Minister heckled at broadcasting debate

01:04, Aug 12 2014

Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss was heckled as he defended the Government's track record on public broadcasting at a testy pre-election debate in Wellington.

Foss defended the six-year freeze on Radio New Zealand's $32 million annual government funding, saying that had been caused by the "state of the books" National had inherited when it came to power in 2008.

"They have had frozen funding and absolute credit to them they are doing very well with that frozen budget," he said.

A woman called out that had been through "great personal sacrifice". Hers was one of a series of angry interjections from the 100-strong audience at the debate organised by the Coalition for Better Broadcasting.

But Foss said the Government's budget surplus achieved "so much more for every single family".

"Entities that taxpayers fund such as Radio New Zealand, Television New Zealand and NZ On Air are more viable once the Crown's accounts are in better shape and on a growing surplus."

The issue of whether broadcasting regulation should be combined with telecommunications regulation was "up for discussion and debate" and would keep being raised, even though the Government had not started any formal discussions, Foss said.

"Telecommunications companies are now delivering content. TV companies are now delivering stuff via telephone wires and fibre; the whole game is changing," he said.

The Commerce Commission has wider powers to intervene in the telecommunications sector than in broadcasting, so any rule merger could potentially spell trouble for dominant pay-television provider Sky Television.

Labour broadcasting spokesman Kris Faafoi, a former Television New Zealand journalist, said New Zealand was in danger of losing its "robust and strong public broadcasting system".

He was not ready to announce Labour's broadcasting policy but it would "protect and grow" New Zealand content, he said.

"I think we need to look at reinventing the wheel in terms of what has been taken away from us with TVNZ6 and TVNZ7," Faafoi said.

Green Party broadcasting spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said the United States was the only country that spent less on public broadcasting, per capita, than New Zealand. A fair level of extra funding might be closer to the $50m annually spent on Maori Television than the $15-$17m a year she believed had been spent on TVNZ7, she said.

She did not own a television but watched programmes on her computer and smartphone. Public broadcasting was invaluable, Genter said. "This National government doesn't know the value of democracy; they look at everything through a commercial lens."