Paul Thompson is Managing Director and Editor of Radio New Zealand.
OPINION: The government last week unveiled the creation of a new public media entity which will integrate RNZ and TVNZ. It will pave the way for digital innovation as well as the addition of new capabilities and services.
It’s a big change and it’s a lot to understand.
In particular, the public media attention of the new entity is a turning point.
New Zealand has had various combinations of public and commercial media entities in the past, but this takes the mission of public media to a new level.
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The new entity is designed to ensure that New Zealand has a well-resourced and comprehensive public media entity that can withstand the continued disruption caused by the near unbridled power of FANGS (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google ).
In recent years, the media industry has been in flux, with business models under pressure and audiences fragmented and often favoring products provided by FANGS. This has contributed to increased misinformation and polarization.
The government hopes the new entity will be strong and flexible enough to adapt to these challenges in ways that a stand-alone RNZ and TVNZ could not.
To understand what the government is trying to do, it is helpful to focus on four key things it is putting in place.
First, the new public media entity will be exactly that – an organization focused on public media services that inform and connect the nation, celebrate our culture and identity, and enable people to participate in our democracy.
Commercial activity will play an important role and will be necessary to sustain this public media attention.
Second, the entity will operate under a public media charter that will enshrine its editorial independence in law. The Charter will be the organization’s North Star, compelling it to aspire and deliver the best attributes of public media. The draft charter that is proposed in the Cabinet document looks promising. This, more than anything else, will ultimately determine the direction of the new entity, its tone, its culture and the services it provides.
Third, the policy places a strong emphasis on the new entity’s obligation to support and recognize the “Maori relationship with the Crown”. This is another big change. Indeed, the objective of the new entity will require that it contributes to “a valued, visible and flourishing te reo Māori me ngā tikanga Māori”.
This is vital as the new entity, from day one, must capture what makes Aotearoa New Zealand unique, including Te Tiriti. The board of directors of the new entity will include at least two members with Te Ao Māori and tikanga Māori expertise.
And fourth, the new entity will need to collaborate with other media and support the overall health of the wider media system. This recognizes the critical importance of maintaining a plurality of media sources and perspectives in the years to come.
Reliable and independent information and news underpins our democracy. The only way to ensure trust in the media is to ensure that people have a range of sources and perspectives from which to choose.
The new entity will have to support this diversity in a significant way, for example by training the next generation of reporters, producers, presenters and program creators for the benefit of the whole industry.
Public media institutions around the world have lately been on the back foot.
In many countries, state-owned and funded broadcasters have been subdued, supported and co-opted for political purposes.
This is happening to a shocking degree in Hong Kong, Turkey, Slovenia and Hungary, as well as in southern Africa, as authoritarian regimes flex their muscles.
But even in Australia and the UK, the ABC and BBC have struggled to question the central role played by fiery, independent public media in times of crisis and heightened polarisation.
All of this underscores the value of strong public media to our democratic processes. RNZ and TVNZ enjoy a solid reputation internationally. Rebuilding our public media mandate will reinforce this.
Much remains to be determined, including funding levels, and there will no doubt be intense public debate when the bill opens for public submissions.
RNZ is up to the challenge and will work hard to bring our valuable services as well as our public media philosophy and expertise to the new entity.
The key will be to ensure that all New Zealanders benefit.
Paul Thompson is the managing director and editor of RNZ. He is also President of the International Public Media Alliance.