About 400 people packed a Wellington hall to protest the planned closure of TVNZ7.  Among them was former ABC TV current affairs journalist Duncan Graham

The hikoi that clogged the forecourt of an empty Parliament in early May was an ecumenical event, embracing causes from dolphin rescue to fracking the terrain and the public service.  But foremost were the proposed asset sales.

The posters of corporates raping the nation’s mineral wealth were mainly waved by greenies. Some Save TVNZ7 campaigners were on the fringes in sober suits and superannuant shawls; few were linking hands with the environmentalists.

They should have been.  The airwaves are a national asset, a natural resource owned by all.  Like our forests, fisheries and ores they’ve long been plundered and abused by successive governments.

At the heart of the debate regarding TVNZ7 is the way we think about broadcasting frequencies. Like coal seams and gold-bearing ore, bandwidths are limited.

Across the world right wingers have treated them as commodities to be traded, like oil and gas blocks, sold to the highest bidder.

Those who don’t measure the quality of life in dollars see things differently.  They believe it’s the government’s role to protect citizens’ rights to be properly informed, to have free access to ideas, to participate in society, to follow their beliefs and maintain their traditions.

This is best done by using the frequencies as part of our common wealth.  We expect our elected leaders to uphold their responsibility to use taxpayers’ money to maintain and advance these values, just as they do with the national estate.

This isn’t an argument over whether there’s money available.  It’s the proper role of the State to be custodian of our culture as it is to protect our parks.

No weasel words about hard times that are never harsh enough to cripple politicians’ pay.  Funding public broadcasting is the proper role of a democratic State.  There’s no other option.

Governments that fail to do this are betraying electors’ trust and abandoning their duty – for who will tell our stories if we don’t?  The Aotearoa that’s not for sale includes our identity, showcased through the media.

Early last century Lord Reith, the father of the BBC, set out the principles of public service broadcasting as educating, informing and entertaining. New Zealand along with Australia and other democracies accepted this philosophy and have run independent, free-to-air services to maintain these ideals ever since.

Over the decades there have been hundreds of changes to accommodate and reflect society’s expectations and values.  There have been serious assaults on public service broadcasting, usually by thin-skinned politicians with delusions of infallibility.

The mixed commercial / public service model was designed to fail. Anyone who believed these two absolute opposites could exist in creative harmony was either naïve or malicious.

Commercial television can’t cohabit with public service broadcasting.  The people attracted to one can’t tolerate the other. It’s an impossible marriage between incompatible interests that can never be consummated.

TVNZ7 has been a soft-focus attempt by TVNZ to meet its charter obligations.  It hasn’t been the most glittering example, only occasionally coming within coo-ee of the ABC. 

There have been too many reruns, no drama, tired and repetitive teasers, minimal promotion and that ‘orrible origami, but its programmes on law, architecture, the media, art, history and politics have been excellent.  The one-hour news has treated viewers as though they’ve been to school.

It has shown what’s possible by offering an alternative to the mindless trash found on the rating-driven channels.

We won’t let businesses pollute our air; why do we let them poison our airwaves?

We don’t permit other nations to dump their garbage in New Zealand; why do we let them tip their TV refuse here?

If properly funded and managed by people who value creativity and celebrate difference a restructured TVNZ7 could reach its potential as the TV equivalent to Radio NZ National. How long can this pillar stand should TVNZ7 crumble?

Without commercial-free TV we’ll all be diminished, not just through intellectual impoverishment, but because our international reputation as a modern, open democracy proud of its achievements will have been strip mined, ripped and fracked.

Are we so ashamed, so lacking in self-confidence, that we’re not prepared to tell the world who we are and what we stand for – and do so in our own way?

To put it in terms that politicians might understand, if TVNZ7 goes our credibility ratings will slump to triple C minus.  We’ll be a cultural basket case.

The myopic claim public service broadcasting appeals only to a minority so funding can’t be justified. OK, let’s be logical. Public hospital emergency services only cater to a few, so let’s leave it to the private sector.  The same with the fire brigade.

If Seven closes the government will have abandoned its responsibility to husband our natural resources for ourselves, and future generations.  In that case legal action should be an option.

Instead of shouting slogans to an empty Parliament, better to invite creative lawyers to construct a legal challenge.

The charge?  Negligence; failing to exercise due care and attention to a nation’s identity.

Comments (3)

by Tim Watkin on May 28, 2012
Tim Watkin

While I agree with the premise Duncan and your argument that public broadcasting is a public responsibility, I'll quibble with a few points... TVNZ7 is surely an example that commercial and public broadcasting can co-exist. Much of the local content on 7 was created by TVNZ people – all the news breaks were from the single TVNZ newsroom as was the one hour bulletin that you say treated people as if they'd been to school.

The overseas content on 7 came via commercial deals TVNZ has with foreign broadcasters (so is refuse from offshore – just the smarter refuse!) and TVNZ in effect subsidised 7 news and programmes with its news tracks, hosts, crew, studios etc.

As for there being no option but government, well, in a pure sense I'd agree. But I'm sure you can find some of the overseas material on TVNZ7 on the web and it'll be interesting to see if any of the fave programmes survive elsewhere.

Finally, as much as I agree with the protests, the realist in me knows they're too little too late. If Dunne couldn't get a deal out of National in coalition talks, this ship has sailed. The money's gone, the decisions made months ago.

None of that argues with the fact it's a dumb move and a waste and a loss. But what's done is done. The real question is where the next iteration comes from.

by Jacob Toner on May 29, 2012
Jacob Toner

I can agree with you Duncan that the Government has an important role as the stewards of our collective culture to protect and nurture our identity and associated cultural assets. However, it is not at all clear that disestablishing TVNZ7 is an abandonment of that duty, especially when the channel is only one aspect of public broadcasting, and public broadcasting is only one narrow sliver of our collective culture.

In saying that, I love watcing TVNZ7, particularly the Court Report, Backbenchers and Media7 and I genuniely hope that those shows are picked up on other channels.

by Duncan Graham on May 30, 2012
Duncan Graham

I’m concerned that so many have paraded their pessimism and so strengthened the Government’s resolve.  Political parties never give up until the results are known, however bleak the prospect because negativity erodes support.  If 7 disappears it’s going to make the task of getting public TV even tougher without access to a nightly example.

The challenge now is to maintain the rage, initiate a movement and promote an achievable model with permanent funding. We don’t need to reinvent the cathode ray - Dr Peter Thompson of VUW has done sterling work with well-researched proposals.  Now we need action.

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