Quality TV? Fly to Oz

Friends joke that they knew we’d come home crowing about Oz; how much sunnier it was – and all those beaches.

They were right – and wrong: Eight days in Melbourne and we saw the sun only when our Air New Zealand flight lifted off the tarmac. Beaches? Sort of. Great long strips lacking the intimacy of ours, with their Pohutukawa blossoms  and streams meandering their way into the sea.

We did however return with something unexpected – memories of a vibrant  public broadcasting industry.We’d arrived, coincidentally, two days before the federal elections following PM Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution of both Houses.

Newspapers – with some exceptions – told their readers that this would be a walk in the park for Turnbull, a stroll back to the Lodge where Aussie PMs live. And so to election night and the blue ribbon slaughter, the loss of Liberals’ seats and the rise of Labour – and more significantly, independents.

Labour’s campaigning had been shrewd. Leader Bill Shorten often visited seats with diverse ethnic minorities and the Party’s advertising used their own languages in its advertising campaign.

All the gains and losses were captured memorably on election night by the nation’s public broadcaster the ABC,  and to a lesser extent its philosophical  cousin SBS, which broadcasts to ethnic minorities. Both informed and entertained.

Their hosts and guests were exuberant and wonderfully irreverent to pollies of all colours. The ABC’s Q&A also had that rarity in New Zealand current affairs – a  studio audience which held pollies accountable in a live broadcast. It also featured a tweet-stream and when Malcolm Turnbull’s future looked shaky, one wit tweeted:

I hear David Cameron’s available.  So too was Brexit leader Nigel Farage, another added.

Last minute controversies surrounded Labour over its  own message telling people that the Libs intended to privatise Medicare. It prompted one character to write:

To be honest, I was  more alarmed when Labour sent me a message saying I needed a prostate check.

That night there was a hint of Abbott in the studio air as if it was channelling Macbeth’s ‘blood will have blood’. But saying it better than the Bard was this dag:

A former PM in the Cabinet room – what could possibly go wrong?

Commentators noted that during the two month election, the Press had almost  all backed their Establishment candidate the PM, and had written off Labour.

And for much of the night they wondered why this swing away from the neo-liberal, free market norm had occurred. Some answers: The public, tired of  economic theory prevailing over social realties like health cuts, simply revolted.   It wasn’t quite Brexit, or Bernie Sanders in America, but the concerns about the directions taken by the pollies were clear. Social needs came well  before economic esoterics.

Almost a week later voting made it clear that Malcolm had not been ‘Turnbulled’ as one wit suggested. He did get his pass to the Lodge. On that election night  public broadcaster ABC also won hands down in analysis, coverage and finally in  total viewership.

So we did come home to crow – about public broadcasting in television. We have superb journalists on our only public broadcaster Radio New Zealand, but remain one of the few countries in the Western world without a public TV broadcaster.  In Oz it was an ad-free zone, a competition for ideas not ratings, and a medium  in which journalists and producers involved viewers, made us laugh, made us cry,  made us think.

And perhaps despair about the absence of a public television broadcaster here.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.