CAPTION: Clare Curran and Carol Hirschfeld.
Labour Party plans for big changes at Radio New Zealand are in a deep hole, after the Broadcasting Minister’s errant breakfast meeting with RNZ news boss Carol Hirschfeld.
Revelations about the encounter sparked a political storm, but Clare Curran has kept digging, and said this week that “this is a democracy” and she can meet with whomever she likes.
Th upshot is that Labour should consider abandoning its broadcasting policy, or the minister. There has been a breach of trust.
Curran’s breakfast with Hirschfeld, at the Astoria cafe on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, came two days before the minister was due to meet RNZ chairman Richard Griffin and chief executive Paul Thompson. Both men are known to be sceptical about Labour’s plans.
We don’t know the topics the two women discussed. It beggars belief, though, that either of them thought the breakfast date was acceptable.
The issue of most concern, however, is not that Hirschfeld attended an inappropriate meeting with a Cabinet minister. (There are strict rules against ministers trying to influence state-owned media.) It is that she repeatedly misled Thompson, her boss, by insisting that she had merely bumped into Curran at the Astoria. He, in turn, assured a parliamentary committee that the encounter had not been not pre-arranged.
Remember, this breakfast was back in December. Hirschfeld was then RNZ’s head of news and New Zealand was in the full flushes of Jacinda euphoria. The Labour Party, in its broadcasting policy, was dangling a $38 million funding carrot in front of RNZ.
But staff say that apart from Hirschfeld, RNZ’s top management was treating the policy – for a full-scale TV channel, RNZ Plus – with caution.
RNZ was right to accept Hirschfeld’s resignation. The incident has damaged the state broadcaster, which has long tried to overcome the overblown claims that it was biased in favour of the Left.
But RNZ staff I spoke to said Curran was getting off scot-free. Given the tensions between Curran and RNZ, should the PM step in to ensure Labour’s policy can be implemented?
eGriffin and Thompson have been wary of Labour’s plans for an RNZ TV channel. But in light of the Government’s belligerence on the issue, they couldn’t ignore the policy, and Hirschfeld was appointed to a new job overseeing the development of video, with a particular focus on Morning Report and Checkpoint.
Hirschfeld – who has a background in television – is said to have been a big supporter of the Labour proposal.
Staff I spoke to shared the concerns of Griffin and Thompson. They viewed the policy as unsustainable and feared it would take resources away from RNZ’s core skill base – radio.
The number of people watching video is so tiny that the cost cannot be justified. As one staffer said: “Ever since she [Hirschfeld] got here, it has been about putting in TV everywhere.”
More video content is seen as inevitable, but television is expensive and the proposed $38 million is a drop in the ocean.
Now seems a strange time to be moving into the challenging TV business.
Labour’s policy rightly addresses a need for public broadcasting that is ignored under the present commercial-focused broadcast system.
But turning RNZ into a TV channel while ignoring Television New Zealand seems irrational.
Maybe with a minister cooperating with the RNZ board, such a move could be made to work.
But Curran’s action has severely threatened the trust relationship with RNZ. It is hard to see how RNZ Plus can proceed, under this minister at least.