The RNZ saga: now the funding increase is doubtful

: Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran
 

Members of a Parliamentary Committee are returning to Wellington today from their recess break to presumably complete their review of Radio New Zealand.

At the same time the Broadcasting Minister is hinting that RNZ is not now going to get the funding promised in Labour’s manifesto.

The review has been derailed by the resignation of RNZ’s head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld, after what RNZ Paul Thompson, later described as lies she told both him and RNZ Chair, Richard Griffin, about the circumstances surrounding a meeting with Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran.

The situation has been further complicated by Griffin refusing to hand over to the Committee a voicemail message in which Curran is alleged to have told him not to appear before the Committee to set the record straight over Hirschfeld but simply to provide a written statement.

However, his fate remains up in the air.

POLITIK understands that he has not been asked to appear before the Committee today, but the fact that he is not expected at the meeting would seem to indicate that the Committee will not pursue a charge of contempt against him.

The request that he hand over the voicemail was made verbally at the end of a meeting, and he was not asked to reply to it.

His refusal has been communicated in media interviews.

“Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand” by the former Clerk of the House, David McGee says that If a committee decides that it requires an answer from a witness despite the witness initially refusing, "it informs the witness accordingly.”

“The question is then put to the witness again.

“A witness who declines to answer a question in these circumstances may be held in contempt of the House.

“The committee may report the failure to answer to the House for it to take such action as it deems appropriate."

That means the Committee could refer any refusal to Speaker, Trevor Mallard, to have Griffin cited for contempt.

However, Mallard has told POLITIK that only one similar case has ended with a non MP being charged with contempt.

Referring Griffing to Mallard would seem to raise the stakes far too high in what was essentially a fairly unimportant matter.

At the same time, Curran, has revealed that her original plans for RNZ to get into TV are now, for the meantime anyway, off the table.

Speaking on Saturday to the Better Public Media Trust Curran raised doubts about whether Labour would carry out its election manifesto pledge to invest substantially in public broadcasting.

It promised a Labour Government would:

  • Transform Radio New Zealand into RNZ+, a truly multi-platform provider dedicated to quality New Zealand programming and journalism, including a free-to-air non-commercial television service
  • Provide $38m a year in additional funding for quality New Zealand programming and journalism, independently apportioned between RNZ+ and NZ On Air. NZOA could use this funding for content promoting New Zealand's national identity or investigative journalism.

But now, Curran is describing the channel as a “long-term goal".

Ironically this is more or less what RNZ themselves proposed when they pushed back over the Minister's initial full channel proposal and which led to the meeting between Curran and Hirschfeld, who supported the channel.

And Curran appeared to confirm suggestions that the budget for RNZ and NZ on Air has been cut to a figure possibly well below the $38 million talked about in the manifesto, which may be a revealing indication of much fiscal pressure the Government are under as they frame this year’s budget.

“Is the figure of $38 million still on the table?” she said.

“I can’t answer that here today.

“We've got a budget, and that hasn't happened yet.

“I wish I could answer that here today to passionate supporters of RNZ and public media.

“But the reality is that I can’t even give you a hint of what might be coming up in the Budget.

“While the process goes on, I am sworn to secrecy.

I would emphasise however that I am committed to transforming RNZ into RNZ+, a truly multiplatform, multimedia entity.

“Moving RNZ's platforms, so they are multimedia will be a gradual process. That evolution won't be instant – it will take some time and will be dependent on funding.”

She said the Government had an important work programme in the public media space.

“My focus right now is on transforming RNZ into RNZ+, a truly multi-platform provider dedicated to quality New Zealand programming and journalism; to expand the funding for New Zealand On Air as the provider of quality publically funded local content on other media platforms; to take another look at how NZOA does that but to ensure it has an important role to play in our expanding investment and emphasis on public media in New Zealand.”

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