Against a backdrop of gripes about ‘cancel culture’ in the media, the National Party’s broadcasting spokesperson has warned bias, balance and political influence need to be addressed - and news media might go soft on the government giving them more money. But she was once a programme-maker who faced similar questions herself. Mediawatch asks her where she thinks the problem lies.
“The problem with the culture wars / Is everything becomes a fight / And if Dr Seuss were alive today / He’d say this issue isn’t black and white."
Jack Tame broke into Seussian rhyme on his NZTB show last weekend to sum up the ‘censorship’ saga surrounding Dr Seuss titles that will no longer be published because of racial stereotypes within them.
But not everyone here was brushing off those books being eased out of the catalogue.
Last week Newshub reported National Party Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger took aim at would-be censors in rhyme on Facebook.
"Alas they've come for Dr Seuss / They wish to hang him with a noose.”
National’s MP for Tamaki, Simon O’Connor, told his Twitter followers and Facebook fans Dr Seuss soaring to the top of the Amazon sales charts was “a marvellous and welcome up-yours to the woke censors.” (In fact the money would be rolling in for the estate of Dr Seuss - the so-called ‘censors’ - in this case)
Why were National MPs worked up about an offshore issue like this anyway?
Writing for The Spinoff this week former National Party press secretary and current PR consultant Ben Thomas noted that former leader Simon Bridges had taken aim at the “wokester” police commissioner - and leader Judith Collins accused the government of “cancelling” radio hosts Peter Williams and Mike Hosking.
Ben Thomas reckoned a war on ‘cancel culture’ was not likely to be a winning political strategy, but last week Stuff reported National party pollster and Kiwiblog editor David Farrar had told a meeting of National Party members - including some MPs - the party could win support by taking a stand on “cancel culture” issues.
Stuff reported Taupō MP Louise Upston as saying “constituents had been increasingly worried about cancel culture.”
She seemed worried about that at last week’s annual reviews of the two state-owned broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ.
She asked RNZ’s chief executive if “unpopular views” could still be aired by the broadcaster and if someone who wasn’t politically correct could be sacked.
Last month Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor told the Ministry for Culture and Heritage - during its annual review in Parliament - he feared fresh funding for public interest journalism recently announced by the government would make new media unwilling “to bite the hand that feeds them millions of dollars.”
Kicking off culture wars in broadcasting?
The suspicion was shared by National’s broadcasting and media spokesperson Melissa Lee - the only MP with media experience on the committee with oversight of state-owned TVNZ and RNZ.
Melissa Lee and other opposition MPs spent a lot of time in RNZ and TVNZ's annual reviews asking hypothetical questions about bias and political influence - but hardly any on the burning issues from last year which remain unresolved: the RNZ Concert and youth service debacle - and the proposal to replace RNZ and TVNZ with one new entity.
At last week’s annual reviews she asked if they would steer clear of stories that could damage - or even topple - the current government if they felt funding for journalism would be at risk.
Both chief executives said no - and the minister of broadcasting Kris Faafoi told the Social Services Committee public interest journalism funds would be handled by the government’s broadcasting funding agency New Zealand on Air - not ministers.
But Melissa Lee repeated her worries on Kiwiblog under the headline: Fourth Estate for a price?
“Is this - and the $50m during the pandemic - enough to make any media agency second-guess themselves before committing to a story? Is this enough to scuttle or even delay through backchannels or in-house bureaucratic processes a story or a project?” she asked.
On Kiwiblog, Lee also raised more concerns about bias and censorship.
“When too many people talk about ‘Red Radio’ on one side, and wanting to see key media and public figures de-platformed in private media on the other, we are at an impasse as New Zealanders decide on what we agree should be allowed on the air,” she wrote.
She said her questioning is not part of any party plan to target 'cancel culture' or 'wokeness'.
"It’s not a political strategy. I just wrote something and thought I would share it with Kiwiblog,“ she said.
“We hope that journalism in New Zealand is in fact independent and there is transparency but there have been instances where these issues have been highlighted in the previous term of Parliament," she told Mediawatch.
She was referring to former broadcasting minister Clare Curran meeting with former RNZ head of news Carol Hirschfeld in 2018. Curran failed to record the meeting properly and Hirschfeld didn't tell RNZ about it either and lost her job because of it.
"There was some murkiness there that brings to light the concerns people have in terms of transparency and independence,“ Lee said, though she conceded that issue was well reported at the time, especially by RNZ itself.
"I was really proud of them," she told Mediawatch.
So which outlets, programmes or individuals were showing signs of political bias or interference in our media now - or might if new funding comes on-stream?
“I see it all over the place. It doesn’t happen all the time but you can certainly see when the stories were not fulsome,“ she said.
Lee declined to tell Mediawatch or give examples - a shame given her Kiwiblog article challenged media to have "the strength to ask the questions."
“I don’t want to name and shame. I am still a politician and they will all obviously write stories about me in the future,” she said.
When pressed, she said she objected to a documentary about Green MP Chloe Swarbrick contesting Auckland Central before the last election. (‘Ok Chlöe was an 8 min online video for the Loading Docs series hosted by TVNZ and RNZ in late August 2020).
“I have a problem with documentaries about politicians - especially in the election cycle,” she said - and she has discussed the issue with New Zealand on Air's CEO.
NZ On Air has for years now funded journalism on both state owned and private networks. Instances of direct political interference in news stories are rare.
The most notable instance of NZOA’s political neutrality being called into question happened under a National-led government in 2011 when board member Stephen McElrea questioned the screening of a TV documentary about child poverty just before the general election. He was also John Key’s electorate secretary at the time.
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the only way to avoid any public perception of political bias is that persons with such clear and direct political affiliations should not be appointed to such boards in the first place”, a review of NZ On Air later concluded.
Melissa Lee herself was once at the subject of questions about party politics and the use of NZOA funds.
For years she made and presented the show Asia Downunder for TVNZ with funding from New Zealand on Air, continuing even after she became a National MP in 2008.
In 2009 TV3’s Campbell Live show revealed her company also produced an election special of Asia Downunder the previous year. Two staff who work for Asia Vision told the programme they helped make the a "National Asian Team" campaign video on YouTube fronted by MP Pansy Wong.
“The company has been getting public funding for 13 years. I don’t know why it should be an issue now," she told Campbell Live during her campaign for the seat of Mount Albert in 2009.
Lee denied any taxpayer-paid resources were used for the video clip and her staff did it in their spare time, but National did not declare the cost or value of the services in election expenses returns.
it sounds a lot like the sort of conflict she says she now fears now under a Labour government giving out more money via NZOA.
“When I became a member of Parliament I stepped away from running the programme," she told Mediawatch, insisting there was no problem.
On Kiwiblog she also referred to “the effective politicisation of the NZ on Air Board and for that matter other Public Media Agencies.”
“Concerns are being raised that NZ on Air isn’t funding or interested in public interest media from all partisan spheres,” she wrote.
What is the evidence of politicisation at NZOA?
“Government boards are often appointing government appointees that aren’t experts in the field. I’m not criticising New Zealand on Air. I think in general it does an amazing job," she said.
"I'm just starting a conversation (about appointments). That’s what the blog was all about," she said.
(NZOA is appointing a head of journalism and a journalism advisor to help administer the forthcoming $55 million for public interest journalism).
Lee told Mediawatch National has no policy on a new public media entity if the current government does replace TVNZ and RNZ with one in 2023 - because the government has not released any meaningful plan for it yet.
“What does one giant new entity mean for the rest of the media? That's the question we have got to ask,” she said.
Clearly she is keen to raise a lot of questions about the media - though she had few clear answers this week for Mediawatch.
Melissa Lee also told Mediawatch all this is part of her own review of the media sector this year - a step towards a new media policy for the National Party.