New Zealand on Air, which funded the politically loaded Bryan Bruce documentary on child poverty that screened three days before the November election, is now considering a new rule that would prevent the funding agency from being “dropped in it” – NZOA chairman Neil Walter’s phrase – again.
Critics are alleging political interference, and on the face of it, they have a point: Stephen McElrea, the NZOA board member who raised the issue – as revealed in documents obtained by media commentator Tom Frewen – is John Key’s electorate chairman.
McElrea is also a former TVNZ producer, so has professional credentials, but the fuss that has blown up over Bruce’s Inside Child Poverty documentary shows the messy situations that can arise from the time-honoured New Zealand practice of appointing people with political connections to public bodies. In this case it has given oxygen to Labour’s broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran, who is able to insinuate that NZOA’s decision to seek legal advice on a rule change is politically motivated. Rightly or wrongly, McElrea’s appointment undermines the public perception of NZOA as an impartial funder.
But all that aside, there’s no getting around the fact that TV3’s decision to schedule the pseudo-documentary four days before the election, in a prime-time slot usually given to cheap reality shows, was at the very least mischievous and provocative. And I have to take issue with John Drinnan from the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand media commentator Colin Peacock, who have suggested that the programme wasn’t overtly political.
It was a politically charged statement, to use Neil Walter’s description, from start to finish. I choked on my toast when I heard Bryan Bruce on Summer Report this morning declare, hand on heart, that his one-hour polemic didn’t favour one political party over another.
As I wrote in this blog at the time, the programme couldn’t be construed as anything but a deliberate attempt to tilt the political playing field in Labour’s favour. “That couldn’t have been clearer than when the host – who clearly aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to the sanctimonious John Pilger – genuflected, metaphorically speaking, before the Michael Joseph Savage monument and reminded us of Labour’s proud historical commitment to feed, clothe and house the poor. Another overtly political moment occurred when Bruce asked rhetorically: “Who builds state houses? Labour. Who sells them? National.”
The question now is whether this warrants a new rule restricting what can be shown on television in the leadup to an election – which media lawyer Steven Price has described as too broad and heavy handed – or whether it can be dealt with under existing Broadcasting Standards Authority provisions requiring broadcasters to be fair and balanced.
I’m no lawyer, but I find it hard to imagine how a new rule could be drafted that didn’t threaten to stifle perfectly legitimate pre-election coverage of controversial political issues. Yet NZOA can hardly be blamed for reacting the way it has.
Interestingly, the only silent party in this row so far is the one that created it: TV3 itself. The papers released to Frewen show that the network expressed its regret to NZOA for the timing of the programme and gave an assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, but I’d be far more interested in an explanation of why it did it in the first place.