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Chris Trotter puts Simon Bridges' claim that a dominant state-owned broadcaster would be a threat to New Zealand democracy in a historical context and finds it doesn't stack up

Chris Trotter puts Simon Bridges' claim that a dominant state-owned broadcaster would be a threat to New Zealand democracy in a historical context and finds it doesn't stack up

By Chris Trotter*

Last week, Simon Bridges rejected the idea of reconstituting a dominant state-owned broadcaster as a threat to New Zealand democracy. The National Party leader’s response falls squarely into the “Polish Shipyard” school of New Zealand history. According to the latter, this country was a dreary and profoundly unfree place in the years leading up to the “revolution” of 1984. That Bridge’s fears cannot be substantiated historically is irrelevant. What matters is that a great many young New Zealanders, believing them to be well-founded, will dismiss the whole notion of an “NZBC Redux” as a dangerous return to “the failed policies of the past”.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Gen-Xers and Millennials might feel this way. For a start, to be able to recall the period when New Zealand had only one, state-owned, broadcaster, a person would have to be 60+ years of age. Privately-owned radio stations only appeared during these citizens’ late teens. By the time privately-owned television came along, the Baby Boomers were heading towards middle-age. For those born from the mid-1960s onwards, the trend in New Zealand broadcasting – and in media policy generally – has been all one way: from public to private. An evolution presented to the post-Baby-Boom generations as “a very good thing”.

Naturally, if the shift towards private ownership is presented to young people as a very good thing, then public ownership will likely be perceived as a very bad thing. After all, the sort of political regimes in which, historically, the media has been controlled by the state included communist and fascist dictatorships. The impulse towards complete state control was held up as a totalitarian impulse – hardly something to emulate!

But is there the slightest evidence to suggest that in the years between 1935 and 1970, when radio and television were the exclusive purview of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service – later to become the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) – the democratic rights of New Zealanders were significantly curtailed, or that the democratic life of the country suffered serious injury? Were New Zealanders jailed without trial? Were newspapers and radio broadcasts censored? Were regular elections suspended?

Excepting the understandable restriction of civil liberties occasioned by the Second World War, and the Emergency Regulations issued under the Public Safety Conservation Act in 1951, the answer is “No.” In fact, the New Zealand of 1935-1970 was distinguished by its highly participatory political culture. The membership of political parties in New Zealand reached levels unequalled anywhere else in the Western World.

The late Professor Keith Jackson, in his book New Zealand: Politics of Change, confirms this via the research of R.S. Milne: “Membership of the New Zealand Labour Party which had peaked in the year 1939-40 at 235,605 remained high after the war at 201,765. By 1960, however, this figure was down to 180,000 distributed through more than 600 branches.” National’s engagement with New Zealanders was no less impressive: “Much the same pattern appears to have developed within the National Party. Speaking in 1956 the President of the National Party claimed that membership varied from 143,000 in a non-election year to 250,000 in an election year.”

Voter turnout was similarly incommensurate with a democracy that was languishing under the tutelage of a state-owned broadcasting monopoly. Between 1935 and 1984 the participation rate of registered voters averaged 89.8 percent – peaking at 93.7 percent in the final election of the “Old Order”. In the post-Rogernomics, privately-owned and commercially-driven broadcasting era, by contrast, voter participation averaged a less impressive 81.85 percent – tumbling to a record low of 74.21 percent in 2011.

Nor was New Zealanders’ democratic participation restricted to voting every three years. Jackson lists some of the major agitational “pressure groups” of the 1960s and 70s as: Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ (ALRANZ), Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE), Campaign Against Rising Prices (CARP), Halt All Racist Tours (HART), New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties, Organisation to Halt Military Service (OHMS) and Save Manapouri.

Clearly, the state monopoly over radio and television was in no way hazardous or detrimental to the democratic life of New Zealand and New Zealanders. On the contrary, it was in the period kicked-off by Maurice Williamson’s radical liberalisation of New Zealand’s media ownership rules in 1991, and the subsequent explosion in the number of private radio stations, that the overall level of New Zealanders’ engagement with the political process underwent a sharp decline.

Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that it may have been the public service mandate of the state broadcasters, and the granular news and current-affairs coverage it encouraged, at both the regional and national levels, that persuaded ordinary citizens they had the power to directly influence the political process. When workers were able to hear the arguments of their union leaders, and consumers the complaints of pressure groups like CARP communicated to them by broadcasters mercifully free from crude commercial imperatives, it is at least arguable that democracy fared better – not worse.

The question that arises, however, after 30 years of unrelenting media commercialisation and privatisation and, more recently, the Internet’s ruthless subversion of traditional media business models, is whether or not an “NZBC Redux” would find more than a collection of ageing Baby Boomers to broadcast to? If the language of a colonised minority can be lost in the space of just two generations, why not the language of democracy? In an era of multiple platforms, sending multiple messages, to multiple audiences, what happens to the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas’s critical concept of the “public sphere”?

When Brian Edwards solved a postal workers’ strike, live, on national television, it was all New Zealanders could talk about the next morning. That wasn’t just on account of it being gripping television, but also because there had been nothing else to watch. Trending on Twitter isn’t quite the same as a single television audience tuning-in to a single television channel. “Water-cooler conversations” ain’t what they used to be. And yet, it is difficult to see how democracy – as it has generally been understood since the French Revolution – can survive without them.

There’s another question worth considering: “What could possibly alarm enough New Zealanders into allowing the government to set up a state broadcasting monopoly?” The answer, as it so often does, lies in our history.

On election night 1935, Michael Joseph Savage, waiting to broadcast live from 1ZB studios in Shortland Street, told his host, Colin Scrimgeour (the John Campbell of his day) that “this time next week you’ll be the head of a new broadcasting service”. Scrimgeour, known throughout the land as “Uncle Scrim”, did not demur.

What made the two men so confident? Easy. Just three nights before polling day, the Minister in charge of broadcasting, Adam Hamilton, the man who would, within the year, be the first leader of the New Zealand National Party, had done something incredibly stupid. Terrified that “Uncle Scrim” was going to recommend to his thousands of listeners that they give their vote to Labour, he had ordered Post & Telegraph Department technicians to jam the Methodist minister’s broadcast. Which they duly did.

Perhaps Simon Bridges should give a little more thought to who has the most serious “form” when it comes to threatening democratic broadcasting in New Zealand – and who does not.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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NZ needs credible public service broadcasting free to air at prime time. If there can be a Duke TV, there can be a more televised version of RNZ.
It's a myth to say people are not interested in politics - build it and they shall come.

TV news will die. It's dumb; superficial, too broad, mostly uninteresting, and awash with unpalatable editorial bias given gulf between average NZer and average underpaid 20-something TV news-staffer. Aside from back-ground radio shows, news-paper like portals that let you look at only what interests you and learn to what ever depth you choose are the future of news.

TV news may die because TV as a medium is commoditised. There's plenty of investigative and long-form journalistic content on YouTube and other video platforms. In that way journalism in video format is important, but it's the business model of the channel that is changing or under threat. Traditional newspaper players have also extended to video, so the delineation between video, audio, text and whatever else may come (or even live, on the ground participation) is blurring.

You've made a good point here. The channel as a concept is dead. My question is why you think kiwis will tune into a left wing public broadcaster when they actually have alternatives, unlike in the past that Chris is lamenting?

Ah news is news but we no longer have presenters of the news itself. What we have are presenters presenting themselves, first and foremost. Egos to the fore. Not all of them for sure but far too much absolutely daft posturing time over time. For example I recall once something like “ There has been a huge bomb explosion in Baghdad, so why is nobody taking any notice?” The impression I got from the body language of that particular presenter, was that the important thing really was that that particular identity was being noticed. But thank goodness for the internet, thank damn goodness!

I think because there's actually a good variety of content on there, and the resemblance to the parodies being presented here is more a talkback-inspired imagination than an account of reality. People are consuming it because it's a pretty unsensationalised (in comparison) provision of local content to accompany the wide array of content they can consume from international sites.

In the internet age most younger people tend to balance out their content consumption with different perspectives to get a feel for where the rough facts lie, much like the most vociferously positive and negative restaurant reviews are weighed against the average.

There's a reason Germany can't produce any television on its own. If a public broadcaster is allowed to put out low quality content and lose money, it's no wonder a competitive market doesn't develop, and that's with 80 million plus consumers.

Having high voter participation isn't a sign of success for a broadcaster. It just means they've successfully pushed state propaganda.

Now we have an alternative to state propaganda, finally. One News is b.o.r.i.n.g. They'd rather report a cat stuck up a tree than cover the protests in Paris or Hong Kong.

One News is PATHETIC. We occasionally have it on in the background.
The major events in Hong Kong were not even in the headlines tonight. What????????

I remember earlier in the year when there was a major terrorism event in Sri Lanka, I complained to One News about the fact that their coverage was 25 minutes into the bulletin. This, remember, was only within a couple of months of the Christchurch tragedy. One would think kiwis would have had a heightened empathy and interest in such events.

The response to my complaint was a 'la la' comment from some dim 'Public Relations' woman, essentially saying that they program their news bulletins in accordance with 'the viewing interests of our kiwi viewers'....

Our population is not big enough to support a 'serious' TV channel, with high quality news and documentaries. Because, frankly, at least 80% of our very small population is not very clever, and want to be 'entertained' rather than properly informed.

I've never liked 3 News, either.

I'll rely on quality international newspapers and websites, thanks.

Context needs be noted.
The News Business has fundamentally changed. Changed as a corporate business model.
Click bait, cheap pundits & editorial/advocacy. People being triggered too.

Scale & tech use to be less.

Sadly true. We need to be very wary of the editorial stances (and biases) of the big news organisations that do the deeper digging. They are in service to their masters, not us. Politicians, NGOs and multinationals command propaganda corps that vastly outnumber journalists, often working against us, they're bad for democracy and the checks and balances that make our countries work, so why do we have to pay for them? We would get more value from them if they were journos. Platforms like reddit, youtube and twitter that ban discussion that doesn't conform to their owners preferences are also bad for our society. Basically too much information gathering and control of discourse by a few organisations that don't put public good first.

Why do we need a state-owned broadcaster at all? We don't have state-owned newspapers, or internet or cinemas.

I have asked the question a number of times on different platforms, but I've not had an answer to date.

Lefties are losing their grip on the information kiwis have access to, finally.

The state shouldn't be involved in any media whatsoever.

We can decide for ourselves what content we trust, thank you very much!

I've heard there are reds under the beds in public broadcasters! Horrid stuff, truly horrid.

The reds aren't under the bed. The strut their stuff openly.

Espousing nasty communist ideas like a non-means-tested pension and such like, I imagine! Terrifying stuff.

Journalism is vital for democracy. We need well informed voters to prevent monsters and demagogues taking over. BUT it needs to be non-partisan and un-kowed by people who want to control the stories if it is to be useful. Google/Facebook monopolizing advertising revenue has made traditional journalism mostly uneconomic (ongoing downsizing in journalism), we have to find a way to keep it going in our small country, and sadly that may mean the govt will have to subsidize it for the good of democracy. Lacking an alternative I think the Govt could administer a micropayments system - let journalists get paid for what they produce on the basis of readership - a democratic means to keep forces of political and commercial influence in check.

Agree. Unfortunately at present the free market solutions seem to be under-performing at actual journalism and over-performing at bread and circuses, outrage-inducing clickbait that generates advertising revenue but does not provide information. New Zealand has long funded local journalism and local content as a public good / resource. Much like art galleries or libraries not every person will take advantage of every piece of information but having the resources available can make a massive difference and is actually useful to many.

I happened to catch the Radio NZ long-form content on the Erebus crash, last weekend. Great content, and no way it's going to get funded by an offshore click-driven provider.

It's a good point. I don't listen to radio much, and when I do it's National Radio or Concert FM.
However, even though I quite like those stations, I think they are quite hard to justify, really.

I often listen to ZB first thing in the morning. What staggers me is that every incoming tweet, twit or text etc begins with the presenters name. For instance, “ Kate, blah.blah, blah” or “Jack, blah,blah, blah.” Now does that mean every contributor to the show begins every message as such? Highly unlikely. Or that messages not begun as such, are not read? Quite possible. Or is this just simply an unsubtle self promotion added each time by the particular presenter to bolster one’s image. Highly probable. Smacks of insecurity, ie not famous enough yet, if you ask me.

The reason for high mid 20thC party membership and voter turnout is that our country was extremely corrupt. So much of your life was dictated by the decisions of govt and unions. My grandfather told me lots of stories about how you could only get the things you needed or 'luxuries' like a new car or corrugated iron for a new house (or make muddling through easier) through having the right patronage ('club' membership) and being able to call in favors. The 80's swept that corruption away, consequently Interest in politics has collapsed as bureaucrats and unions have lost control - politics now has far diminished impact on our lives.

Swept it away or shifted its localisation?

The new look service should have Al Jazeera English as a standard to aspire to emulate. Proper domestic investigative reporting.

Our reporters ought to be stationed overseas reporting to us.

Trump's rise to power was made possible by FOX. Murdoch has undermined US electoral Democracy more than Trump himself will.

The repellent Trump's election (really an anti-establishment popular uprising) was made almost inevitable by loss of trust in partisan media due to alternative news sources on internet countering much of what mostly democrat aligned main stream media were choosing to publish. For an example see recent story about ABC sitting on Epstein story for years: . Right wing/conservative trust in media has plummeted as media has swung left. The terrible irony is that the DNC were pushing media to pump Trump for nomination (revealed in wikileaks) as they thought he would be easiest for Clinton to beat. . Trump got enormous not-paid-for advertising that may have swung the nomination and election as a result. Good government requires good candidates, the DNC have a lot to answer for (aside from helping Clinton cheat during her primaries).

This sounds like a world without Murdoch, portrayed like this. In as much as the left were to blame for putting forth an odious and un-electable Hillary, the Right Wing media played a massive part in the election of Trump. Add to that weaponised disinformation from other players.

It's the DNC's fault they lost in that they nominated potentially the only candidate bad enough to lose to Trump, but this is not a world without the Murdoch empire.

Trump was elected despite Fox, not because of it. They were almost as rabidly anti-Trump as the others.

If you blindly believe the wild stories about Fox, you get ignorant comments like this.

I go to CNN a fair bit. I am quite shocked at how stridently anti-Trump they are.
Seems a bit unbalanced, to be honest.

Trump is weapons grade buffoon, a persistent bullshitting narcissist and ugly individual who has screwed over so very many people in his life. A decent centrist challenger at next election should be able to win, which is rare against an incumbent. But the media dedicated to bringing him down have destroyed their own credibility by crying wolf so loud and so long over weak stuff like Russian collusion that they have armored Trump against attacks over real transgressions (Pressuring Ukraine?) as people are so inured to the persistent baying that they have tuned it out.

Actually, quantitative research suggests that's not true: Better than wild stories either way.

However, it's fair to point out that at times prior especially prior to him being the nominated candidate they had bigger objects of affection. Though also recall Hannity's gushingly warm affection. Fair also to say the left-leaning media were not fans.

The Age of the Media since 1935 has been a glorious one in its many forms. While print was still king right up until almost the end of the 20th century, both radio & television have had their moments in the sun. However, since the advent of the internet things have changed massively, to the point where the so-called traditional media models are struggling to survive, as this article & others suggest. Print has been decimated to its current & tiny 10-20% of the size it once was (from billions to millions). Radio was big early on (1935-65) but has only ever been a 10-15% of the total local media market share since television began. TV, once free, then went paid & is now struggling under the new streaming model which is taking its toll on both the early formats. Since then just about everything new is digital in one form or another, but as to which party has the done the best out of it all is still up for grabs. Since privitisation & the NZ re-set in the mid-to-late 1980's media has split into camps - the left & the right if you like. Most media has gone left with FTA television & RNZ leading the charge. They have since been joined by a host of smaller media but the key ingredients required to become involved in the media (that of writing rather than actually working) has meant the industry is saturated with trendy lefties (the walky talkies I call them) all having their very important say in one form or another. Since then Google & Facebook & their ilk have globalised media, creating monolithic organisations with huge powers of persuasion & influence right across the planet. In fact, this new global lot look to be an even worse version than their predecessors, getting away with blue murder (not paying for content) whilst making huge fortunes for their owners & at the same time showing the middle finger to the regulators, who are scrambling along behind them (about 20 years too late) to catch up.
So, do I agree with CT's angle in the article. No. Neither political party has dominated any media for any length of time. Each has had good results at times but neither has done better than the other, as we usually vote governments out not in. Recent form globally, however, suggests the right of centre have had more success digitally than the left if we include the UK, USA & Australia as examples, but there are just as many places where there are no governments at all & won't be for a while such as Belgium, Spain etc. with others like Italy & Holland & even Germany where there are so many parties to vote for that no one ends up with a majority. In fact, when you look at the current results around the civilised world/democracies this is almost becoming the norm. Our culture has become our cultures, which is usually the step before someone else steps in & changes things forever. Time will tell.

Disagree. Labour/Greens get a lot of fawning media support because journalists are overwhelmingly left-wing: "A 2014 Massey University study showed that 22 percent of New Zealand journalists considered themselves Centrists. Just 16 percent said they were on the Right and fully 62 percent said they were on the Left." Nearly 4:1 left:right journos, whereas voters in 2014 were 3:4 left:right. That is a 5:1 leftward bias compared to voters, and (IMHO) is killing respect for NZ media. Shoring up left-biased RNZ and TVNZ with govt money is a bad idea, they need huge cultural re-balancing. It's not just an NZ issue:

Gee, I don't feel that TVNZ is 'left-biased'. I'd say it's very centrist.
But I agree RNZ is very left-biased. Although not totally. They give the likes of Hooton a fair bit of air time.

Fair enough on TVNZ, haven't watched in more than 10 years. RNZ is the weird one - given their listener demographic is heavily skewed to an older and generally more right wing demographic, that they lean left is giving the fingers to their audience. O'Sullivans First law: "All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing." It takes ongoing effort from top to prevent zealous left from excluding and culling alternative viewpoints, I think it is to societies' detriment that so many public institutions (academia in particular) have allowed left to take over - when they don't represent the views of the wider community.

RNZ actually has a fair following among younger listeners (and web consumers). It's regarded as less rabid and more credible than clickbait sites.

Rnz interviewers are anything but centrist - positively vitriolic - with anyone who challenges their set of core assumptions. They just don’t don’t give many of them air time, so they look centrist. That’s one of the causes of the rise of Trump and Fox - that many people feel, and in fact are shut out by a left biased media. You hear it all on talk radio - repugnant as some views are.

Talkback always seems to veer right because outrage sells, and outrage draws people in for more. It's the same reason Facebook's algorithms run the way they do, feeding people content that will keep them outraged.

Yes, pretty well documented that Fox News was founded by Roger Aisles, one of Nixon's aides who blamed Nixon's removal not on Nixon's illegal actions but on the horrible nasty liberal media:

Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon resigned. His impeachment at the time seemed almost certain, as key Republican senators had signaled they would no longer support him. But Nixon’s acolytes did not blame their president for his gross corruption and mind-boggling criminality. Instead, they blamed the press -- the “enemy,” as Nixon had described it -- for hounding him out of office.

Over two decades later, Roger Ailes, one of those Nixon retainers, founded Fox News. As the network has gained power and influence, it has played many roles -- an attack dog that savages progressive policies and individuals, a counterweight to a media that conservatives consider unbearably liberal...

It was founded to do a specific job, and pretty openly so.

John Key quit when the going was good for him as PM, before the bad times started rolling in for National. Luxon quit when the going was good for him at AirNZ, before the troubles started showing up, as they are now. When will Simon quit National ? The Crusher wants to know, right ?

Just watching Q + A, I think Jack Tame is a very talented journalist / presenter

Chris - you are still locked into the politics of left versus right. The last example shows how Nz politicians manipulated a single state media. Both Savage and Hamilton were doing so. The threat is from both sides as it has always been.
We all hear a lot about extreme right but that tag gets put on more people than deserve it in our media - and Im sad to see a left bias in coverage of the uk elections in Nz ...anything anti Johnson printed and almost nothing when the Labour deputy leader resigns during an election campaign.

Makes ya pine for the Hearst days - the mantra being tits, tots, pets and vets....