questions of independence, even if he is the most dispassionate, saintly man ever to walk the earth.

Surely one of the fundamental questions this story raises is how such board appointments are made and whether they shouldn't be handled differently. This could be the ideal spur to end these cosy arrangements that serve the parties, but not the public good.

So before Labour or any other party takes the moral high ground on this one, I'd like to know its policy on reforming such appointments.

But back to the question of independence... I haven't seen the doco, so won't comment on the specifics of this case. If, as some suggest, it praised Labour over National, then it's reasonable to raise questions.

But the answer in principle to those questions must always be that we have a free media and it is not for any government to say what and when issues can be aired.

For me, NZOA has this entirely back-to-front and upside-down. Immediately prior to an election is exactly the time when networks should be screening programmes discussing election issues. We need more political debate, not less, especially if we want to counter the low turnout in November.

Rather than seeking to stop controversial documentaries close to an election, it should be commissioning a wider range. Rather than limiting such programming, it should be urging more.

Just today Norm Hewitt is calling child abuse – undoubtedly sparked in part by poverty – "a 7.8 earthquake" that should galvinise the country to action. We need to "wake up", he says.

Well, isn't that what these sort of documentaries do? Surely we want the welfare of our children to be an issue at every election. Surely we want people to see the childhood diseases still being suffered in this country that have been eradicated elsewhere and to be shocked into thought and action.

A few days before an election is the perfect time for people to be confronted with information about our poorest children, and if it discomforts a government, tough.

Good journalism is meant to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable", it's meant to challenge those in power. If any form of journalism days before an election influenced that election (the Exclusive Brethern story leaps to mind), that is an example of good journalism, is it not?

And it's NZOA's job to fund good journalism.

Do they really want some sort of exemption to that in the days and weeks before an election? Are they saying they only want non-political programmes on during a campaign? Are they saying NZOA should have the power to dictate what airs during a campaign? And do they want to send the signal to this country's documentary makers that they're better to stay away from political topics, because they're too hard?

The answer to all those questions from NZOA should be an unqualified no. And I'm sure they know that. So it's sad they've been drawn into this without thinking it through, and thereby caught defending the wrong principle.

NZOA needs to promptly step away from any move to restrict what goes to air in New Zealand and publicly clarify its commitment to tough, independent journalism.

But to finish, anyone who wants to hang their hat on principles of independence in this debate, will have to wear documentaries that they don't agree with.

So long as a documentary meets the Broadcasting Standards of fairness, balance and the like, then the same principle must apply to a documentary airing in election week that may come down in favour of ,say, asset sales or whaling.

If not, then the principle means nothing.

Comments (20)

by DeepRed on January 18, 2012
DeepRed

It's not outright censorship, but threats of financial chainsaws are nonetheless a chilling effect. More the financial version of a SLAPP.

by donna on January 18, 2012
donna

"...anyone who wants to hang their hat on principles of independence in this debate, will have to wear documentaries that they don't agree with."

Yes, of course. As citizens we all need our our world views questioned from time to time, and to learn to understand the views and aspirations of others. And when better than when we're deciding who will lead the country for the next three years? Public reason - the capacity to reflect on the interests of others and change our positions in the light of new facts - is a necessary component of a democracy. NZOA needs to just butt out.

by MJ on January 18, 2012
MJ

surely also if National or those closely connected with them are concerned that they will be affected by a documentary on child poverty it is an admission that their policy will not tackle child poverty, and may in fact make the problem worse?

by DeepRed on January 18, 2012
DeepRed

And speaking of child poverty, here's my take on the issue, with apologies to Jonathan Swift.

by nommopilot on January 18, 2012
nommopilot

"So long as a documentary meets the Broadcasting Standards of fairness, balance and the like"

I think in this case it did.  Certainly Stephen McElrea had the option of complaining to the BSA and obviously felt he'd have better luck using his priveleged position as one of John Key's loyal merry men to try and put pressure on NZOA.

Truly disgraceful conduct.  I support your call for reform of the political appointments process.  The government should immediately appoint a review board to review it.

by Rab McDowell on January 18, 2012
Rab McDowell

You open your piece with a comment about independence. Bruce is not independent. He is funded by the taxpayer through NZonAir

The real issue here is not about freedom of speech and the restricting of debate or opposing views. That should not be tolerated.
The issue is that NZ restricts the amount of money politicians can spend on their electioneering and also restricts the amount of taxpayers’ money they can spend for the same end. I do not agree with restricting how much of their own money politicians can spend. I certainly do not think taxpayers should pay for any of it. However, once we have decided that we should restrict how much they can spend and then decide that taxpayers should fund it, but within tightly prescribed limits, we have started down a path that must inevitably lead to restricting other forms of taxpayer funded political opinion during the election.

Bryan Bruce should be able to express any political view he likes at anytime. Just don’t ask me, as a taxpayer to pay for it, or for any other political view at election or any other time.  
Bruce’s problem is he wants to stay on the taxpayer’s tit. If he has the courage of his convictions that the story needs telling then let him have the courage to fund it also.  

by Tim Watkin on January 18, 2012
Tim Watkin

Robert, how on earth do you define independence in terms of media production? You only get to make TV if you can afford to pay for it yourself? Let's be honest, when you say Bryan Bruce "should be able to express any political view he likes at any time", you're saying "he should be able to express a view if he can afford to pay for it".

That way only the Murdochs of this world will have a voice. See the phone-sacking scandal if you want an idea of how media power can go to your head. Your nirvana does not serve democracy and freedom – unless you can pay for it. Even your supposed "freedom" for politicians to spend what they want would impinge upon the freedom of others to have their say and corrupt our system. You may as well turn elections into auctions and cut to the chase, because you're putting financial freedom above all others.

Governments fund the telling of some stories and production of some current affairs – though bugger all in this country – because an independent, non-partisan agency with some expertise in the business judge them to be important, even if the private sector wouldn't want to produce them. Bryan Bruce received that money and so was free to tell the story he wanted, in negotiation with the network; not entirely independent, of course, but more so than most producers. Until this sort of interference creeps in.

by Tim Watkin on January 18, 2012
Tim Watkin

Mic, to be fair if you're on a board it's your job to ask questions about standards and rules. We'd have loved it if those on the boards of financial companies asked a few more challenging questions! The problem is that even if McElrea is the most conscientious man around, his other loyalties compromise him in the public eye at least. If he was acting for his mate, he should be sacked forthwith. But who can say?

MJ, you have a point. If a story appeared in your favour, you'd wave it through, right?

 

by Peter Clareburt on January 19, 2012
Peter Clareburt

I think we should be careful about what we try and restrict around election time. Labour got upset a while ago and then started changing electoral legislation, in a way that could perhaps favour them and perhaps deny the general public of New Zealand to express views. Now it seems that National (or may be just National sympathisers) may be trying to use their positions to influence what can be aired in the lead up to an election.

I was in general disappointed with the quality of the media in presenting unbiased and informative discussion for this latest election. More often than not they just paraphrased party releases - with little in the way of analysis not only of individual policy offerings, but how the whole suite of policy offerings may work together, complement or oppose each other in a way that keeps us informed to make an overall judgment. I.e. hard to vote on one policy - you vote in a govt with all their policies. I did watch that programme and was interested in how successive governments have failed in the building codes and the management of housing stock. Thought it was a bit biased, but mainly was using the wrong comparisons. I have worked in Sweden it is minus 14 degrees in winter and even the poorest housing there would be better than out best housing here in NZ with regard to warmth - else you don't survive the winter. Sweden have been lucky with a homogeneous ethnicity in the past and now via the EU they have an influx of other ethnicities and finding the same problems that many other countries have with the gap between rich and poor widening faster than most countries.

I know it is difficult for journalists to present an informative view that is not coloured by their own political bias - but that is what we need at election times. This is exactly the time that we need the journalists to focus on their professionalism and portray balanced and informative analysis. “To inform rather than to persuade”.

This particular documentary in my opinion failed on the balance and biased aspects but did raise issues that need to be discussed and resolved.

by Frank Macskasy on January 19, 2012
Frank Macskasy

Tim...

It's been a part of our history that governments make appointees of individuals that suit them. Those selections have usually - though not always - been based on patronage and getting your own "team" into positions of control, and probably because we have a rather small pool of experienced talent in this country to draw from. On occassion though, talent can be so pronounced that a government can appoint a person from the Other Side; Cullen's appointment onto Kiwibank's Board, by a National Guvmint is a case in point.

But occassion, these appointments are inappropriate - especially where political neutrality/impartiality is not required; but must be seen to be done.

Stephen McElrea's appointment onto the NZ On Air Board - already stacked with National-friendly (?) businesspeople - was a bomb waiting to go off.

It has well and truly detonated.

McElrea isn't just John Key's electorate chairperson - he's a regional  Deputy Chair for the National Party.

So anything that McElrea says in regards to political issues will now be coloured by those facts.

Personally, I think McElrea should step down. His position is no longer tenable, and any decisions or comments he makes may now be viewed with suspicion.

Secondly, it's high time appointments to various government Boards - especially sensitive ones - were taken out of the hands of politicians and handed over to an impartial body. Perhaps something akin to Parliamentary Services.

And you're right - before Labour or anyone jumps in, we need to hear their alternatives.

Robert...

Sorry, Robert, but not only would your suggestions be unhelpful, but would make matters much worse. It would concentrate political and media power to a few oligarchs and individuals would have little voice in our system.

In the US, it takes hundreds of millions of dollars (now, billions) to participate in their Federal elections. Once a democracy gets to that stage, where money "talks", then it's no longer a peoples' democracy - it belongs to those with the most cash.

And contrary to your suggestion that those who want to produce documentaries do so using their own money - some do. Michael Moore in the US is one such example.

But we don't have such well-resourced individuals here in NZ - except from the (yet again) moneyed Right Wing.

I suspect you pose your libertarian suggestions because you're fully aware of that fact. Most individuals who would be critical of the current government wouldn't have the resources to make such programmes.

Should only those with money have a voice?

And even when such programmes are made, there is no guarantee they will be broadcast. The independently-made, highly critical, 1996 documentary, "Someone elses' Country" was never broadcast on TV (to my knowledge).

Was Bryan Bruce's documentary on Child Poverty critical of National? Yes, undoubtedly it was.

But I'll tell you what else it did; it made the viewer think. And one of the things that one realised was that Child Poverty isn't just a phenomenon of the last three years. It took much longer to fester and grow in this country. Previous governments are also accountable for this growing crisis.

As one of my readers pointed out to me on my Blog, McElrea's actions have been an "own goal". By pursuing this course of action, Bruce's documentary has been given new life, and re-newed publicity. I'm sure Bruce is very appreciative of all this.

Unless of course NZ On Air now wants to close down the media and blogs?

 

 

 

 

by nommopilot on January 19, 2012
nommopilot

" his other loyalties compromise him in the public eye at least."

That was actually the point of my comment.  There is a clear and obvious conflict of interest whether or not his complaint was at the behest of his mate or not, the party he is an active and influential member of is complaining about the policies of the funding body he is on the board of.  He should be standing back, not wheeling the barrow...

by Tim Watkin on January 19, 2012
Tim Watkin

Peter, if the doco was biased that's a job for the Broadcasting Stds Authority, not NZ on Air or the National Party. If it was critical of successive governments, then that offers some balance, even if not sufficient. But to some extent it's just reality that media coverage will tend to focus more on those currently in government – they're the ones with the power who need to be scrutinised.

I take your point on Sweden, but while not many towns or cities hit -14 it's clear that all our housing stock has long – probably always – been below par for our condititions and it is costing lives. Action is needed, and the past two governments have made promises on that front (although I'm not sure of their records off the cuff).

Frank, hear hear. Although if McElrea needs to go, shouldn't all patronage appointments follow suit? He's just the one caught in the current glare. (And while the appointments of Cullen or Bolger, yes, speak of talent, the cynic in me says they're useful political cover too. And in Cullen's case, shuts down a potentially dangerous critic who might otherwise have spent his time writing columns and appearing on TV).

 

by Tim Watkin on January 19, 2012
Tim Watkin

It's interesting where you draw the line though, Mic. To be contrary for a second, the countr argument is that we're a small country with limited talent and if someone would be good for the post, should any political action on their part necessarily rule them out?

No, I don't really buy that either – not when you're as connected as McElrea is right now. But my point is that just because it looks bad doesn't mean it is bad. Not everything with feathers is a duck. And, as mentioned above, should Bolger or Cullen be ruled out of boards because of their political past? Or can they only be appointed by opponents? Is it only ok when their active political days are past? It's a tough line.

Someone like Mike Moore had to divest himself of various commitments to take the US ambassador's posting, for example, so maybe more of that sort of thing should be required. McElrea and others like him should have to choose who they serve, perhaps. Cos as Mr Dylan says, you've gotta serve somebody.

by Rab McDowell on January 19, 2012
Rab McDowell

The responses to my comments have concentrated on the idea that unlimited political funding would lead to a USA state of electioneering. Despite the predictable comment that only right wing parties have the wherewithal to fund this style of politics it is immediately obvious that the Democrats have very good funding streams and ability to get elected. For all that, I confess that I would not entirely welcome the kind of expensive campaigns of the American system.
However, that issue of private funding is almost a red herring or straw man to the crux of this debate and that is the extent of public funding.
If you decide that political parties should be publicly funded for their election campaigns and if you further decide that that public funding should be strictly controlled then you inevitably have to apply those limits to all forms of publicly funded political comment during an election campaign.
Bruce’s documentary was publically funded and, despite the protestations of some, undoubtedly political.  Of course it made you think. The whole idea of debate during an election campaign is to make you think about what is best for NZ and how it should be governed.
However, if we are to have strict control of  public funding of political comment during elections then it seems to me we have three choices regarding a Bruce type documentary.
Include it in the funding arrangements for publically funded political comment during an election campaign.
Do not show it during the term of the campaign.
Do not fund it publically. However, even this option may not make it permissible to broadcast during an election given the rules we are now trying to put in place around associated parties etc.
I reiterate what I said earlier. I have no problem with Bruce making his viewpoint known. I also have no problem with him putting forward those views during an election campaign. I just do not see why I, as a taxpayer, should pay for it outside the limits on other taxpayer paid political comment during an election campaign

by Tim Watkin on January 20, 2012
Tim Watkin

If you decide that political parties should be publicly funded for their election campaigns and if you further decide that that public funding should be strictly controlled then you inevitably have to apply those limits to all forms of publicly funded political comment during an election campaign.

No you don't. Robert, why does the funding of political parties' messages in promotion of their own cause have anything to do with the funding of journalism? Journalism is not mere comment, but reportage and analysis and is free of partisan considerations.

I just do not see why I, as a taxpayer, should pay for it outside the limits on other taxpayer paid political comment during an election campaign

Because you want to see all New Zealanders have a voice in the election of governments, not just those parties or individuals with the means to buy ad-space or produce media content. When it comes to elections, the pauper and the millionaire are meant to have the same power – one person, one vote (or two votes, as it is now). How else do you level the playing field except with money collected for the public good?

by Tim Watkin on January 20, 2012
Tim Watkin

So, the Electoral Commission has cleared Inside Child Poverty of any breaches of the electoral act – it does not count as an election programme. Bryan Bruce reckons TV3 deserves an apology. That may be premature as we've yet to see whether the BSA rules in his favour.

by Tim Watkin on January 20, 2012
Tim Watkin

If you thought TV3's timing was mischievous, try this from the ABC. That's just two days before the South Carolina primary, which Newt Gingrich has called the most important race of his long career.

by Ross on January 20, 2012
Ross

> Bryan Bruce reckons TV3 deserves an apology.

I think he's right. He based his comment on the suggestion that it was unethical to show the programme so close to an election. That has nothing to do with whatever the BSA might say. On that point, however, it's difficult to see how the BSA could find a problem with it.

by Ross on January 20, 2012
Ross

Bruce discussed his doco prior to it being screened. He made it pretty clear that successive governments were responsible for the current situation. The suggestion that it was pro-Labour and anti-National is difficult to sustain.

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1111/S00202/kiwi-fm-video-wammo-brian-bruce-on-child-poverty-doco.htm

by Frank Macskasy on January 20, 2012
Frank Macskasy

Tim...

"Frank, hear hear. Although if McElrea needs to go, shouldn't all patronage appointments follow suit? He's just the one caught in the current glare."

Good point. I think McElrea was perhaps the most outrageous example of political cronyism. But yes, I think every appointee should be reviewed.(This may take a while...)

And following on, there has to be some neutral, non-partisan, apolitical manner in which appointments to bodies can be made. This must be taken out of the hands of parties, because it is getting to the stage where it's becoming almost Monty Pythonesque in absurdity...

Robert...

"If you decide that political parties should be publicly funded for their election campaigns and if you further decide that that public funding should be strictly controlled then you inevitably have to apply those limits to all forms of publicly funded political comment during an election campaign. "

I'm not sure why you assume that? Though if anyone wants to fund my blogging, I'm open to offers...

"Bruce’s documentary was publically funded and, despite the protestations of some, undoubtedly political. "

Perhaps, Robert, you've missed a glaring point here. Poverty has always been a political issue. And despite certain promises of "trickle down" - poverty has increased since the mid 1980s.

It's a shame that some critics have chosen to focus on the messenger, rather than the message itself. We can wax lyrically about the number of angels doing a cha-cha on the head of a pin - but it ain't going to solve this problem.

Ross...

"Bruce discussed his doco prior to it being screened. He made it pretty clear that successive governments were responsible for the current situation. The suggestion that it was pro-Labour and anti-National is difficult to sustain."

Precisely.

Instead of National supporters reacting negatively, and Labour supporters "crowing" - I think it behoves both groups to go back to their respective political "tribes" and ask some hard questions.

The alternative is more bickering; growing wealth-disparity; and more New Zealanders having a gutsful and moving overseas.

If we cannot solve poverty issues in a land of plenty like ours, then there is something seriously wrong with our collective psyche. There are times I think we should become a province of a Scandinavian country, and let them govern us. (Why not - our Head of State resides in another country already.)

 

 

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