Overseas it's been an interesting week or two for the news media.
In the United Kingdom the BBC is facing real challenges from the Government in terms of its independence. The Conservative Government is continuing to challenge the supposed autonomy of the famous "beeb".
The latest incident saw former chief spin doctor for the Conservative Party, Sir Robert Gibb, actively warn against the appointment of a journalist he saw as being against the Government.
The Financial Times has reported that Gibb, now the owner of a tory PR agency and a director of the BBC, texted the head of news at the BBC saying she could not appoint a left-leaning former editor of Huffington Post UK into a news oversight role.
In the United States, a federal investigation has just cleared the names of six Voice of America executives who were suspended last year by a Donald Trump political appointee.
Following his presidential appointment as chief executive of the United States Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack promised to "drain the swamp" of federal news media and that involved removing staff that were viewed as disloyal to the Trump administration.
Similar cases of political interference in supposedly neutral media organisations have popped up recently in Sweden and Australia.
It's no surprise then that trust in news media continues to erode. The Edelman 2021 Australian Trust Barometer suggests no media source is trusted for news (where trusted is defined as a score of 60 per cent or more).
The Trust Barometer shows traditional media experienced a 3 per cent drop in trust last year and search engine trust is falling even faster. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of respondents said that most news organisations are more concerned with supporting a political position or ideology than with informing the public or remaining independent.
Independence is one of the things that is enshrined in law here in Aotearoa. Specifically, it’s hardwired into the Radio New Zealand Act. Although the public service broadcaster has been around in some form since 1925, its current operating mandate stems from the 1995 legislation.
The act includes a formal charter and operating principles relating to independence, freedom of expression, and free to air accessibility. Right now that charter is up for its five-yearly review by Parliament's Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee.
The timing of this review is significant as it coincides with another part of the Government establishing a governance group led by former minister Tracey Martin to pull together a business case for a new public media entity.
The proposed new entity would potentially see RNZ (with its public broadcasting mandate) put into a new entity with TVNZ (with a largely commercial broadcasting mandate) to ensure we have a future-fit public media.
As part of this proposal, the governance group is engaging with media, Maori and underserved audiences to help inform a possible charter for the new entity.
And like the current charter within the Radio New Zealand Act, the new charter would be part of the legislation required to establish the new entity.
So two separate media charter processes are currently underway within the Government. One reviewing the existing charter of RNZ and the other consulting with interested parties on a possible new charter for the new entity.
If you are thinking that that's a charitable amount of charters then you are right. Mind you the good news is that whether or not the new media entity gets off the ground, then it’s likely that New Zealanders will continue to have at least one source of news and information that is mandated by statute to be editorially independent and free from any operational interference.
The fact that the regular five-yearly charter review is still proceeding means the proposed new entity is not a dead cert. But what is a dead cert is that whichever option is chosen, ongoing additional investment will be needed.
Despite pretty extensive renovations to keep it market fit, last year TVNZ made a loss of $9 million even with revenues of $310m. This year's looking a bit better but compromising the ability to monetise its assets in the future will hurt. A lot.
The standing up of the new entity will cost money as will upgrading its digital fitness to go toe-to-toe with the fangs (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google). Any new public media entity must be future-fit, content-flexible and able to thrive in the changing media landscape.
That means the renovating and retiring of legacy systems, deep investment into data and data science and advanced ability to recognise customers and curate offerings around the needs of those customers. And that won't come overnight.
The closing date for public submissions on the RNZ Charter is August 13.
It's a one in five-year opportunity to have your say on the last remaining non-commercial broadcaster. And in a world where political nominees get to carry out ideological crusades to "drain the swamp", it's a precious one.
So if you want to have your say then you better get your skates on.
– Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, adviser and former broadcaster. He was an expert reviewer of the Government's News media meets new media review and is a director of RNZ.
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