OPINION: Broadcaster Sean Plunket has finally made good on his threats to quit Radio New Zealand National to seek fresh fields.
Though his willingness to ask hard questions will be missed, his decision – a long time coming, given his testy relationship with his masters – will be good for him and might even be good for the company. Morning Report has followed more or less the same format since it debuted with Canadian Joe Cote as host on April 1, 1975. Geoff Robinson, who joined the programme a year later, and a passing parade of partners have chided, coaxed, criticised and cheered the gamut of events that comprise modern New Zealand history. Kim Hill, Maggie Barry and Mike Hosking have each starred awhile and gone on, in some cases, to better things.
Plunket's departure, alongside suggestions that Robinson will retire within two years, gifts RNZ's chief executive, Peter Cavanagh, and the board a rare opportunity. Does today's three-hour mix of hard news and the odd joker work as well now, in a multi-media environment, as when the hour-long programme launched 35 years ago?
RNZ's directors are painfully aware that, like Plunket, Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman wants change. He has frozen their funding, instructed RNZ to live within its means and wondered aloud whether RNZ Concert might benefit from advertising. Labour calls this "the start of a slippery slope". Mr Coleman is unbowed, reportedly keen to appoint directors who will carry out, rather than parry, the owners' wishes. One oft-mentioned name is that of Dick Griffin, Radio NZ's former political editor and now a public relations merchant. Presumably the minister isn't looking for directorial discretion.
Whomever he puts in charge of this state broadcaster, however, has real challenges, given the financial straitjacket that envelops the business. In that regard, of course, the company is little different from sharemarket-listed media behemoths.
And it is not only Radio NZ the minister has in his sights. TVNZ is also in the cross hairs. Before Parliament is the TVNZ Amendment Bill, which, among other provisions, repeals the idiotic charter with which Labour lumbered the Crown entity; TVNZ's board has been asked, too, to prepare a plan "demarcating" its commercial and public broadcasting roles, and consider funding options. The Government seems interested in making TVNZ 7, and possibly TVNZ 6, the public-service broadcasters, leaving TV One and TV2 to provide advertisement-attracting commercial pap.
Critics of the Government's stance fear that TV One and TV2 might be sold, though, regretably, recent public polling suggests the electorate has little appetite for that. Radio NZ National and Maori Television – at best – are genuine public-service broadcasters; TVNZ 7 is gaining similar status. But that does not put them in "no-change" territory. What would be wrong, for example, with creating a shared newsgathering operation? Other media outlets are doing it. Constancy is admirable in many circumstances, but it can lead to irrelevance in others.
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