National | Broadcasting

'Tragedy' if TVNZ destroys RNZ amid mega merger - CEO


A ‘tragedy’ is how RNZ boss Paul Thompson foresees the fate of his radio business, should commercially-minded TV executives get hold of it during the amalgamation of the two state media organisations, but he doubts that will happen.

It was a relief after years of meagre funding increases or outright freezes, that Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi announced the cabinet had decided Television New Zealand and RNZ would be merged into a digitally-focused conglomerate last week.

Thompson had battled for nine years to keep the lights on in radio while building an online presence.

"It's good that now we've got a decision that RNZ now has certainty. And I think the decision itself is a positive one for RNZ, and for public media ultimately," Thompson told Te Ao Māori News.

Veteran journalist and RNZ editor Thompson, concedes the announcement is bittersweet; his preference is for an adequately funded public broadcaster, removed from commercial interest, as is the case in many overseas countries. But he says a charter will guarantee the type of broadcasting and news his organisation is synonymous with, won’t be overrun by TV bosses he’ll soon be working alongside.

“I think in a perfect world, you know, New Zealand would have benefited from a fully-fledged publicly funded broadcaster for the past few decades. You just need to look at Australia, Canada, Britain to see the benefits of that. Not just in terms of really great news and current affairs but also great entertainment programming… But the reality is the government's trying to do something, which is both going to be a big step forward but also affordable, and I think they've got the priorities right in terms of emphasising the public media piece.”

Kīwaha is among several Te Ao Māori verticals launched by RNZ in recent years. / RNZ

TVNZ and RNZ already have their own charters but the merger allows for a modernisation Thompson says, particularly as it relates to te Tiriti and Crown-Māori relations and cultural diversity more broadly.

“It’s placing special obligations on the entity to support and recognise the Māori-Crown relationship and to meaningfully contribute to Te Reo revitalisation and tikanga Māori, and te ao Māori stories, so those things are kind of locked in.”

Lessons for the future organisation, Thompson says, can be found at Whakaata Māori because, while the business accepts advertising, its mandate of language revitalisation and Māori stories is enshrined in the Māori Television Service (Te Aratuku Whakaata Irirangi Māori) Act 2003 and, as with the new public broadcaster, its charter takes precedent.

“It comes down to the legislation, the charter, and I think the minister has done the right work to the big chunky building blocks in there. It's going to be challenging to implement it but it's a good start,” he said.

Kaupapa Māori podcasts and website verticals have been a priority under Thompson but he doesn’t dismiss questions commentators have raised about homogeneity of views and programming or voices with a merged media company. The success or failure of the strategy will be determined in its execution he says.

“I think that would be an absolute tragedy and a failure for this change if that happened. I think they’ll [the government] be really careful about drafting the legislation to provide protections.”

“The last thing the new entity will want to do will be to dumb itself down or to make itself uniform. So my perspective, for what it's worth, would be that you actually accentuate the diversity of viewpoints, you keep diversity, and make your newsrooms even more inclusive.”

RNZ HQ in Pōneke; after years of stagnant funding CEO Paul Thompson has welcomed certainty from the government's announcement on a media mega-merge of the country's two state broadcasters. / NZME

A former editor of Stuff newspapers when traditional media was being disrupted by online technology and the economic fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, Thompson says he’s not naive about the challenges of merging two analogue businesses in the hope of making a successful digital one; but the notion either are digital minnows is misplaced.

“At RNZ our digital audience is now larger than our radio audience and TVNZ has pushed really successfully into streaming video on demand. So yeah, there's still a way to go on that digital journey. But I wouldn't describe us as wholly analogue.”

Job losses might be a reality, Thompson concedes, but the government signalling additional funding for the organisation and rescinding the need for a TVNZ dividend has him more optimistic about the numbers of jobs post-merger.

“This entity is going to have to do a lot more things for a lot more audiences; you'll need more efficient and productive processes better technology, etc, different ways to work together… but the government's indicating additional public funding will come ... I suspect there will be lots of new opportunities in terms of jobs as well.”

Thompson wouldn’t be drawn on whether he’d be part of the new organisation post June 2023 when the merger closes but neither did he rule it out.

“What I would say is, it's a year and a half away, and my first job is to make sure RNZ is in the best possible shape to contribute to the new entity,” he said.