Coleman promises pragmatic approach to regulation

A National government will not be ideological, says broadcasting spokesman

Jonathan Coleman, National’s spokesman for broadcasting and associate health spokesman, is promising a National government will “do what works” when it comes to industry regulation and that it has left ideological approaches behind.

Coleman occupies a key portfolio as the worlds of broadcasting and communications converge. In Australia, the UK and elsewhere that has resulted in converged regulation as well and, according to TUANZ boss Ernie Newman, it could also see a convergence between the broadcasting and ICT portfolios in any future government.

“There’s unquestionably a move around the world for broadcasting and telecommunications regulation to converge and there is interest in that in New Zealand,” Newman says, pointing to reviews of broadcasting under way at the Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

“That would point to a future where there is a minister of both ICT and broadcasting.”

As you would expect, Coleman refuses to be drawn on the subject of portfolios, saying the suggestion he might fill an ICT position has never been made to him.

“We are just focused on winning the election,” he says. “And if we don’t win the election no one will have any sort job, but I’ll be happy to do whatever I’m offered.

“We’re not even thinking about portfolios at the moment. We’ve got a massive task ahead: a lot of door knocking a lot of hard work in the electorates and whatever happens after that we’ll worry about then.”

Coleman, the MP for Northcote, in Auckland, was a doctor in civilian life, so it is also conceivable that he could, as David Cunliffe does now, at some time own the health portfolio. As an MP only since 2005, however, he may have to earn a few more stripes before that happens.

Either way, it is clear National will not be rushing to regulate. On a series of issues, Coleman stressed that the market should be allowed to work out its own solutions before government steps in. Rapid technological change is also a deterrent to regulatory solutions, he says.

National has released some policy in broadcasting, including changes to TVNZ’s charter and an increased role for New Zealand on Air. It also says it supports the Freeview platform.

But what does that mean?

Coleman says he can understand consumer frustration at having to own two set-top boxes to get full coverage across the Sky and Freeview platforms.

“No one’s sure how the technology is going to play out. I don’t know that that is an issue for government to get involved in. I don’t see it as government’s role to get involved in a rush to regulation.”

Coleman says Freeview is a commercial block and so is Sky and they will reach a commercial arrangement to address platforms and other market oddities, such as the position of Sky-owned Prime in the free-to-air market.

“Both the Freeview block and Sky have various bargaining chips to negotiate with. I can see why the public would want a programme on Freeview, but I think you start setting a real precedent if you rush in and regulate private businesses.”

Changes to the charter that could introduce contestability for local programme funding though New Zealand on Air, he says, will deliver real New Zealand content where the current, TVNZ-exclusive arrangement has failed.

“If you look at the difference before the charter and after, you’d have to say there is no difference,” Coleman says. “We believe opening that money up to competition will result in a far higher standard of projects receiving that funding and it’s going to result in better public broadcasting content on New Zealanders screens.

“At the end of the day, the public doesn’t care whether the content is on TVNZ, on TV3 or on Maori TV as long as they have access to it.”

Here technology change is also driving policy. Coleman says convergence and the increasing delivery of content over the internet is leading to further market fragmentation. In that context, it’s the role of government to make sure content is available “free-to-air”, but not necessarily about the content being aggregated on one channel.

“The effect of the charter will be that TVNZ will no longer have a set of legislatively mandated priorities that it has to report to Parliament on,” he says.

New Zealand on Air’s management of the funding will mean it gets applied to genuine public service programming, and not to shows that are already commercially viable, such as Mucking In, the Olympics and Sunday, as has happened under the current charter, he says.

“New Zealand on Air is very successful at getting stuff on the screen that reflects New Zealand society and fulfils the requirements that the charter was meant to fulfil,” he says.

Coleman says the future will hold a lot more narrowcasting as broadcasting and the internet converge to something like an “iPod model”, where people pick and choose content to watch at their leisure.

No one knows how that will play out and it sets up an interesting set of regulatory questions, he says.

As associate spokesman on health, Coleman agrees with current moves towards national consistency in health IT and a reduction in duplication of systems. “It’s easy to talk about but hard to achieve. But if you can actually achieve decent information flows between primary and secondary providers, and across providers, it’s going to result in far more timely, accurate and cost effective patient care,” he says.

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