RNZ considers quitting Twitter over 'government-funded' label

 "I don't ever like abandoning an audience, it's really important to me that as an organisation we are where people are."
"I don't ever like abandoning an audience, it's really important to me that as an organisation we are where people are." Photo credit: Reuters

By Kirsty Frame for RNZ

Twitter users might have noticed something different about the RNZ account in the last 24 hours.

The social media platform has decided to add the label 'government-funded media', which sits both in the page's bio and above every tweet it makes.

RNZ is funded by the government through New Zealand On Air, which injects $48 million annually.

But the criteria for the Twitter label has a caveat that's struck a chord with many outlets internationally lately, and the New Zealand public broadcaster on Monday.

The newly implemented policy outlines as follows on the site: "government-funded media is defined as outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet's funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content. We may use external sources similar to this one in order to determine when this label is applied."

RNZ's head of content Megan Whelan said the second part of that criteria is not the case for the public broadcaster.

"Our legislation specifically says the government may not have control over editorial matters. We are independent public media here to serve the public interest," Whelan said."I've seen the replies on Twitter, I know people are saying 'well it says may, that doesn't say that the government will' - but our argument is that the government can't, the government is not allowed to."

The label wasn't entirely a surprise - it happened to the BBC two weeks ago, on Monday as well for Australia's ABC and Canada's CBC.

US outlets PBS and NPR have both left Twitter over the labels, and RNZ said on Monday it was considering doing the same.

NPR was originally labelled as "state-affiliated media", the same term it uses for propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.

Whelan said RNZ has been considering its place on Twitter for some time now.

"I don't ever like abandoning an audience, it's really important to me that as an organisation we are where people are," she said.

"It's really important that truth and independence and all of those things are upheld, and I don't want [RNZ] to be in a place where that's not true."

RNZ and other members of the Public Media Alliance - which has the earlier mentioned outlets as members - are in communication about next steps, Whelan said.

Dr Merja Myllylahti is co-director of the AUT Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy, and also co-author of the Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand report - which found public trust was continuing to decline.

She said words matter - and the labelling is dangerous.

"[The] public already have this misconception that the media is in the government's pocket. [The public] keep talking about how because media companies have received public funding or from the Public Interest Journalism Fund that they are an extension of the government," Dr Myllylahti said.

She said it also did not make sense for commercially funded news outlets not to have a similar kind of labelling if the social media platform has decided to single-out publicly funded outlets.

Some users on Twitter suggested some international outlets could be called "billionare-funded media".

TVNZ - which is government owned but commercially funded - had not received any labelling to date, nor had RNZ's other channels.

In a rare interview with the BBC last week, Twitter owner Elon Musk said the labels are for the site to "be as truthful and accurate as possible."

RNZ reached out to Twitter's general media email account, to which it received an auto-reply of a poo emoji.