Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

11th May 2001 - Tokenism and Television

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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20 years ago, when I was a cub reporter, a bunch of us were shown around the local Air Force base, in a tour which took in a couple of Skyhawks. They were the pride of the force. "But aren't they just expensive tokenism?" asked one sharp young scribe. Our host officer was briefly stuck for words. "Well," he blurted, "you show me cheap tokenism."

And that, frankly, is the nub of the matter. The merciful dispatch of our ageing fleet of 17 small, slow combat aircraft represents an attack of reality.

For 30 years the Skyhawks, which take 14% of our defence budget, have had no involvement in what our defence forces actually do. They have never been in combat, they have never provided air cover for our troops, anywhere. Our Army hardly ever exercises with them and apart from flying air shows their main public role is in pretending to attack Australian navy ships.

They would have cost nearly a billion dollars to maintain over the next decade - and as much again would have had to have been put aside for a replacement fleet.

The money saved will be ploughed into the remaining defence forces, alongside another $700 million in additional operating funding and an extra billion dollars in capital spending. This still does not make us a big spender in international terms but there is no reason we should be.

As might have been expected, Opposition parties rose as one in their condemnation of the plan. Jenny Shipley declared that selling off the Skyhawks plunged New Zealand into life with a "second-rate" defence force. She apparently believes that sending our soldiers to Timor with radios that date back to the Vietnam war, as National did, was "first rate".

The simple fact is that National ran down defence spending at various times through its term in office and - especially when current Act party member Ruth Richardson held the purse strings - and it never really had a strategy beyond grasping at Max Bradford's F16 "deal of the century".

The criticism is that we will now depend on the co-operation of other nations for our defence operations. When have we ever not? In the only recent relevant example - the landing in Timor - the Skyhawks were available but, just like every other time, were not used.

Shipley now says she'd bring back combat aircraft in the unlikely event that she becomes Prime Minister again. She hasn't said how that promise might be funded - let alone all the other spending and tax-cutting the party appears to be promising.

National's defence strategy - if that's not too grand a word for such a grab-bag of hot-button clichés - would cost billions of dollars more. Where's that going to come from? Nowhere, probably: the truth is that what National has said about defence and what it has actually done are historically two different things.

At least New Zealand First has made one of its glorious promises - to double defence spending to 2% of GDP - so you can vote for them next time round if you're that bothered.

The New Zealand Herald addressed the issue, returning to last year's form with an editorial in the classic style: ie, a piss-poor argument amplified by doomy prophecy. Of real analysis, there was little there.

But quite the worst violence of the week came when the Prime Minister destroyed the Leader of the Opposition live on Holmes. Clark was called in first after a piece that consisted largely of bits of air force recruitment video - whose airforce I'm not entirely sure - and interviews with highly emotional airmen. She was a little tense.

She had loosened up notably by the time Shipley had finished an opening burble that was high on emotion but almost devoid of content.

"That's a lot of silly slogans," chirped Clark, suddenly brightening at the realisation that it was only Jenny Shipley she was debating. Having been obliged to spend the past couple of weeks talking crap in the mop-up after the Community Services card debacle, Clark was back on form: emphatic, perfectly briefed and, so far as I'm concerned, quite right.

There is also the cringe argument - that we might offend powerful allies by addressing our real defence needs, rather than doing their bidding. Well, the Australians, for all their chest-beating, will live.

And the Americans? We might want to consider the wisdom of doing the bidding of a country whose foreign policy ineptitude is quickly making it an international pariah. This week, the US was booted off the United Nations Human Rights Commission after in a secret ballot in which at least 14 "friendly" countries voted against it in favour of desperate regimes such as the Sudan.

The issue seems so clear to me that I can't really be bothered arguing it further. Read Gordon Campbell's startlingly persuasive cover story in this week's Listener. Unlike almost everyone else in the media Campbell has managed to find a senior military officer who has actually seen combat and isn't actually retired - Chief of General Staff Major-General Maurice Dodson.

A rather messier conflict came to light this week in the final two paragraphs of a front-page story by Bill Ralston in the Independent Weekly on Wednesday. The lead was TVNZ chairman Ross Armstrong's comment that - possibly over the dead bodies of TVNZ management - TV One and Two might yet be carried on Sky's Digital service.

But Armstrong also opined on the previously announced departure of TVNZ's head of news and current affairs, Paul Cutler, for a post at the seriously ailing CNN. Cutler leaving, said Armstrong, was a "dream scenario" and a "change made in heaven".

There followed something of a frenzy at the state broadcaster. One Network News led with the story - all fanfare, not much analysis - giving much air to National's TVNZ spokesman - not Broadcasting, but TVNZ - Murray McCully, who howled about "political interference" with TVNZ's editorial independence.

The first thing that ought to be said here is: that's rich. This would be the same Murray McCully who was in it up to his ministerial elbows at the Tourism Board. Who put his chums on the payroll - who set up whole new advisory offices - without even informing Cabinet.

Tourism Board chairman Peter Allport - appointed after McCully had driven out his predecessor at considerable cost to the taxpayer - said that the minister and his advisors "virtually paralysed the board and prevented the directors from working in the best interests of tourism at a critical time for New Zealand."

What's going on at TVNZ is a little different. Broadcasting Minister Marion Hobbs says she has never even met Cutler. Her dealings with the managers she has met have been, if not always cordial, then civilized. Armstrong is a different matter - they can't stand him.

I have no objection to Armstrong privately thinking that Cutler leaving is a "dream scenario" for the TVNZ board - Cutler was appointed under a very different philosophy and his leaving does allow a fresh start - but saying so to a journalist represents an incredible lapse of judgement.

TVNZ news staff are, understandably, outraged and concerned and have demanded assurances that the government will not interfere with their work. Which it apparently has not. The rest of us might wonder whether the decision to lead with the Armstrong story was driven less by public interest than self-interest. There is currently a certain level of comfort at risk in that organisation

Editorial independence is certainly paramount in a public broadcaster, but I cannot yet see that it has been compromised to any greater extent than it was when the current senior management at TVNZ were both hired and repeatedly instructed by National governments to fulfil the political goal of maximising revenue to increase the public broadcaster's prospective sale price.

Thus did TVNZ's Shaun Brown testify - after McCully had sworn the opposite was true - in the great debate on the future of public broadcasting that, hilariously, was recorded on the very day the Independent story broke.

For all the barking and howling, the debate wasn't all bad in the end. Marion Hobbs was dragged on - at Cutler's insistence, oddly enough - to discuss government policy three weeks before the policy decisions are to be made. She fended off questions she couldn't answer with a kind of voodoo debating style that made everyone forget what the question was in the first place.

Half the room got hung up on the idea that the new TVNZ charter will oblige TVNZ to pack its prime time with community service programmes in Hindi, which it won't. The main failing of the charter - apart from its unutterable wordiness - is that fails to instruct boldness. There is no mention of a need to innovate, or the duty to advance the culture.

Where a public broadcaster makes a genuine impact on public good is where it makes its private counterparts compete on quality and fresh ideas. Would IRN be half as good if National Radio wasn't setting the standards? Not likely. Would Channel 4 have risen up in the UK without the BBC to push against? Never.

One of the great successes of the BBC is that it advances the art. Commercial TV tends to get one idea and clone it till the next thing arrives.

The most amusing contribution to the debate came from the woman from CAANZ, the advertising industry lobby group. We couldn't possibly do anything with TVNZ because then where would the agencies know where to find their mass audience?

She predicted national economic collapse if media planners actually had to do some work. I propose that we all agree to help the unfortunate people who work in advertising by agreeing to present ourselves at a given time and place to be advertised to.

Whatever the government does decide - and it looks like the idea of splitting off BCL and Moving Pictures into a new SOE and making the broadcast TV part of the company into a crown entity with some other key role than the delivery of profits is a runner - it's to be hoped New Zealand On Air's contestable funding model is retained.

We all know what's wrong with NZ On Air - usually the power rests with broadcasters and, if we're lucky, producers, rather than creative people. And Phase 4 is letting radio design the music - if you want $50,000 you'd better get a formula.

But the ledger is still positive, especially when a little money goes to parts of New Zealand Music Week on bFM. It was nice to be involved this time round. We love it, don't we? The station itself is revitalised by going Aotearoa-only. And every one is a little different. While various people of importance bitch at each other about broadcasting, it's nice to be reminded of the joy of broadcasting and what it's for


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
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