I admit I’m often mystified by politics and the process of government. Take the present fuss over Radio New Zealand funding.
If I thought the National government was seriously trying to hobble the state broadcaster or force it to adopt a commercial model, I’d be one of the first volunteers to man the barricades outside Radio New Zealand House. Notwithstanding my occasional whinges about it (mostly to do with pervasive political bias, which is not nearly as marked now as it used to be), RNZ is a national treasure. My quality of life, and that of virtually everyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances, would be greatly diminished without it. It follows that if Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman does anything to disembowel the institution, as some of his critics (such as the Greens’ Sue Kedgley) allege he is plotting to do, National can expect a savage backlash – much of it from people of a centre-right disposition who are otherwise broadly National-friendly.
But having followed the flurry of alarmist publicity about the possibility of budget cuts, I’m left wondering what all the fuss is about. It seems RNZ has simply been told it must get by on its current funding for the foreseeable future – which is no more nor less than other government departments are doing. If that means having to curb some of its aspirations, such as opening an office in Gisborne, that’s surely a relatively small sacrifice at a time when the government is borrowing a hair-raising $250 million a week to prop up an anaemic economy.
If, further down the track, RNZ has to cut services, it may have to make some difficult choices – such as shutting down National Radio’s FM network, seeking commercial sponsorship for Concert FM (good luck!) or taking National Radio off the air between midnight and 6am. In that case I believe its ultimate priority should be to protect the core National Radio service – in other words, 24-hour-a-day programming on AM frequencies, which have a better reach than FM. The RNZ board will tamper with the all-night programme at its peril; Lloyd Scott rules the night and has a lot of friends out there.
But isn’t it a bit early to be panicking? I haven’t seen any evidence that RNZ is in imminent danger of brutal cuts, still less that its very existence as a public service broadcaster is threatened, as a rather overwrought Kedgley was insisting on Morning Report today. If and when that happens, that will be the time to launch the Save Radio New Zealand campaign – and a pretty formidable campaign it would be. But for now, there’s a lot of smoke billowing around but no sign of fire, and I have a sneaky suspicion that this whole furore may have been stirred up by a low-ranking (and so far undistinguished) minister who’s feeling left out and wants to build himself a profile.