© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

RNZ’s funding freeze: still thawing

Katie Scotcher
A tunnel closed off in Kaikoura after the 2016 earthquakes.   Katie Scotcher

The 2016 earthquakes proved the importance of National Radio during disaster, but will the government completely thaw their funding freeze? Katie Scotcher finds out.

The clock strikes midnight. It’s the second Monday of November. Like many other Kaikoura residents, KD and her husband are asleep in their coastal home. It’s dark outside and the town is still.

Two minutes’ pass and suddenly the bed they were sleeping in is violently shaking beneath them. They scream desperately as the ground rocks and jolts in all directions. 

Their belongings head for the floor before they can. Glass shatters, doors slam, walls crack and lights swing. 

The shaking’s stopped, but they are left in the darkness of their fractured home.

Tracing their way through damaged hallways and cluttered rooms, they head to the front door and meet their neighbours in the driveway.

They hop in the undamaged car and put the key in the ignition. Turning on the radio, they scan for signs of life. They stumble upon National Radio which guides them through the next few weeks of isolation.

For the past eight years, RNZ’s government funding has been frozen at $32million.

In 2007, RNZ underwent a funding review carried out on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. The findings, known as the KPMG report, recommended an additional $6.7million of operational funding, which was increased to $8.5million in 2010-11.

It took almost a decade for the national broadcaster to receive a funding boost, and in this year’s budget they were only allocated an additional $2.84million.

This brings their funding up to the levels it should’ve been in 2012, based on inflation rates alone.

And it’s events like the Kaikoura Earthquake that prove the importance of RNZ, particularly in a time of crisis.

RNZ Chief Executive Paul Thompson says they’re a powerful communication agency and provide people with information they can trust in times of need.

Statistics from a 2016 Colmar Brunton Survey conducted by RNZ confirm this. 81% agree that RNZ provides a valuable service to New Zealanders.

But this credible service in a time of crisis comes at a cost, and although the exact amount spent on coverage of the quake is unavailable, Thompson says the earthquakes proved to be quite a financial challenge for the broadcaster.

Thompson started working for RNZ in 2013, five years into the funding freeze. He says we he arrived they were still relying on insurance payments from the Christchurch earthquakes to boost their funding - a source that was not sustainable.

Before he started at RNZ, the Board of Governors made multiple unsuccessful funding requests to the Government. 

Thompson’s predecessor Peter Cavanagh commented in early 2010 on the state of RNZ’s funding and its effect on their content saying “inevitably, quality would decline as funding got tighter”.

However, Thompson contradicts this, saying the content they produced was at a high level.

He says staff were frustrated at the lack of funding for new opportunities but did well to move through it.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the 2015/16 financial year, the state broadcaster made a loss of $4million. Thompson deems it as a “reset year” for the organisation as they took down their 220 metre transmission mast in Titahi Bay due to corrosion.

They also sold their Auckland offices to help cover their financial losses.

Thompson says after reshuffling their funding they’re close to breaking even, and are focussing on allocating more resources to enhance their digital platforms as their online audiences grow rapidly.

What do the politicians think?

Following the portfolio reshuffle in December 2016, there is now no specific Minister for Broadcasting; it comes under the umbrella of arts, culture and heritage.

Minister Maggie Barry holds the portfolio, but chose not to comment on the issue.

In a statement made after the budget announcement Barry said, the increase in funding will allow for “investment in new modern technology and improved capability”.

She says RNZ provides a high quality service and is aware of the important role they played during the 2016 Earthquakes.

Broadcasting spokesperson for Labour, Clare Curran, believes national government don’t put enough value on the country’s only public broadcaster. She says the funding made available in the 2017 budget is less than 60% of what it needs, and is not enough to keep up with performance demands.

Labour are yet to release their broadcasting policies for this election.

Gareth Hughes, the broadcasting spokesperson for the Greens, agrees RNZ is important, especially because of the role they play during natural disasters. He expressed his disappointment in their lack of funding for so long and believes the amount allocated in the budget is not addressing the issue with any substance.

The Greens Public Journalism Fund Policy aims to establish a New Zealand Public Journalism Fund to support multi-platform public interest stories and to restore RNZ’s funding.


The future of funding

Director of the Better Public Media Trust Myles Thomas has been a long-time supporter of RNZ.

He remembers tuning in RNZ as a child when a wave of serious flooding hit the country. He tuned in to hear from reporters if family and other New Zealanders were okay - just like much of the country did during the Kaikoura earthquakes.

The trust, formerly known as the Coalition for Better Broadcasters, was established in 2012. Their main priority has always been to push for public broadcasters to get better funding.

Thomas admits the little bit of money allocated to RNZ is a great start and a testament to their work, but says more needs to be done.

Each year, New Zealanders pay $8 each in tax to fund RNZ. But countries like Australia and Ireland pay tax of at least $10.

The funding in Australia allows 25 national and regional stations across the country, including Triple J and ABC, to produce content on air and online.

Thomas says we’re the “cheap skates” in terms of public media, but an increase in tax money allocated to the broadcaster would enhance RNZ. He says it would not only allow the broadcaster to keep producing quality content, but would allow them to grow their regional offices.

After being forced to shut down offices during the funding freeze, Thomas wants to see more regional reporting and offices opening in the smaller regions; he believes more funding would eventually allow them to do that.

Paul Thompson says for now, the focus is on new technology and managing the new funding from the government. He says every dollar invested will get a really good outcome.

Since the Kaikoura earthquake, KD and her husband have continued to use RNZ to give them timely, accurate news, as do 579,400 other New Zealanders every week. So isn’t it about time their funding freeze is completely thawed?