• Animal Farm

    In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs who have taken over the farm from their former human masters explain the policy of the new administration to the other animals in a simple slogan – “Four legs good, two legs bad”.

    John Key’s second-term government has, it seems, adopted an equally simple-minded and misleading slogan to underpin its policies. As the decisions over TVNZ7 and Kiwi FM demonstrate, the rationale seems to be “Commercial good, public service bad”.

    The loss of TVNZ7 is, as many would testify, a major blow. As a former TVNZ board member, I saw the channel as the last bastion of public service television. Despite the onerous nature of the combined commitment to make a commercial 9% return for the government shareholder and at the same time to meet the requirements of a public service charter, TVNZ succeeded for a time in using those apparently conflicting objectives to support each other.

    TVNZ adopted as its Unique Selling Proposition that it was, by virtue of the charter, the guardian and expression of the national identity, the first port of call for serious and reliable coverage of events of national significance, the keeper of the national memory; it was where people turned when they wanted to share the experiences that mattered with their fellow-citizens. The sense that TVNZ possessed an extra dimension that made it different from its commercial rivals allowed the state-owned broadcaster to boost its audience and command a premium in advertising rates.

    When the government decided that the charter should be abandoned, TVNZ7 was all that remained of the public service ethic and tradition. Its demise has left New Zealand alone amongst advanced countries in having virtually no public service television broadcaster.

    The one exception is of course Maori Television, and that exception is itself instructive. Maori Television costs the taxpayer more than three times TVNZ7’s price ticket; but not for the first time, Maori have identified and been able to demand from the government something better than the government is prepared to provide to the rest of us.

    The government’s preference for commercial over public service broadcasting is shown clearly by the decision this week to help Australian-owned MediaWorks by extending Kiwi FM’s free use of a radio frequency reserved for public service radio. This concession comes on top of major financial help provided to Media Works (remember the $43 million government loan guarantee?) and the watering down of Kiwi FM’s commitment to broadcast 100% of Kiwi music.

    We can see in this generosity to commercial broadcasters the influence of the Minister for Everything, Steven Joyce, who may not have the broadcasting portfolio but whose experience of owning and running a successful commercial radio company is clearly the dominant factor in determining policy in this area.

    It comes on top of a growing number of instances where the government has deliberately turned its face against public service in favour of commercial undertakings. Ministers seem to believe that the only motivation that counts is the drive to make a profit. From running prisons to diplomacy, legal aid to accident insurance, right across the whole breadth of provision, the government sees the bottom line as the only measure that matters.

    We see the same mentality at work in another news item this week. The threat to the survival of courts in small towns is further evidence that nothing matters other than reducing public spending. The cohesion of community, local knowledge, the convenience of those caught up in the justice system, none of these things have any value.

    It is not as though any money will be saved if these court closures go ahead. It will simply be that costs will be transferred from the public to the private purse. Any savings to the government would be more than offset by the increased cost and inconvenience to individuals of having to travel greater distances – a classic case of the “externalising” of costs so much favoured by the proponents of the “free market”.

    And this comes on top of a week in which we have been invited, in the pages of the Herald, to celebrate the proposition that we now have not so much a Prime Minister as a “Chief Executive”. That, we are told, is why we are blessed with such commercially brilliant policies as selling off our public assets and their income stream so that our government can spend the one-off proceeds.

    Let us leave to one side the question of whether the short-term (not to say overnight) time horizon of a foreign exchange dealer is the kind of commercial experience that is needed to run a national economy. The whole point of democracy, surely, is that the electorate is able to use its power at the ballot box to ensure that a range of views, and not just those of business, is brought to bear in governing the country.

    The irony is that the narrowness of the business mentality is increasingly seen by commentators across the world – in the wake of the global financial crisis – as a handicap in trying to run a successful business, let alone a country. Do we really want a government that cannot see beyond the private profit motive?

    Bryan Gould

    2 July 2012