An end to boring TV election broadcasts
By Richard Harman (author)
Two separate moves yesterday have the potential to radically change the way election campaigns appear on TV.
The Government finally ended the requirement for TVOne to show formal election campaign broadcasts.
Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal has upheld a decision which will free up the ability of radio and TV broadcasters to run satire during election campaigns.
Broadcasting Minister Amy Adams say legislation will be introduced into Parliament next week to make the TV campaign broadcast changes.
The Government will allocate $3.605 million to political parties to buy time on TV.
But that will be all the time they will be allowed to purchase.
They may also spend some of their allocation on on-line advertising though (confusingly) they will also additionally be able to spend their own money on extra on-line advertising.
Only TVNZ was obliged to broadcast the formal opening and closing broadcasts, and Ms Adams appear to have bought their argument that the lower audiences for the broadcasts deprived them of revenue.
"The addresses are an outdated format, and declining audience numbers show they are not effective at engaging voters," she said.
The broadcasts began in 1963 when the-then three main parties (National, Labour, Social Credit) shared two hours on air. The broadcasts were mainly speeches.
Though cartoons and short films were introduced in the 1970s to liven them up, they still featured the Leaders’ formal; openings in town halls up and down the country like Labour Leader Bill Rowling’s opening in Christchurch in 1975.
By 2005, the speeches had turned into interviews with tape overlays. But the broadcasts remained focussed on the Leader speaking.
However just what constitutes an “election programme" and is, therefore, subject to the restrictions is a matter of controversy.
And yesterday the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court decision of Judge Dennis Clifford which contradicted a decision by the Electoral Commission to declare a satirical song and video, “Planet Key” as an election programme and therefore subject to the election n campaign advertising restrictions.
Ironically Judge Clifford served a term in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the mid-90s working on, among other things, broadcast regulation.
The Court said that Planet Key was a satirical song and video that but for the intervention of the Electoral Commission would have been broadcast in the lead up to the 2014 general election.
“The Commission is said to have overreached by interfering with the expression of personal political views.” the judgement said.
“Planet Key itself is now of historical interest, but the legal controversy that it engendered is not; the current controversy concerns the meaning of the legislation that the Commission administers and it has significant implications for future elections.”
After the musician, Darren Watson recorded the song, a Waikato radio station proposed to play it but the Electoral Commission intervened and said it was an “election programme” along the lines of the ones included in the allocation of money provided by the Government and changed by Amy Adams yesterday.
The effect of the Electoral Commission's ruling was to restrict political satire programmes on radio and TV during the election campaign.
But the Appeal Court, in its decision, said "the effect of a programme must be assessed from the perspective of the reasonable observer who is sensitive to the importance of free speech and the exceptionally high value of political speech in a democracy.
“This calls for a robust approach.
“The programme’s effect may be influenced by the context, and its style and apparent purpose, and any attempt by the broadcaster to achieve balance.”
Instead, the Court concluded that the Electoral Act's s restrictions on election programmes were confined to programmes broadcast for political parties or candidates, “being those entitled to benefit from an allocation of broadcasting time” under the electoral legislation.
Coupled with the abolition of the opening and closing addresses (or interviews) the Court’s decision will free up broadcasting to offer a more entertaining approach to politics during election campaigns.