(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 20.)
There’s an “under new management” sign, figuratively speaking, outside Radio New Zealand’s head office in Wellington.Paul Thompson, former editorial chief of the Fairfax media group, recently took over as RNZ’s chief executive.
Thompson is a stranger to the public broadcasting culture from which RNZ’s bosses have traditionally been recruited. His predecessor, Peter Cavanagh, came from Australia’s state-owned ABC. The incumbent before that, Sharon Crosbie, had been a high-profile RNZ broadcaster, though she had also done time in private radio.A former editor of the Christchurch Press, Thompson was well-regarded in the newspaper business. I have misgivings about the editorial course Fairfax charted under his leadership, but a former editor whose opinion I respect once described him to me as the most complete journalist, in terms of ability, that she had ever worked with.
As an outsider, he is likely to be regarded with suspicion by some of his new employees. Not only does he come from a print journalism background, but he previously worked in the private sector.Public broadcasting has its own culture and ethos. Some of the people who work at RNZ consider the private sector to be intrinsically tainted by the profit motive. Many wouldn’t dream of working for a commercial broadcaster, and the appointment of a CEO from outside the public broadcasting culture will have come as something of a shock.
But we can only assume RNZ’s board of governors wanted an infusion of new blood, and I think they’re probably right. (In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether it would be good for the police too, but that’s another story.)Thompson is accustomed to working in a difficult environment, having spent several years grappling with the crisis in the newspaper industry. He will face different challenges at RNZ, the first of which will be winning the confidence of staff.
I would be very surprised if alarm bells had not rung internally over his arrival. Consider the following.The board of governors, chaired by former prime ministerial PR man (and Nelson resident) Richard Griffin, has a strong private-sector bias. Griffin was RNZ’s political editor for many years but later worked for Jim Bolger and is seen as close to the National government.
The deputy chair is a former boss of Radio Hauraki, the Auckland rock station that challenged the state monopoly on broadcasting in the 1960s and opened the way for private radio. Another board seat is held by former National cabinet minister Paul East.National is not favourably disposed to RNZ and has kept its funding capped since 2008. Steven Joyce, one of the most influential figures in Cabinet, made his money in private radio and is not thought to be warmly sympathetic to public broadcasting.
Moreover, RNZ employees could be excused for feeling increasingly isolated, having seen state-owned Television New Zealand stripped of its public service obligations and reduced to a wholly ratings-driven operation. RNZ is the last standard-bearer for commercial-free public broadcasting.Put all these factors together and you can understand why many in RNZ might be feeling nervous. Yet the time has probably come for a few changes.
They don’t need to be radical. RNZ National claimed to be New Zealand’s highest-rating station last year, with a nationwide audience share of 10 per cent. Morning Report is the country’s highest-rating radio show, with an average audience of 342,000. Obviously it’s doing something right.In fact I would argue that RNZ does most things pretty well. A stocktake would find much to be positive about, especially considering that its funding has been static for five years.
The government would risk a fierce backlash – and not just from Labour voters – if it tried to hobble the broadcaster, as I suspect some ministers would secretly like to do. Most people I know have their radios permanently tuned to RNZ National.I would go further and suggest RNZ has never been more important, especially as a source of news and information. At a time when the newspaper industry is in a state of disarray, the state broadcaster has gone some way toward filling the vacuum left by the killing off of the New Zealand Press Association. In doing so it has become the national newspaper we never had.
Still, I get the sense that a degree of institutional inertia has set in. Under Cavanagh’s watch RNZ lost some of its forward momentum. He was known as the invisible man by some RNZ employees and seemed content to take a hands-off approach – hardly adequate at a time of upheaval in the media.Many of RNZ’s senior managers have been with the organisation a long time. Thompson may encounter resistance to change – but as an outsider, he’s unlikely to be persuaded by the age-old argument that “this is the way we’ve always done things”.
RNZ has come a long way since the stuffy era when its programming department depended heavily on BBC hand-me-downs, the presenters were stiff and formal and the music played was mainly of the bland, light orchestral variety, but some of its programmes have begun to sound a little tired. It could do with some rejuvenation.Coming from a background in journalism, where editorial balance is a core principle, Thompson might also want to tackle the pronounced left-wing bias that persists in parts of RNZ.
I have no idea what his own political views are, and certainly don’t think he was a political appointment. But he needs to point out firmly to some RNZ employees that the organisation is owned by the taxpayer and has an obligation to be even-handed in its treatment of political issues.The announcement that Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw is retiring at the end of this year is a good start, although RNZ insists the decision was entirely Laidlaw’s own.
A less partisan approach by other hosts such as Kim Hill might even soften the government’s antipathy towards the organisation, though that’s not why it needs to be done.