Broadcasting in Godzone: it’s Beached as, Bro.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a conference on the future of public broadcasting. My presentation was tilted Beached as, Bro: The current state of New Zealand’s Broadcasting Industry.

The “beached as” reference was not to a popular YouTube video, but to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach.

The novel is set in Melbourne, in the months after a nuclear war has wiped out human civilisation in the northern hemisphere. The characters portrayed in the novel face up to the reality, with greater or lesser degrees of dignity and compassion, that they too will die as the radiation moves relentlessly south.

In the closing chapter, the rock-steady Australian Navy captain is comforting his distraught wife and slightly dazed wife.

If can forgive the 1950’s sexism, their poignant final conversation went like this;

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?” she asked.

“I don’t know…(he replied) some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop… the only possible hope would be to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could they have done that, Peter?”

“Newspapers” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we were wise enough.’

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’ she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”

On the same PowerPoint slide I showed the following graphic, which is not a map of nuclear radiation creeping south from the northern hemisphere. It is the global temperature anomaly for 2010; the average temperature from January to December 2010 , compared to the average annual temperatures for the 30 years from 1951 to 1980.

Source: Goddard Institute of Space Science, NASA
New Zealand’s broadcasting policy framework is based on the idea that a competitive market of broadcasters will provide socially optimal outcomes, and if not, then:
“If the government or community groups considered that the composition or level of outputs of the broadcasting industry was not socially optimal, then the most effective and efficient intervention would be to directly contract with broadcasters to alter outputs in the desired direction be it wider coverage, more cultural programming, no advertising or more local content.”

That quote is  from the Treasury submission to the Royal Commission on Broadcasting and Related Telecommunications in 1986, which became the basis for our current broadcasting policy framework (in 1999 I completed a fairly lengthy Master of Public Policy thesis on the subject).

In New Zealand, currently, public broadcasting is officially thought to be a “nice to have”, provided to meet interest group whims and and political fancies, and funded by New Zealand on Air. The underlying assumption is that a competitive commercial broadcasting market will provide what people want, and therefore what they need.

My view is that some broadcasting outputs are a Public Good in economic terms. That is, their presence on-air serves to benefit the whole of society, just as the presence of a national defence force does, or the judicial system, or a parliament of elected representatives.

But I take that a step further and say that, in a parliamentary democracy, the existence of “public good” broadcasting is essential to the creation and maintenance of an effective democracy. In particular, a living democracy requires the presence on-air of high-quality and in-depth news, current affairs and investigative journalism. And that needs to be present at every level of government; national, regional and local.

So why do I think the broadcasting system is not providing this public good?

Because if it were, there would be neither debate nor uncertainty in the public mind about the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions in order to combat global warming.  The key political issue in this election year would be the need to decide which of the political parties has the most effective policy platform for dealing with that issue.  The best metaphorical equivalent would be if New Zealand were at war, and we had to choose a government to most effectively defend us. Climate change is, in fact, that important.

However, that is not the case – either metaphorically or in fact.  We like our television with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government is wise enough to stop us having them that way.

The absence of meaningful debate about climate change on our radio and television services is sufficient evidence to state with certainty that New Zealand’s broadcasting system is  suffering from market failure on a scale, and to an extent, matched only by the market failure of global warming itself. QED; the broadcast media’s systematic ignorance of, and silence about, the threat of global warming means it is “beached as, bro”, while the people of New Zealand are On the Beach.


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