Richard Prebble: The Beatles and deregulation of broadcasting


This Christmas I watched The Beatles: Get Back. Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary made from more than 60 hours of film that has been in a vault for over half a century. It is the band recording their final album, Let It Be, and the roof-top performance, their last ever.

Critics have marvelled at the technology. When the cameras were recording, if the band members wanted to have a private discussion they strummed their instruments. Computers have allowed Jackson to reconstruct the conversations. There is Jackson’s diplomatic skill. The surviving band members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the widows, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, plus the band’s producer, George Martin’s son Giles, are listed as producers. Nothing was vetoed.

I marvel at the changes in politics that nearly 52 years later mean a recording of the Beatles playing live can be shown in my lounge.

It is karma. The Beatles were the inspiration for the deregulation of broadcasting.

It is impossible to exaggerate how big the Beatles were. I was 14 when they released their first record. In New Zealand, where everything was either regulated or illegal, their music was a liberation.

In 1962 there was only state radio. “Popular” music was played just twice a week. The Hit Parade, half an hour on Wednesday nights on 1ZB. The Top Twenty, one hour on Thursday nights on 1YD. I could not afford to buy records. I could only hear the Beatles songs that were on the hit parade. Fortunately the Beatles had 20 No 1 hits, and 34 Top 10 hits.

When the band visited New Zealand, a ticket was out of the question.

It was devastating when the band broke up. My generation recalls our grief at John Lennon’s murder. The dream that the band would have a reunion was over.

In 1987 David Lange made me Minister of Broadcasting. The mandarin who briefed me on the issues said: “Minister, your principal decision will be whether to issue another radio licence.”

“Why is it a decision for a politician?” I asked. “You do not need government permission to set up a magazine. Why don’t we release the spectrum? Then anyone can set up a radio station”.

The appalled civil servant gave the worst possible response.

“Minister, we will have radio stations playing nothing but the Beatles.”

“I like the Beatles,” I replied.

We auctioned off the spectrum. We should have patented the idea. It is the New Zealand public policy that has been most copied around the world.

The officials first opposed me reserving the spectrum for Māori.

“Māori have been paying licence fees for 62 years,” I said. “There is a Māori Broadcasting Board but no broadcasts in Māori.”

The officials then wanted Māori radio to be centrally managed by them.

“No,” I ruled. “We will issue the licences and have a contestable fund. Let the flowers grow.”

Today we have 21 iwi radio stations serving their local communities and preserving the language.

The bureaucracy never stops. Officials are planning to centralise the management of the iwi stations and have one news programme run by Māori TV.

State regulation and centralisation versus deregulation and individual choice is the big political divide.

It never occurs to today’s ministers to let the market find a solution.

Regulated broadcasting would never make a documentary that is nearly eight hours long. Jackson needed the time to let us see the Beatles interact, compose and just jam together. Get Back started as a protest song.

The documentary proves that much of what has been written about the Beatles break-up is false. We see they were four working-class lads who enjoyed each other’s company. They were also four individuals.

The roof-top concert shows the Beatles were a great stage band.

The spectrum auction let Sky TV start. I was an early subscriber. I discovered CNN.

The Cabinet was told by Foreign Affairs the Americans would never start the first Gulf War.

“I was watching President Bush live on CNN at 5am,” I told Cabinet. “Yes they will.”

Technology can empower us. The solution to the proliferation of the malicious and the false is not regulation but letting us see for ourselves.

If we relied on commentators President Biden’s loss of popularity would be a mystery. At Christmas I also watched President Biden’s press conference live on CNN. He shuffled to the podium, sneezed repeatedly and lost track of his thoughts. I saw what commentators are too woke to say – the President is geriatric.

The Get Back documentary demonstrates the power of seeing. I have never been able to persuade my family that the Beatles were a great band. My son was fascinated by the documentary. Better still the family has been playing Beatles albums.

Peter Jackson, thank you for a wonderful Christmas.

Richard Prebble is a former leader of the Act Party and a former member of the Labour Party.

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