PM’s chat show highlights the absurdity of differing interpretations of electoral law

Alf was more than a bit miffed, when Radio Eketahuna (also known as 2ZE FM) declined his suggestion they give him a stint behind the microphone for a few hours a month or so ago.

He promised his chat show would be an election-free zone – he would steer clear of political stuff and talk instead about his cat, Coronation Street, Mrs Grumble’s gardening prowess and the secret of her prize-winning pumpkins, how to pour a whisky and so on.

He would conduct a few interviews with the likes of Colin Meads, The Mad Butcher and Fred Dagg.

Buckingham Palace advised him Her Majesty never did media interviews with anybody as a matter of strict principle and hence would not be available.

Never mind. Alf hoped to get Lucy Lawless in her stead.

He thought this idea was a shoo-in.

Radio Eketahuna is a community based radio station operated by the Tararua Radio Society Incorporated.

And Alf’s plan was aimed at being culturally and informatively uplifting for the community.

Alas, the proposal was politely declined on the grounds there could be no election-free zone during an election campaign.

A bit bloody severe, Alf mused to The Missus at the time, although she seemed to think the radio people had a point.

It turns out a bunch of tossers in Wellington think they had a point too.

MediWorks is in a spot of bother as a consequence.

Here’s what it’s all about.

Someone obviously heard about Alf’s broadcasting initiative and the next thing he knew The Boss was doing a stint on RadioLive, making very sure – of course – that his listeners appreciated this was an election-free zone.

Several weeks later MediaWorks has become the subject of a police inquiry over election coverage.

MediaWorks is being investigated over an hour-long show in which Prime Minister John Key interviewed All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson.

The show aired prior to the election and the Electoral Commission today said it had referred MediaWorks to the police for breaching the Electoral Act.

According to Alf’s understanding, the commission has decided the “Prime Minister’s Hour” chat show was not an election advertisement but it was “an election programme”.

It was unusual for broadcasters to provide a person contesting an election as a party leader and candidate with the opportunity to host a radio programme in the lead up to the election, the commission added.

The test was whether the programme would be perceived as encouraging or persuading people to vote towards a certain party or candidate, or appearing to do so.

The commission said it was reasonable to conclude it would.

The commission has advised broadcasters that, in future, programmes hosted by a leader or candidate and broadcast close to an election are likely to be election programmes and therefore in breach of the act.

The dead hand of the Labour Party comes into the story.

Labour complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the commission, insisting the show breached the Broadcasting Act and bleating about it being unfair their leader at the time, Phil Goff, was not allocated equal time.

The BSA found there had been no wrong-doing.

The commission, in contrast, has referred the matter to the police.

Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson is bleating about the show having given Key an advantage in the election campaign.

But he also has said he had not listened to the programme because he was too busy campaigning.

So he is in no position to judge the nature of the supposed electoral advantage the chat show provided, although maybe The Boss scored with cat lovers and Coro Street fans.

Much more sensibly, Labour Party general secretary Chris Flatt has observed that in this case we had two bodies interpreting the same piece of legislation.”

Fair point.

It’s a bit silly – surely – when they come up with different answers.

Alf, naturally, goes along with the BSA’s narrower interpretation.

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