On Friday Save TVNZ 7, the group trying to keep public service television alive in New Zealand, lodged a complaint with the Ombudsmen over TVNZ's decision to close TVNZ 7.
"We had some helpful advice from Mai Chen, New Zealand's foremost public law expert into the legality of the government's decision to discontinue funding for TVNZ 7," says Myles Thomas, Organiser of Save TVNZ 7 "and we hope the Ombudsmen takes up our complaint against a broadcaster that seems to have failed in it's duty to 'have regard for the public interest' and to provide 'high quality content that is enjoyed and valued by New Zealanders'.
"On behalf of the 36,155 people who signed the online petition and the 1.6 million monthly viewers in TVNZ 7's last month, we ask the Ombudsmen to investigate a government decision that brought to an end NZ's last public service channel, severely limiting New Zealand's television options.
"Last year TVNZ paid the government a dividend of $13m, three times as much as the previous year, but at a time of shrinking revenue from advertising. Why? Despite cabinet papers showing decisions to close TVNZ 7, the instructions from the Broadcasting Minister of the time, Dr Jonathan Coleman do not appear to exist. This begs the question, why did TVNZ return such a dividend at the expense of TVNZ 7?
"Ministers of the government are not allowed to interfere with editorial decisions made by TVNZ, yet by giving the broadcaster a 'Hobson's choice' over whether to keep or close TVNZ 7, we suspect Cabinet were playing favourites with media that is more friendly vs less friendly. John Key's antipathy towards RNZ is legendary yet he has weekly chats on commercial radio stations that seem to give him an easy ride. TVNZ 7 screened programmes that made the government uncomfortable with more thorough analysis of the news - Media 7, Court Report and Backbenches."
This theory might also explain the unusual loan of $43m to Mediaworks last year, and the recent gift of the Kiwi FM frequency to Mediaworks at no charge and with subsidy from NZ On Air.
Mr Thomas continued "Could it be that by encouraging the closure of TVNZ 7, the government were purposefully affecting TVNZ's editorial decisions? If so, that would be unlawful and it is unlikely we'll find any hard evidence to support this. Likewise there seems to be no concrete proof that Coleman did demand the impossibly high dividend from TVNZ that lead to the closure of TVNZ 7.
"Therefore our complaint is with TVNZ, which by returning the hefty dividend, had to close down the non-commercial TVNZ 7. By doing so we believe they are neglecting their responsibilities to the public of New Zealand."
The Real Complaint
"To be honest, we want to complain about the sheer inability of Dr Coleman and his replacement, Craig Foss, to underdstand the industry of which they are the Minster" joked Myles Thomas. "But that's outside the remit of the Ombudsman. Coleman badly bungled the viewership figures and looked like an idiot but Foss seems to know even less about broadcasting. On today's Mediawatch on RNZ he repeatedly made no sense whatsoever."
"87% of Kiwis are already digitally ready so any movement of funds, be it fiscally neutral or otherwise would affect something they're watching or choosing to do right now" said Mr Foss.
Mr Thomas continued "There was plenty of fudging of facts and arguments, but it's also clear that Mr Foss simply doesn't understand how the industry works. We would be happy to explain but sadly he will not engage with our organisation, the largest group representing the most important stakeholders in broadcasting - the audience.
"The government have frequently laid blame for TVNZ 7's closure with the previous Labour government. But the Broadcasting Minister of the time, Steve Maharey recently revealed plans to continue funding TVNZ 6 & 7 with either a 'must carry must pay' scheme for Sky or to return TVNZ's dividend as funding for the channels. These options and many others were part of a major review of the sector which was quietly shut down immediately after John Key's government took office. Shortly after that Sky were gifted TVNZ 6 & 7 to play at no charge and news circulated that a significant dividend had been demanded of TVNZ. Thus most funding options for TVNZ 6 & 7 were removed leaving only the Charter money, $15m which became the Platinum Fund at NZ On Air. The government never considered a small levy on Sky and the ISP's profits, yet this would have provided secure, fiscally neutral funding for decades to come."
On Mediawatch the Minister of Broadcasting glibly said of TVNZ 7's demise "that's just how it's panned out."
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