Dear Dave

F_R_tvnz_logo.pngReader, you don’t know how lucky you are. Not only do you have a local paper but also your local paper is locally owned.

That used to be the norm. Now almost all our newspapers, even small local ones, are foreign owned. Australian corporates, Fairfax and APN News & Media, own all the big city dailies except the Otago Daily Times. The Germans bought the magazines including the Listener and the Women’s Weekly off the Australians. Both national commercial radio networks are owned by Australians and Americans and one of the three main television channels (TV3) is currently owned by a Californian investment bank, Oaktree Capital, which for all we know could be a money laundering outfit for The Sopranos.

It’s not so much a problem that the owners of our main sources of news are foreigners. It is their absence from our shores that is the main cause of the decline in the quality of our news and information. Local owners are accountable to their communities. They walk the same streets as their readers. Their reputations and social status depend on being responsive to local demand and maintaining standards of accuracy, relevance and good taste.

Foreign owners rely on their management, often their own countrymen, whose take-home pay and career advancement depend on ruthlessly cutting costs and boosting revenue. Quality takes a back seat to the profit on which their bonuses are based.

Although TVNZ is not foreign-owned it might as well be. When John Key’s National-led government scrapped the charter it effectively handed the broadcaster over to its managers in what amounted to a management buyout without the buyout.

Both TVNZ and Radio New Zealand — “Radio” now stands for the letter “R” in RNZ — are owned by the Crown. That’s the government which changes every few years like traffic lights, from red to blue. For the two broadcasters, the difference is in degrees of neglect — generally benign under Labour but more malign under National which in 2011 quietly dropped all references to “public broadcasting” from its election manifesto.

The poet and historian, Robert Conquest, once wrote that the simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. That was one of his three “laws of politics” and is certainly true of TVNZ and RNZ. The greatest threats to their editorial independence are historically from politicians and powerful corporations who also want to be their closest friends.

At TVNZ, where journalists have been replaced at the top by marketing executives, the 600,000-700,000 viewers on the family couch for TV One’s evening news bulletin are the indirect , derived from exposing national advertisers to a national audience. It’s a bad fit in a country that produces little news is as relevant to Auckland as it is to Invercargill. Hence the heavy reliance on murder, mayhem, medical misadventure, spectacle and sensation, celebrity worship, road prangs, sport and weather to fill an hour when the largest audience is in front of the box.

Local news? You’ll be lucky. In the 25 years since Roger Douglas and his market henchmen threw open television’s gates to the advertising industry and sold the ZB commercial radio network to Tony O’Reilly, the greatest loss has been the disappearance of the strong regional radio newsrooms and local television stations.

Public broadcasting’s main enemy has always been the advertising industry. In New Zealand, though, it has been joined by the companies that make local television programmes. Now following Shortland Street producer South Pacific Pictures into foreign ownership, the television production sector is in competition for the taxpayer funding — some $140 million a year — that might otherwise go to local television and radio broadcasting.

TVNZ’s chief executive, Kevin Kenrick, now on a million dollars a year, told a parliamentary select committee recently that the company had moved on from being an old-fashioned television broadcaster. The company now thought of itself as a video content player that was platform agnostic in the digital space.

The vacuum created in public television by TVNZ’s exit is to be filled by — wait for it — radio! At Radio New Zealand, where the chief executive’s annual salary has risen by 40% to $400,000 in the past ten years despite a funding freeze for seven of them, Paul Thompson is piloting his digital spaceship through the digital space by using the internet to broadcast radio with pictures.

From January you will be able to watch John Campbell do Checkpoint on your phone or tablet while driving home or cooking dinner. Wait a minute . . .

If radio had been invented after television, technology pundits would be raving about its portability, immediacy and convenience. Just switch it on and listen, no mucking around with three remotes. You don’t even have to look at it!

So why are they turning the radio into television? Because it suits public broadcasting’s enemies. To find out how and why, stay tuned for the next episode.

Yours sincerely, Tom Frewen