13 Dec 2022

National's Nicola Willis says PM has sounded 'death knell' for $370m public media merger

9:42 am on 13 December 2022
Deputy Leader of National Party Nicola Willis

National's deputy leader Nicola Willis says the media public merger should never have been pushed in the first instance. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National's deputy leader Nicola Willis says comments by the Prime Minister on cutting expenditure have sounded the "death knell" for a merger of public media outlets Radio New Zealand and TVNZ.

Willis told First Up the $370m initiative to strengthen public media had been an "ideological project" that should never have been put on the table.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday Cabinet members would be looking at where to trim back over summer to ensure the economy was made a top priority.

"Going into 2023 we do need to make sure we are totally focused, we prioritise, and that we will be making sure that where we need to pare back we will," Ardern said.

She would not address specifically whether that meant possible changes to the merger, which is scheduled to be roll-out next year.

"I do want my colleagues to go through those exercises, I'm not making any specific comment on those," Ardern said.

I want every one of our Cabinet colleagues to be looking through the things that they have on their agenda and just asking ourselves whether or not, either from a spending perspective and investment perspective, or just from a focus perspective, those are things that we should be prioritising at this point in time."

Willis believed Ardern's comments sounded a "death knell" for the merger plans.

"I think the pity is that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet didn't do this exercise a year, or two years, or three years ago," she said.

"Every dollar of public money should be committed to those things which are our priority. And I've yet to meet a New Zealander who says they want taxpayer money invested in a merger of Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand.

"It's always been solution looking for a problem and I think the government would be wise to can it."

She said, even if the merger did go ahead, National would scrap it if the party got into power at the next election.

"We want two independent voices - Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand. We've committed to unwinding any merger, because it's clear that, in the longer run, it would actually save money."

"I know... many millions have already spent being spent on highly-paid consultants, and I'd hate to think what the bill tallies up to. It's money that's gone in the wrong place, but that doesn't mean there's a good reason to throw good money after bad," she said.

Last month RNZ revealed private consultants working on the merger were on contracts worth up to almost $9000 a week, and an average of almost $6000 a week.

The government has $40m to spend on the transition of the two public bodies into one entity so far, with at least a quarter of that going on contractors.

The bill for 17 of the largest contracts for individual jobs is almost $4m, on top of the $5m for the largest single contractor working on the transition, Deloitte.

An OIA response from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage showed the most costly weekly contract for a programme director is for $393,000 over 44 weeks, or $8900 a week.

Willis said she wanted to see the two entities continue to offer public broadcasting and the the plurality of that arrangement benefited the media environment as a whole.

"One of the concerns that people raise with me is that there are fewer media voices today than there were say even a decade ago," she said.

"There's actually value in having those two distinct public broadcasting voices rather than merging them into one entity."

The merger should never have been put on the table, Willis said. "It's an ideological project, and it's not one that we are prepared to continue."

She wouldn't commit on what levels of funding for the two media outlets National would look at, but said Television New Zealand operated well using a model in which commercial revenue was raised through advertising.

"We want to see Radio New Zealand continue in a robust form," Willis added.

Ardern had suggested in an interview the merger was necessary, in part, to save RNZ from going bust, even though the broadcaster is fully funded by the government.

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