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A plan for balance in NZ government media

In brief
  • NZ needs a better way to ensure balance for state owned media. 
  • The Television New Zealand Act 2003 provides the company editorial independence.
  • Yet, independence does not mean balance if, by accident or design, there are partisans in control.
  • Equitable coverage for the political spectrum on state media is key. Anything less is hollow. 

Defining the problem

State owned media is too large a part of the NZ market for its politics to be left to chance. 

Whether through the Public Interest Journalism Fund, or via outsized ad spends, or through hiring an army of media consultants, many think the former Labour government sought to rule by PR. 

In 2021, journalist Andrea Vance summed up the result of the former government’s massive ramp up of spin doctors:  

“At every level, the government manipulates the flow of information,” she wrote

This is exacerbated when government media also spreads, as third party “news”, the message of the many other partisan government funded institutions.  

We argue the bias of the state broadcaster did much to harm social cohesion as taxpayer funded media attacked the former government’s critics as haters.

Current controls to balance government media won’t work in today’s polarised environment

New Zealand’s current approach to ensure fairness and balance in state media is mainly statements of intention in The Television New Zealand Act 2003, supposedly enforced by an independent board. 

But is it working? Many don’t think so. Appointing “independent” directors and then maintaining a hands-off approach is, at best, inconsistent and unreliable in ensuring balance. For example,  look at judicial appointments in the USA. Note how many politically sensitive judgements either turn on the politics of the supposedly “independent” judge or at least appear to the other side to do so.

A plan for balance in NZ government media - Centrist
State funded media plays a big part in informing voters in NZ. Image: YouTube

A balanced board isn’t easy to achieve because many don’t advertise their politics and can be drawn back to their flag in polarised times. In any event, the board still has to effectively oversee the organisation to maintain balance. This can be challenging and often boards are not up to it.

While many current journalists openly identify with the left, politics could easily flip at another time. A more effective mechanism would protect both the left and right wings against state owned media being swept up with the movement du jour.

How might state media balance be achieved? 

To ensure balanced state-funded media, one approach is to entrust this responsibility to the political parties represented in Parliament. They have a vested interest in maintaining fairness and balance (however this may be defined at a particular time), making them suitable candidates for overseeing such matters.

For instance, a system of guaranteed time slots for different political parties, perhaps divided between the parties in government and the parties in opposition. 

It would apply to all state funded broadcasters including Māori broadcasters who receive government funding.

Ideally, this framework would withstand shifts in government, as altering a clearly balanced system would carry significant stigma. Alternatively, it could be entrenched to withstand changes by requiring more than the usual 50% vote threshold, ensuring its stability and impartiality.

Some other countries mandate proportional airtime for political parties

In Germany, parties are allocated airtime for political advertising on public broadcasters based on their representation in the Bundestag in the run up to the election. In Canada, during election campaigns, parties are granted time on an “equitable basis” for advertising on public broadcasters. 

During election campaigns, the Swedish public broadcaster (SVT) is mandated to provide political parties airtime on public broadcasters based on their representation in the Riksdag.

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