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.