Friday, March 29, 2013

RNZ must right its lean to the left

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 27.)
I have some advice – unsolicited – for whoever takes over from Peter Cavanagh, the chief executive of Radio New Zealand, who steps down toward the end of this year.

RNZ is a national treasure, but it’s a flawed treasure, and that makes it vulnerable. By correcting the most obvious of those flaws, whoever takes over from Mr Cavanagh could help protect the organisation against political interference.
RNZ’s vulnerability arises from the fact that it’s a non-commercial broadcaster owned by a government which, insofar as it could be said to be ideologically committed to anything, favours private enterprise.

In itself, that shouldn’t place the organisation at risk. RNZ has co-existed relatively amicably with National governments before. The very reason National has remained the dominant party in New Zealand since the 1950s is that it’s essentially pragmatic, and happy to live with a mix of private and public ownership.
But the political climate has changed in recent years. The global financial crisis has put pressure on the government to save money wherever it can.

John Key’s government is not ideologically averse to state ownership of key broadcasting assets. That’s obvious, since it continues to cling to Television New Zealand long after TVNZ abandoned any pretence of being a public service broadcaster (and probably long after anyone else would have been interested in buying it).
But at least TVNZ returns a profit, albeit a relatively modest one ($19.2 million after tax last year). RNZ does no such thing. It is funded by the taxpayer and generates no commercial revenue.

Its funding has been frozen since 2009, which suggests it doesn’t rate highly in the government’s priorities. In fact if Wellington gossip is to be believed, there are influential figures in the government who are at best indifferent, and possibly even hostile, to the state broadcaster.
Take Steven Joyce, for example. As the fourth-ranked minister in the Cabinet, he carries a lot of clout – probably more than his ranking suggests.

He is also a former broadcasting entrepreneur who built a small New Plymouth radio station into the RadioWorks network and pocketed $6 million when he sold his interest.
Mr Joyce is said to be less than sympathetic to arguments that RNZ deserves more money. And while there may be others in the Cabinet who don’t share his robust support for private enterprise (it would be interesting, for example, to know the attitude of someone like the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson), the brutal reality is that National probably takes the view that there’s little electoral risk in upsetting RNZ listeners because most of them vote Labour anyway.

So what might the new RNZ chief executive do to enhance the organisation’s standing in a political climate that is less than favourable? One obvious step is to take a tougher line against the editorial bias that still permeates some RNZ programmes.
Public broadcasting organisations, by their very nature, tend to be left-leaning.  Australia’s ABC is perpetually under fire for partisan reporting and the prevalence of left-wing views in current affairs programmes; Britain’s illustrious BBC only slightly less so.

It’s not hard to understand how this comes about. Journalists distrustful of capitalism (and many journalists, being of an idealistic bent, tend to the left anyway) naturally gravitate toward state-owned media organisations, seeing them as untainted by the profit motive. This becomes self-perpetuating, since the more left-leaning an organisation becomes, the more it attracts other people of the same persuasion.  The result is often an ideological mindset that permeates the entire organisation.
But while this can be reassuringly cosy for the employees, publicly funded broadcasters have an obligation to make programmes that reflect the views and interests of the entire community – not just those the broadcasters happen to favour.

This is explicit in RNZ’s charter, which commits the organisation to impartial and balanced coverage of news and current affairs.
It’s the duty of the chief executive, who also has the title of editor-in-chief, to ensure this happens. But in this respect, Mr Cavanagh, an Australian who was recruited from the aforementioned ABC in 2003, has been missing in action.

Overall, RNZ presents a more balanced range of perspectives than it used to. But on some programmes, a stubborn left-wing bias persists.
Kim Hill is the worst offender. This is a problem for whoever runs RNZ, because she’s also its biggest name.

Chris Laidlaw lists to the left too, as does Jeremy Rose, a journalist and producer who frequently crops up on Laidlaw’s Sunday morning show. Rose appears to be on a lifelong mission to convince people that there are humane alternatives to nasty, heartless capitalism, and assiduously trawls the world looking for examples (worker-owned co-operatives in Spain are a favourite).
He’s perfectly entitled to believe whatever he pleases, of course, but he has no right to co-opt the resources of RNZ to pursue his fixation. It’s an abuse of power to use a taxpayer-funded medium to promote pet ideological causes.

And while I used to be a firm admirer of Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan, I’ve reluctantly been forced to file her under “L” too.
I had my first misgivings when she conducted a disgracefully partisan interview during the furore over the beleaguered Auckland employers’ leader Alasdair Thompson in 2011. I was reminded of that episode when I recently heard Ryan aggressively hectoring Chester Borrows, the Minister of Courts, over a government proposal to take action against the partners of welfare cheats.  

No one who heard the Borrows interview could doubt that Ryan allowed her personal views and emotions to override her professional obligation of impartiality (which, I stress, doesn’t preclude hard and rigorous questioning).
An editor-in-chief who was doing his job properly would crack down on such abuses, for two reasons.

The first and most important is that they breach RNZ’s duty to the public to present information fairly and impartially. The second, more pragmatic, reason is that the left-wing bias apparent in some of RNZ’s programmes is hardly likely to endear the organisation to the politicians who control its fate.
In saying this, I’m not suggesting for a moment that RNZ should become a tame government puppet. That would be far worse than the status quo. 

But we all have an interest in Radio New Zealand surviving, and a genuinely independent, non-partisan RNZ will be in a far stronger position to defend itself than one that consistently leaves itself exposed to allegations of bias.



Lindsay Mitchell said...

It was probably no more than a flippant comment but the political panel on the Willie Jackson and John Tamihere show said ministers won't go on Radio NZ. Whether that's true I don't know because I don't tune in to RNZ.

Brendan McNeill said...


Your observations about a politically left bias in RNZ could be extended to virtually all the MSM print media.

Unlike the USA where there are news outlets like FOX and Australia where at least some of the MSM can be relied upon to provide an alternative perspective, this balance is completely absent in New Zealand.

A simple and recent example on Stuff, where it was reported that up to 800 people gathered outside parliament this week to express their views on gay marriage, the article reported that the Christians were in the majority, but the only photograph showed two women kissing, surrounded by placards promoting gay marriage. In a culture dominated by emotive imagery the bias is obvious.

Jigsaw said...

I doubt that anyone can make much difference to the obvious bias in RNZ. It seems that they have a job for life-well at least as long as they want it. It's not just that the people presenting the programmes tell us what their views are on almost everything is-Linda Clark was a classic for that-often interviews were simply a vehicle for telling us what she thought about a topic. It's also the topics they select and the way they set up the interviews. Kathryn
Ryan always uses the same people to comment on various topics and so we have the left bias before the interview even begins.
Mary Wilson would have to be the most biased of all interviewers and her habit of making statements rather than asking questions also leads to a slanting of interviews.
Chris laidlaw likewise chooses his topics-always with a left and Green slant.
Radio New Zealand is run by the people who work there-don't expect any change.

Jigsaw said...

As a footnote: there is a story in the Telegraph today that striking BBC staff would return to work if Nelson Mandela died but when asked if they also would return to work if Maggie Thatcher died....they declined to say.......

rivoniaboy said...

We have found common ground!

Richard McGrath said...

Karl, you're too kind to Chris Laidlaw who lists so far to the left he's almost horizontal, and whose radio show should be preceded by an announcement of a (communist) party political broadcast.

Unknown said...

I agree with you about RNZ, but I insist that you have to (or someone has to) be "anal" about collecting examples of it. I saw you on TV talking about this today, and you were not convincing, because you did not have the evidence.

I have a couple of files of evidence of anti-male bias in the media (which is one form of "leftism"). As regards "Nine-to-Noon", have a look at my page "Dildomedia Angry at Police Insubordination" at

I think you should also look at RNZ's news bulletins, which over the years have routinely featured Women's Refuge and Rape Crisis news and propaganda -- with absolutely no mention of men's issues, as far as I can recall.