'Such a negative interview' - Minister and Jack Tame spar on media merger

December 4, 2022

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson has defended the Government's merger of TVNZ and RNZ in a contentious interview with Q + A host Jack Tame.

Jackson was asked about a number of controversial issues surrounding the merger of the two publicly-owned media organisations.

These included public trust, editorial independence, and the number of external consultants brought in to work on setting up the new entity.

"We understand some of the criticisms in terms of editorial control. I think that was one of the main drivers," he said - suggesting that changes could still be made.

"I think we'll have to make some changes. I can't say because I haven't got the select committee report back, but one would think that that's the way we might have to look at that."

Opposition parties have previously criticised the Government's Public Interest Journalism Fund for creating perceptions of distrust towards journalists.

The contestable $55 million fund was setup last year by the Government, but is independently administered by NZ On Air.

Meanwhile, National's broadcasting spokesperson, Melissa Lee, has expressed concerns over editorial independence and the overall case for a merged entity.

RNZ's building in Auckland (file image).

The party has said it will reverse the TVNZ-RNZ merger if brought to power in next year's general election.

Speaking to Q + A, Jackson said there would always be a perception that additional public funding for the media would result in reduced editorial independence.

"We've got that type of complaint - doesn’t matter what we say, it doesn't matter the history we give in terms of funding shows like this, there's one view, 'Oh, this is about Willie Jackson paying off Jack Tame.'

"I get that. But you're never going to change some of those perceptions," he said.

The Broadcasting Minister said trust in the entity would grow over time - when asked whether putting $109 million towards the merged organisation would foster distrust.

"It'll improve public trust because they will see a better product," he opined.

"But sometimes it takes a while to get that trust."

When pressed on details of public trust in the new entity, Jackson defended the Government's plans by saying the majority of submitters supported a new entity.

"Listen to what the submitters say in terms of the select committee. 60% to 70% of the submitters support the entity. They want a few changes, particularly around the editorial side," he said.

"Sadly, you're doing such a negative interview today - I'm very disappointed in you. But you're hammering every part of this entity that's all about our public identity. It's about expression in terms of the New Zealand voice. Don't you want to hear that?"

Earlier this week, RNZ reported that 17 external consultants working on the merger were paid $5000 to $6000 per week on average by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. In response, Jackson told Q + A it was "just what governments have to pay".

Meanwhile, in further contention with interviewer Jack Tame, the Broadcasting Minister claimed shows like Q + A could be threatened - by declining commercial revenues - without a merger.

"The world is changing. We've got declining revenue. We've got declining audiences. In terms of TVNZ going forward, I mean, things might not be sustainable unless we invest now and we - look, you could end up being the front man for Treasure Island."

"Dreams are free," Tame responded.

Jackson continued: "You might end up there because there might be no Q + A the way that we're going, because the audiences are declining, the revenue is declining."

He said merging the Government-owned organisations was an "urgent" need for the media sector.

"We want a BBC. We want an ABC. We want a protection of New Zealand media. We want a New Zealand voice out there. We want New Zealand stories - we want Māori stories, Pasifika stories, Asian stories, and we want shows like this to be focused on.

"And it's urgent, given the way the world is working in terms of media. The whole media landscape has changed."

Jackson said he "can't comment" on reports that former National leader Simon Bridges was being considered as a candidate to chair the merged entity.

"That's going through the process at the moment - I can't talk about that.

"We've got a number of people who are up for the board."

When asked, he said there was "no likelihood whatsoever" that the merger would be scrapped.

National's broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee described Jackson's interview this morning as a "train wreck".

"The way he talked on Q + A is a clear sign he intends on interfering with the culture, operations and decisions of the new entity while having political influence over it," Lee said.

“Yet again, Minister Jackson gave no reasons for the merger. If anything, this interview gave clear reasons for it to be halted.

“The Minister appeared to suggest an entrenchment strategy for the TVNZ and RNZ merger by saying ‘what we want to do is entrench a strategy going forward’. A surprising choice of words given the Government’s latest embarrassing U-turn.

“This mega media merger will cost taxpayers $6 billion over the next 30 years. It should not be a priority for a Government when New Zealanders are facing a cost of living crisis and the Reserve Bank is asking them to reign in their spending.”