Whose airwaves are they anyway?

 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.