Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Adios Agenda

AND the beat goes on. One by one the last vestiges of intelligent, democratically-engaged public broadcasting are driven off the air.

The latest casualty, Richard Harman’s excellent current affairs programme, Agenda, was the last long-format political interview show on New Zealand television. Even more importantly, it was the last current affairs show dedicated to the democratic objective of holding our political leaders to account, and to exploring in depth the major issues confronting the electorate.

Harman’s company Front Page Limited, which produced Agenda, also acted as a training-ground where young journalists could learn the essence of current affairs broadcasting from one of its acknowledged masters.

It was David Lange who memorably quipped that to carry any idea in the New Zealand of the 1980s you first had to carry the "Three Dicks" – Richard Harman (TVNZ’s political editor) Richard Griffin (Radio NZ’s political editor) and Richard Long (editor of The Dominion).

These were men who revelled in unravelling the intricacies of our daily politics, and who understood that the political journalist plays a role in the democratic process which is absolutely essential to the preservation of an informed and engaged citizenry.

TVNZ is reported as saying it wants to take the production of Agenda’s ultimate replacement in-house. We can only imagine what this might mean.

My money is on a half-hour format, once-over-lightly, personality- (rather than policy-) focused programme, with an emphasis on the "human aspects" of our political life, and where the mood is light-hearted, "ironic", and aimed (like everything else produced at TVNZ) at entertaining 20-30 year-olds.

It means that Agenda’s replacement will end up being Generation X’s revenge upon the ageing Baby-Boom generation. Where the Harmans and the Griffins and the Longs strove to reflect the importance of political decisions to the daily lives of their fellow New Zealanders, their more youthful successors will paint a picture of New Zealand politics that entertainingly confirms all the worst prejudices of a cynical and increasingly dumbed-down electorate. Where Agenda sought to engage, expose and explain, its Gen-X-produced replacement will seek to decode, deflate and deconstruct.

From the modernist imperative, which sought to subject the world to the critical analysis of a teleologically-driven everyman, we will be required to endure the ironic detachment and ideological disengagement of post-modern political dilettantism.

Old New Zealanders will at least have a memory of what real current affairs journalism looks and sounds like (think Brian Edwards, Ian Fraser, Lindsay Perigo, Kim Hill). In a very few years New New Zealanders won’t even be able to explain the concept.

Because, when all is said and done, you don’t know what you don’t know – and that’s obviously the way TVNZ intends to keep it.


backin15 said...

I wonder if your lament for the demise of the fourth estate isn't several years late Chris? I'm unable to watch Agenda but recall very little critical analysis on TV from when I last lived in NZ. Contrast this with Four Corners in Australia and the picture is more grim. I guess don't expect TV or newspapers to critique policy any longer, it's long ago abandoned the market in preference for prurience and trivia - witness the criticism of Bronagh Key's dress sense by the Herald on Sunday. Also, I'm not so worried about the Gen Xers influence, I am one however so this might discount my insights; just look at your blogrole, there's plenty of very clever critical commentary here and most of this mob aren't boomers, they might even be Y's.

Anonymous said...

Agenda was about the only show I watch on TVNZ since they forgot about unbias reporting.

Anonymous said...

"Where Agenda sought to engage, expose and explain".

Chris, Agenda was rubbish, I cant remember a time where it was any of the above. Its regular panelist were from the Herald and the NBR who mostly just spat out National Party spin.

And Guyon Espinar? That little twerp wouldnt know policy analysis if it slapped him in the face.

Its a really sad state of the media indeed when Agenda is the best we've got. A few John Pilger type journo's are much needed.

Ayrdale said...

...with a general de-emphasis on anything of substance, my bet is that we will see a satirical prime time programme with "spitting image" masks. The main target will be of course the incumbent. A great pity that such a show wasn't on air during Helen's reign...the possibilities for good satire have evaded us, Mr and Mrs Davis at home for example, but attempted humiliation of JK and Rodney Hide will have to suffice...

stargazer said...

i really miss kim hill on tv. she was brilliant at asking the difficult questions and pushing for answers. i saw her at the radio nz debate in hamilton during the campaign. she reiterated that she just wasn't interested in the tv interviews anymore. sigh. i also loved the fact that she was a successful older woman on tv. we have so few of those left.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it great that National has committed to freeing up charter funding then? Clearly, the charter is meaningless and the dual mandate has failed. I look forward to TV3 picking up Agenda in the future.

Carol said...

I don't think this is a sign that public service television is dead. Fortunately, there are signs of a revitalisation of this genre from the margins of television.

I was losing interest in Agenda over recent months, feeling it had become a shadow of the way it was in better days. It seemed to have become dominated by fairly conservative white men on its panel and with its interviewer/s. Guyon Espiner is too light weight for such a forum. This format is in need of being re-vitalised, and I see no reason why TV One (or any other FTA channel) shouldn't develop a new version.

At the moment there is better current affairs interrogation on Maori TV's Native Affairs. And there are some innovative new programmes emerging on TVNZ7 on Freeview. I hope the National-led government doesn't put any barriers in the way of the nurturing of such programmes and other new initiatives.

There's a vitality and a bit of edginess in the TVNZ7 programmes Backbenches & Media7, which owes a lot to their multi-platform production and delivery. On limited budgets, they make very good use of current ditigal technologies and the interaction between various audience access points. So they are recorded with a live audience and are available on both freeview and the internet.

They also bring in more direct interaction between the panelists and audiences, especially on Backbenches. There's been some really timely critiques on Media7. eg the one in which they critiqued media coverage of crime, crime statistics and crime research; and on the edition that picked up on David Beatson's reports on the Pundit website, critiquing NZ's involvement in Afghanistan and (lack of) media coverage of it.

The pity is that such programmes are still very much on the margins, and don't get wider coverage (especially the Media7 programme on crime during the election).

Unfortunately I wouldn't hold my breath waiting of NACT to nurture the devlopment of such programming. The TVNZ7 & Native Affairs programmes provide the kind of debates and critique that enable democracy to thrive, and is best placed within a public service ethos rather than in a highly commercialised context. Hopefully if enough people demand the development of such public service initiatives they will get more take-up on TV.

sweetdisorder said...

As my first comment disappeared, Chris, do you believe that anyone with a blog can now be a political commentator?