Nats say they won't sell TVNZ

 National says it won't sell TVNZ but the Government is suspicious about a broadcasting policy that will open up charter funding to private sector competitors.

The party announced its broadcasting policy yesterday, saying TVNZ would be released from its charter obligations and would have to compete with other networks for funding to make local programmes.

TVNZ operates under a charter which encourages it to show programmes that reflect New Zealand's identity and in return gets $15 million to produce shows that would not be commercially viable.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has described National's policy as an assault on public broadcasting and Broadcasting Minister Trevor Mallard says it amounts to a trojan horse for privatisation.

That was denied today by National's broadcasting spokesman Jonathan Coleman.

"There is no plan to sell TVNZ," he said on Radio New Zealand.

"We want to maintain it in state ownership, we think it's a great public asset and it could be performing a lot better."

Dr Coleman said the $15 million TVNZ gets for local programmes was only 4 per cent of its annual revenue.

"Competition allows the best projects to come forward and be made," he said.

"TVNZ basically is an asset that hasn't been performing to its capability.

"It's a commercial broadcaster. . . it hasn't been operating as a true public broadcaster for many many years."

Mr Mallard reacted to those comments by saying National planned to transfer the function of the charter to the private sector.

"If you run down the public sector the way they're planning to run down TVNZ and ACC, then in the end there is the question of why have them," he said.

"It's a matter of whether you believe them or not. They've made it very clear they're into privatisation."

The charter was introduced by Labour in 2000 as part of a new dual public service-commercial model for TVNZ, which has at times struggled to implement it. Former TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser once described it as "not mission impossible but mission very difficult".

TVNZ has also run into trouble with the Government for using its charter money to fund programmes such as NZ Idol and Mucking In, and on its successful bid for rights to the Beijing Olympics, after which the Government stripped TVNZ of its automatic allocation of charter funding, requiring it to gain approval from New Zealand On Air for each programme.

National's plan goes much further, with the money set aside for charter funding to be made available to any free-to-air broadcaster or independent production company. Mr Coleman said National wanted more accountability for the money spent on TVNZ's digital channels and funding for Radio New Zealand, including regular audience and ratings data.

National wanted to fund public broadcasting, rather than public broadcasters. "The public really don't mind if that's shown on TV3, Maori TV, Prime. They just want to be able to see it."

Mr Coleman said the charter was just a bunch of mission statements, and axing its requirement would be "a relief" for TVNZ.

He denied it would lead to cheaper, mass-market programming on television, saying public service material would be spread over a wider range of channels.

Mr Norris said National's policies would result in a host of "blue- chip" documentaries and events-based programming, such as Waitangi Day and Anzac Day, no longer being screened. Public service programming would not shift to other channels because it would not be in their commercial interests to use it.

Broadcasting Minister Trevor Mallard said National's policy was "a Trojan horse for the ultimate privatisation" of TVNZ and Radio New Zealand.

TVNZ declined to comment on National's plans.

- With NZPA

The Press