Life after Laidlaw - National Radio needs right decisions
So farewell then, Chris Laidlaw. The erstwhile sportsman and Rhodes scholar turned diplomat and politician is stepping down next month from the regular Sunday morning slot with Radio New Zealand he has hosted for the past 12 years.
This columnist, who in the past has sometimes been critical of Mr Laidlaw’s show, will miss him. Not so much his left-leaning assumptions and a few of the more somnolent interviews he has done with the liberal clerisy but for the decency and intelligence he brought to the role.
A lot of the attention given to the pending shift has turned on the question of Mr Laidlaw’s likely successor. But at least some of the media story really ought to be the new corporate environment at the state broadcaster, which may or may not have had something to do with the departing host’s decision to drop the gig in the first place.
Mr Laidlaw has said he is giving up the position in order to give more attention to his work in local government. Earlier in the year he indicated that he would quit were he to be elected to both the Greater Wellington Regional Council and the Capital and Coast District Health Board.
Coincidentally, though, his decision to leave the building on The Terrace in Wellington was made only shortly after Paul Thompson arrived at the same address.
One could be forgiven for wondering if the two events might in some way be related. Certainly, it’s as interesting to speculate what might have become of the Sunday morning programme on the ultimate watch of the new chief executive as it is on who the replacement will be.
Mr Laidlaw was appointed during a time when his congenially left-leaning style well suited the tax-funded broadcaster, who wore genteel liberalism with the abandon of a teenage kid splashing on the Brut. But times change. Even if he was so inclined it’s a reflexive approach the new chief can’t take – for three solid reasons.
First, RNZ – in particular the National Radio enterprise – really has to do something about the recurrent accusations of ideological bias. Writing about Mr Laidlaw’s departure the other week, for instance, the journalist Karl du Fresne made much of a recent Sunday morning interview with Bryan Gould, a retired New Zealand academic, a British Labour MP and nowadays a relentless critic of the National party-led government.
“It wasn’t so much an interview as a meeting of minds,” Mr du Fresne wrote. “Mr Gould was holding forth on his favourite theme, the wickedness of free-market capitalism, and it became clear as the interview progressed that the two former Rhodes Scholars were kindred souls.
“By the end, Laidlaw was murmuring in agreement and lamenting that the spirit of egalitarianism on which New Zealand was founded had been ‘sold down the river.’ Hardtalk it wasn’t.”
New audiences sought
You can’t please all the people all the time, of course. To some degree these kinds of criticisms come with the turf. But when did you last hear someone complain that RNZ tilted too far to the right?
Besides, Mr du Fresne is no media lightweight – a former Dominion editor, he knows the business well and understands RNZ’s charter obligation to provide balanced programming – a point he has often made, in a strong, sane voice, in some of the newspapers Mr Thompson used to oversee in his previous role as Fairfax’s group editor.
Mr du Fresne knows that those feasting at the public trough, while implicitly telling half the voting population that they’re intellectually ridiculous, need to be reminded that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full.
All this ought to be worrying to the new chief executive if for no other reason than the second of his pressing challenges, which is to find a way to improve the broadcaster’s finances that have been largely static since the government put a cap on its $35.6 million annual funding.
True, the thumpingly predicted Armageddon that was supposedly going to occur as a result of the freeze (remembers the Save Radio New Zealand “movement?”) never eventuated. Annual reports from the past four years suggest in fact that the broadcaster remains in pretty good financial shape.
Still, a lot of pruning has gone on since 2010 and common business sense suggests, as the revenues reduce arithmetically, the chances of the enterprise seriously unravelling somewhere increase exponentially.
A 10% funding increase at this point would cost the government relatively little. But first, one supposes, the broadcaster has to show it’s serious about scattering itself more widely across the entire population it serves.
Thus Mr Thompson’s third challenge, which in a recent interview he identified as the need to reach the nation as a whole, to get to the essence of New Zealand, and to different parts of the country.
As Mr Thompson sees it, that network is pitched heavily to older, white people “which is terrific but if you rest on your laurels expecting support from that demographic, well, you’re missing out other ethnic groups, younger people, regional audiences and so on. Somehow – and yes, it’s a hard thing to do – you have to reflect all of New Zealand.”
Interesting times. No doubt the eventual identity of the new Sunday morning host will be one worth waiting for. It had better.