by Julie Anne Genter
On June 30th 2012 the Goodnight Kiwi said farewell from TVNZ 7 and then TV One ‘Plus One’ kicked in. You might consider having “plus” in the title something of a misnomer – and you wouldn’t be wrong.
TVNZ 7’s closure means the end of almost any commercial free public broadcast television in New Zealand (aside from the excellent Maori TV, which has a very specific cultural/linguistic mandate). In 2011, the then Minister of Broadcasting, Jonathan Coleman, effectively sealed the channel’s fate. The Government has never seriously considered alternative decisions since then.
However, that decision is now the source of a complaint to the Ombudsmen from the same group who have been fighting to prolong the life of public television.
Myles Thomas of the Save TVNZ 7 Campaign, with the help of public law expert Mai Chen of ChenPalmer, has asked the Ombudsmen to investigate whether the decision to close TVNZ 7 was made unlawfully.
As Green Party spokesperson for both Broadcasting and Justice this piqued my interest. Not only is the future of public broadcasting at stake but we are seeing a potential abuse of power contrary to the interests of justice more broadly.
The official complaint lists three possible ways in which the decision may have been contrary to the law. Either…
a) TVNZ has effectively surrendered its discretion and acted under the dictation of Cabinet and the Minister of Broadcasting;
b) In combination with Cabinet’s decision to decline additional funding, the shareholding Ministers’ demands for a substantial dividend from TVNZ left it with no choice but to cancel TVNZ 7. This is tantamount to an unlawful direction as to content; or
c) TVNZ has not adequately assessed alternative options that would have allowed TVNZ 7 to be retained.
(See the full complaint (PDF).)
Cabinet documents indicate that the final decision would be left to TVNZ, but given the financial constraints and the obvious preference of the Minister for the channel to close, the decision was fairly predictable. In short, TVNZ 7’s closure was desired, foreseeable and pursued.
The Ombudsmen can act as an important check on the use (or, rather, misuse) of executive power and it will be interesting to see what their conclusions are. Unfortunately it is likely to be an uphill battle to draw an admission of wrongdoing from the Government, in large part because the Ombudsmen’s findings are not binding. And we know at least how the Prime Minister feels about non-binding authorities who might disagree with his Government’s view of the world…
The loss of high quality programming that has come with this decision, and the relative ease with which it was made, are concerning. Too little attention has been accorded to this issue in Parliament with most of the decisions being made behind closed doors. It has been difficult for interested parties to get documents under the Official Information Act, and when released the information is highly redacted.
But surely a matter of significant public interest should be something that is discussed openly? New Zealanders have expressed a strong interest in the channel; thousands attended meetings across the country and two large marches in Auckland and Wellington. Over 36,000 people signed the petition to keep TVNZ 7 on air. A large number of experts and academics wrote an open letter. They have all (unsurprisingly) been ignored by this Government. Our loss has been not only a good public service broadcaster, but also Government openness and sensitivity to public opinion.
This is why the continuation of the campaign is so heartening. Moves are being made to form a charitable trust to take on the role of public broadcasting advocacy and to oversee the return to the airwaves of high quality public television that we can be proud of.
We won’t find that in reruns.
The Save TVNZ 7 press release can be read here.
Also, you can read about the process for Ombudsmen complaints here.