Overnight submissions to the legislation that provides the authority for journalists working for our public knowledge broadcaster is the perfect metaphor for the state of democracy in the West, writes sociologist Jodie Bruning.
Update: Sometime during the day on 8 September, after this story was published, the ‘published date’ on the submissions webpage for this piece of the legislation was changed from 7 September to 28 July. It is unclear whether submissions have been open since July or if the date was retrospectively changed for the sake of appearances.
This morning I came upon the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill. I was surprised. Every week or so I have a sticky beak at the Parliament website to see what games are afoot. This Bill was only published for public submission yesterday.
This is extraordinary.
The Bill dissolves RNZ and TVNZ to replace them with Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media. Unless I have missed something… the obligations do not mention the ‘public interest’ once.
You all know this – Democracy hinges on an active fourth estate that can critically examine and challenge power. In order for a public sector fourth estate to carry out such duties, the statutory obligations must include overarching principles that support such activity.
The question for me is, can this shift ensure that New Zealand public media serve the democratic – the national – interest? Will it be a place that promotes controversial, and challenging content that enables society to challenge over-reach from the private sector, so as to protect not only democracy, but ensures a free and fair society and the protection of human rights – and our health?
This is a critical issue, as the ties, through trade agreements, treaties, and private-public partnerships with supranational global institutions (such as contracts and subcontracts hidden by commercial in confidence agreements) are without doubt a major challenge to national sovereignty and the rights of the citizen in the era 2020-2030. We’re also faced with the monopoly status of the social media giants, and the global media networks and their NGO affiliates. This is a different world where individual nations are pitted against global giants. This is commercial colonisation writ large.
Serving the public interest often involves difficult engagement across moral, political and social arguments. This is what democracy is. It is ever-present tension – so as to keep vested interests at arms length. In times of war, emergencies, and institutional encroachment by private interests – free speech is necessary, if any democracy as we have known it, is not to be shredded into some distorted form of capitalist authoritarianism. (And I have said it before, and will say it again, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler noted in 2018 that the New Zealand government is authoritarian in the way it governs).
Knowledge has a very close relationship with ignorance. A free and independent media must have capacity – purpose – that ensures that journalists will not be prevented by management from digging in dark places, examining what vested (political and financial) interests would prefer to keep hidden.
Our media must be in service of civil society. Future court action depends on the media being accountable to the purposes and principles of the legislation that give officials acting under the power of the establishing legislation (as a non-lawyer this will be clumsily put, as it is in haste) – but does the enabling legislation demand that the public interest will be served?
The long term interest always extends beyond short term financial accountability.
What responsibilities does the legislation – empower the managers and journalists who would work under this entity with?
What I personally get from the legislation is that it must be representative of our broad culture, and in particular serve Māori – but it really only needs to be nice and interesting.
There is no teeth. No grit. There is no demand to ‘serve the public interest’ – the public interest forever, has been the focus of court action, we have precedents in law which help us judge what the public interest is.
Please look at Subpart 2 – Charter – it contains
What I see is an end product that is designed to primarily be an apolitical entertainment vehicle that also discusses history.
My greatest concern is that the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill takes important principles that were previously inserted at the highest level in the Radio New Zealand Act and sticks them down at a low level.
(k) foster critical thought, counter misinformation, and promote informed and many-sided debate:
(l) support freedom of thought and expression
(L) & (K) !!! WTF!
The (12) Functions – are to inform, enlighten, and entertain.
Just like Amazon, Neon et al. Awesome.
And while the Charter promotes ‘editorial independence’ – remember – this must be in relation to the objectives and functions – as stated. So we can’t get hopeful that some editor will challenge power in such a way that might be politically controversial. It’s not required at high level in the statutory obligations.
(1) The Charter of Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media is to perform its functions, while acting consistently with its objectives and operating in accordance with the following principles:
(a) demonstrating editorial independence, impartiality, and balance, particularly when broadcasting news and current affairs:
(b) ensuring that Māori perspectives are reflected in the development and delivery of content and services for and about Māori, including by providing opportunities for Māori participation:
(c) representing and reflecting the diversity of New Zealand’s communities:
(d) striving to understand, engage, and serve New Zealanders of all ages, genders, abilities, ethnicities, regions, and communities:
(e) ensuring that its content is broadcast predominantly free of charge:
(f) identifying and working to address any areas where public broadcasting is not—
(i) easily accessible; or
(ii) meeting the needs of New Zealand’s diverse communities:
(g) ensuring that the perspectives of under-served and under-represented audiences are reflected in the development and delivery of content and services, including by providing opportunities for participation by those audiences:
(h) ensuring that the means of broadcasting content and services aligns with audience preferences and needs:
(i) innovating and taking creative risks:
(j) aiming for the highest standards of quality and integrity.
(2) For the purposes of section 113 of the Crown Entities Act 2004, carrying out the Charter is a statutorily independent function.
If we look in the Bills Digest, where ordinarily, the underpinning information, analysis and legal discussions would be lodged, we find nothing.
Yes, this Bill places obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi at high level. But any legislation can (and does) do this. So this is not a magical clause which makes it OK.
The Treasury’s Regulatory Impact Analysis team has determined that this proposal is exempted from the requirement to provide a regulatory impact statement because it would substantively duplicate the Strong Public Media Business Case published by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in August 2021.
Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media will be an autonomous Crown entity. The Crown Entities Act 2004 tells us that:
(7)(c) These are companies incorporated under the Companies Act 1993 that are wholly owned by the Crown
RNZ’S CURRENT CHARTER
RNZs Charter in the Radio New Zealand Act 1995 demonstrates how such purposes were articulated:
The Charter of the public radio company is as follows:
(1) As an independent public service broadcaster, the public radio company’s purpose is to serve the public interest.
(2) Freedom of thought and expression are foundations of democratic society and the public radio company as a public service broadcaster plays an essential role in exercising these freedoms.
(3) The public radio company fosters a sense of national identity by contributing to tolerance and understanding, reflecting and promoting ethnic, cultural, and artistic diversity and expression.
(4) The public radio company provides reliable, independent, and freely accessible news and information.
(5) (d) foster critical thought, and informed and wide-ranging debate:
We can see 8A was added in – including financial responsibility obligations”
8APrinciples of operation
(1) The public radio company must, in fulfilling its Charter, exhibit a sense of social responsibility by—
(a) having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates; and
(b) endeavouring to accommodate or encourage those interests when able to do so.
(2) The public radio company must, in fulfilling its Charter, ensure that it is not influenced by the commercial interests of other parties.
(3) The public radio company must, in fulfilling its Charter, ensure that it operates in a financially responsible manner and, for this purpose, that it—
(a) prudently manages its assets and liabilities; and
(b) endeavours to ensure—
(i) its long-term financial viability; and
(ii) that it acts as a successful going concern.
Section 8A: inserted, on 2 April 2016, by section 4 of the Radio New Zealand Amendment Act 2016 (2016 No 13).
Finally, as this is in haste, I draw from this PhD thesis on media accountability:
‘the Commission finally opted to use the word accountability in central sections of the report. If the media shall remain free, it must fulfil several conditions. It must “incorporate into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest” for information that is rich in substance and not biased by media owners and journalists’ position in society (Leigh, 1947, p. 18). Hence the Commission takes a stand and states that “freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom. Its moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of this accountability. Its legal right will stand unaltered as its moral duty is performed” (ibid., p. 19). What is important in the Commission’s stance, is the emphasis on not only a negative freedom of the press, freedom from “external compulsions from whatever source”, but also a positive freedom, freedom to develop “its own conceptions of service and achievement” and to make “its contribution to the maintenance and development of a free society” (ibid., p. 18).
Torbjörn von Krogh. UNDERSTANDING MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY Media Accountability in Relation to Media Criticism and Media Governance in Sweden 1940-2010.
This article was first published at Jodie Bruning’s Substack.
Jodie Bruning is a consultant sociologist based in New Zealand. Her work explores governance cultures, policy and the production of scientific and technical knowledge. Her Master’s thesis explored the ways science policy creates barriers to funding, stymying scientists’ efforts to explore upstream drivers of harm. Bruning is a trustee of Physicians & Scientists for Global Responsibility. Papers and writing can be found at talkingrisk.nz and at jrbruning.substack.com and at Talking Risk on Rumble.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent or reflect those of The Looking Glass.