Carol Hirschfeld's departure has rocked RNZ. Tensions over how a new $38 million pot of money might be spent rippled underneath the surprise resignation. Thomas Coughlan reports.
Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran will live to fight another day following the news that her meeting with former RNZ Head of News Carol Hirschfeld was pre-arranged and the pair had not met by chance, as Hirschfeld had previously claimed.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told media that Curran had apologised to her for not being transparent over her meeting, but said she was not concerned with the meeting itself.
“There has not been a breach of the Cabinet Manual,” said Ardern.
“Equally, in general, ministers do meet with individuals who work in crown entities from time to time. Having said that, the minister has apologised to me for the lack of transparency from the very beginning about the fact that the meeting occurred and the fact that it was not included in the initial written question,” she said.
Ardern walked with Curran to question time this afternoon, stopping together to answer questions from press gallery journalists about the RNZ issue.
Ardern said she expected the primary relationship between the Government and RNZ should be between the Minister and the Board, but added it was not unusual for ministers to meet with people working within crown entities. She gave the example of a minister meeting with scientists from a crown research institute for research purposes.
Hirschfeld’s resignation comes four months after the meeting and following questioning by National MP, Melissa Lee.
The key question to emerge from this episode is why Curran met Hirschfeld and whether the meeting had anything to do with Chair Richard Griffin and Chief Executive Paul Thompson’s vision for RNZ+, which differs from Curran’s.
Labour’s election policy for RNZ+ was a “device agnostic” service built on the model of the ABC in Australia that included a free-to-air TV channel.
It is unclear whether the policy intended to recreate TVNZ 6 and 7, our last free-to-air public service channels, or whether RNZ+ would run more along the lines of RNZ’s existing television offerings, like Checkpoint. That program can be listened to on the radio, but also features significant television components.
Curran told Colin Peacock of RNZ last October that she wanted a full TV channel on Freeview, offering more news and current affairs and children’s content and drama, suggesting her vision is perhaps more in line with the full service TV model.
“Do you envisage that within this current term of parliament by 2020 or sooner that there will be a 24/7 or 12 hours a day station on Freeview run by RNZ,” Peacock asked.
“That’s what I want,” Curran said, but she noted that she did not yet know what was achievable and she had not yet had “the conversations” that would help guide the policy.
In-line TV channel vs streamed chunks online
In the select committee, however, Griffin said that a full-service television station was not his idea of RNZ+.
“That’s not our vision of it, no,” Griffin said.
“It’s going to be a combination of more media platforms than we’ve been able to access in the past simply because we didn’t have the finance,” he said.
Thompson told journalists after the meeting that he saw RNZ+ as an “evolution of what we’re doing at the moment rather than a big bang,” which suggests he was more in favour of the Checkpoint model.
Neither Curran nor Ardern would comment on a divergence of views over RNZ+ on Wednesday.
“That is a policy matter and I don’t know if we’re in a position at the moment to disclose that, given the work is still ongoing,” said Ardern.
Curran agreed that that the form RNZ+ would take was still ongoing.
Peter Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University said that it was difficult to know what RNZ+ would look like. He said that RNZ will only pitch an RNZ+ that correlates with what the Government has said it expects.
“I wonder whether the government needs to be a bit more precise,” he said.
He said there was a chance that the episode had only added fresh impetus to let Hirschfeld go after a rift opened between her and the board over what RNZ+ would become. Thompson said he did not think the meeting alone constituted a sacking offence.
“There has been speculation and I think there is credible speculation that Hirschfeld had a difference expectation of what was possible in standalone television division might look like,” Thompson said.
With Hirschfeld’s background in television at Mediaworks and Maori TV, she was supportive of a more traditional, stand-alone broadcast TV station. Paul Thompson, with a background in print media, had a very different vision.
“I don’t know if that had any bearing on pushing Hirschfeld out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if whether it had some bearing on the decision,” Thompson said.
“It was very likely that RNZ’s senior management called time on it,” he said
Selective committee memory
Hirschfeld’s version of events has embarrassed Griffin and Thompson when the two appeared before a select committee in March to answer questions on the annual review of RNZ.
Going over a record of the select committee underscores how strongly Griffin and Thompson backed Hirschfeld and her initial story. Fourteen minutes of the 50 minute meeting were devoted to discussing the meeting in excoriating detail, with Griffin in particular getting increasingly frustrated with Lee’s persistent questioning. Each time, he defended Hirschfeld.
“How important is it to remain independent?” asked Lee.
“It’s essential. It's enshrined in our legislation and our ability to conduct our news operations and make our editorial decisions free from any kind of interference is pivotal,” responded Griffin.
“Your vision for RNZ+ will be similar independence?” Lee asked.
“Absolutely,” said Thompson, “In my time as CEO in four years I’ve never had one whiff of editorial interference.”
“Talking about independence should shareholding ministers, in your case did the Minister of Broadcasting, Communication and Digital media have any influence over content or news?” Lee continued.
How dare you ask that question?
Indignant, Griffin responded, “Why would you ask that Melissa?”
“We ask the questions, Mr Griffin, you answer them,” interrupted National MP, Christopher Finlayson, another member of the committee.
Lee then went on to raise the Hirschfeld-Curran meeting with Griffin who said that he would be worried if the meeting occurred “in the nature” Lee put it, but not in the context he then believed to be the case. We now know Lee’s version of events to be correct, meaning Griffin would be worried.
The questioning went on. Griffin became increasingly frustrated, saying he did not see it as “sinister” and that, “in a perfect world” serendipitous meetings would probably not take place, but Wellington, small and compact, was not a perfect word.
“That’s the way it is and you know it,” he said, by then noticeably frustrated.
“It was not a meeting!” he added, when Lee repeatedly asserted that it was.
The episode ended with an embarrassing discussion on whether the incident was, “a serendipitous meeting of the minds over breakfast?” according to Lee.
“It wasn’t a breakfast either, in the sense that…” said Griffin.
“You said it wasn’t a coffee and a sandwich,” said Lee.
“Let’s get past the trivial points,” said an exasperated Griffin.
A win for Melissa Lee
Finally, Labour MP Tamati Coffey moved the subject on, saying that he wanted to “move on to something of content”.
The episode was embarrassing for both Griffin and Thompson who repeatedly defended Hirschfeld, delving into the minutiae of her story and appearing exasperated at Lee’s line of questioning. Their reactions suggested Lee’s questions were facetious. The record now proves her to be correct.
In the corridors afterwards, National Party figures could be heard describing RNZ as “the broadcasting wing of the Labour Party”. RNZ guards its independence closely. This protects it from influence under National and Labour Governments. This latest episode shows they might not have guarded it closely enough.