Right on cue, Radio NZ presents Oliver Twist

BY RICHARD LONG
Last updated 08:08 09/03/2010

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Cultural vandalism. Tawdry commercialism. The anguished cries from the Radio New Zealand supporters' corner brings back memories of the Muldoon government's cost-cutting and the crafty fight-back from government departments.

OPINION: Tasked with making specific cuts to allocated budgets, police at the time offered to sacrifice the Lady Elizabeth police launch, an icon of Wellington Harbour and saviour of boaties, surfers and swimmers in distress.

The government then, by no means as fixated on political polling as today's, could still read the signals well enough. A public relations disaster loomed. The police launch stayed. Foreign Affairs, figuring to work the same campaign, offered to chop their post in New Delhi, never imagining that the government or the public would accept abandoning representation in the world's largest democracy. They got that one wrong.

Prime minister Robert Muldoon, smarting from run-ins with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi over sporting ties with South Africa, seized the opportunity with relish.

Our just-appointed ambassador to India had to set up shop instead in a shoebox office at Foreign Affairs headquarters in Wellington, where he was constantly teased by visitors lamenting the absence of servers, bearers and punkah wallahs.

Finance Minister Bill English, faced with a sea of budget deficits extending over the horizon, did not fall into the same trap as his predecessor by demanding one-off cuts to departmental spending, but is requiring departments, by and large, to live within their present allocations.

That still did not stop dear old Radio New Zealand, alone among the agencies of state, from doing its own Oliver Twist. On cue, supporters staged street marches and an internet campaign. It does not matter about the world economy, the Kiwi economy, or the budget crisis, RNZ wants more. It is a seductive argument. In the overall scheme of things, RNZ's $34 million allocation is pretty small cheese and they want just a few million more - just the price of a handful of heart operations and dialysis treatments.

They have seen off previous governments who had the temerity to question their budgets: a National administration which suggested an element of commercial sponsorship (tawdry commercialism) and former Labour prime minister David Lange who mused aloud about the incongruity of the state sponsoring Concert Radio, for a tiny audience, when more people would rather listen to Split Enz (cultural vandalism).

It will be interesting to see whether John Key and his merry men will hold fast in the face of this equivalent of the Lady Elizabeth blowtorch test.

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One problem for governments is that RNZ is a product of the Wellington chattering classes. It has a big audience in the capital, but its penetration in Auckland, with its proliferation of commercial stations, is relatively small.

As a backgrounder in this paper's Saturday's edition pointed out, surveys indicate an overall audience of only 17 per cent of adults, but a much larger group of 84 per cent who believe in the principle of a public broadcaster.

As a country, we would be much the poorer without RNZ's showcase Morning Report and Checkpoint news programmes. And RNZ eloquently demonstrated its role in its special Sunday morning coverage of the  earthquake tsunami threat, hauling presenter Sean Plunket out of bed for coverage which was riveting and  comprehensive.

But RNZ administrators have to accept that they cannot continue to expand while competitors in the real world are adjusting their budgets to new realities. Newspapers are icons of a community too, and in some countries are now receiving state support, but this has never been sought in New Zealand, nor, I suspect, would it be  welcomed.

At a time when RNZ has been expanding, competitors in the electronic media and newspaper editors and  managers have been going through a decade of costcutting and staff trimming - all the while paying the  taxes which help fund state radio. Many of these editors would be astonished at RNZ's staff numbers.

And if it is appropriate for our national ballet and opera companies to have commercial sponsors, why on earth should Concert Radio be exempt? I can't help musing, either, about the prospects of a Kentucky Fried Chicken Kim Hill show. It would be worth a try, just to listen to the splenetic outburst it would draw from the feisty presenter.

- The Dominion Post

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