Hard News by Russell Brown


Biting back at Bill

I'm not surprised to see that a number of those who got the axe under Bill Ralston have been keen to express indignation at his doomy pronouncements on TVNZ's latest staff cuts. But the former staffers posed their own ironies.

Mike Hosking presumably enjoyed a chance to have a crack back at the man who showed him the door, describing Ralston's comments as "delusional in the extreme". This is rather a change of tone from Hosking's previous public accounts of his departure, which revolved around being grateful to have been given the opportunity to spend more time with his daughters.

When Ralston arrived, Hosking was the figurehead of a previous era; the steward of the glossy, richly-funded Sunday programme created by the previous news chief, Heaton Dyer. His face didn't fit the new regime, and he had to go. But Hosking was paid a great deal to work at TVNZ (he kept all his salary after being taken off Sunday and confined to Breakfast), and a huge amount to go. He is now not short of work or a dollar. Such are the benefits and risks of being a flagship presenter.

Rod Vaughan climbed in too:

Veteran TV journalist Rod Vaughan wrote to the Herald angry about what he called Ralston's "breathtaking" hypocrisy.

"Isn't this the same person whose very first action at TVNZ was to axe charter-driven investigative programmes like Assignment and send some of the country's most experienced television journalists, myself included, down the road?"

Vaughan - who now works on rival TV3's 60 Minutes - said the "rot set in" during Ralston's "calamitous and chaotic mismanagement" of TVNZ news and current affairs. "The writing was on the wall for him a long time ago and it would have been more honest of him to say he jumped before he was pushed."

The yanking of Assignment was an unhappy event, but a story written by Philip Matthews early in Ralston's reign provides some context:

Hosking isn’t Sunday’s only problem. The show is the legacy of Ralston’s predecessor, Heaton Dyer, who had to quickly invent an all-New Zealand current-affairs show after losing 60 Minutes to TV3 and finding that other international stories were unsuitable for the format. He did this by collapsing Assignment into Sunday and creating an unwieldy monster with a team of 32 reporters, producers and directors – more than 10 percent of TVNZ’s total news and current-affairs staff – who were expected to work for both shows. The concept was a failure, Ralston believes, and an expensive one, with a "budget that was extraordinarily flush". That budget was on-screen, certainly – in the form of serious, if not sometimes gratuitous, air miles for its reporters. To unsentimentally axe Assignment altogether is one way of solving that problem, even if it means losing some of the channel’s most senior journalists. "There are people who have been here an awfully long time," Ralston says. "Today is the 35th anniversary of [Assignment/Sunday reporter] Rod Vaughan entering television!"

Some long-stayers are on a nice wicket, others are just institutionalised. On paper, losing salaries such as Long’s and some of the senior journalists on Sunday/Assignment is an easy solution to the budget cuts that Ralston must make – the figure is even larger than the $4 million that has appeared in the media, he says. It’s hard to get a straight answer from anyone at TVNZ over why this cut and those to come in other departments are necessary, especially as news and current affairs took $12 million from the government not long ago to meet charter obligations. Curiously, given that investment, Ralston notes that at both government and management level it has been recognised that TV3 produces "a relatively similar news and current affairs product for much less".

There was indeed a period when TVNZ current affairs journalists seemed to have an almost limitless budget. If they needed to fly to Los Angeles to do a piece to camera in front of a building, it seemed, they just did it. As we noted in a 2004 Mediawatch programme, Ralston's public view was that "TVNZ's news and current affairs can do what it does better and for less."

Rod Vaughan isn't exactly begging in the streets now. In his new gig he was responsible for one of the worst - as in emotionally manipulative and uninformative - current affairs reports I can recall in recent years, on the Herceptin issue. If that was the Vaughan style - and it is - then you can keep it. It was the very opposite of investigative journalism.

I guess my perspective on TV news - from either channel - is influenced by the fact that when I get involved, it's usually with a junior generalist who wants a soundbite and, if possible, me to do his or her research. When the internet can now drive the news agenda to the extent that "the Timaru lady" and her questionable YouTube video led 3 National News on Friday night, you'd think both channels would hire reporters who didn't have to have the story explained to them every time.

On a previous thread here on these issues, a reader suggested TVNZ should "get rid of the desks, give people like Keith Ng a digi-cam and a credit card and let them loose." I'd turn the telly on for that - and, I suspect, the digital era may demand it. (BTW, TVNZ is going all-digital and tapeless and has just bought some cool-sounding kit)

TV news has become a prisoner of TV's cost structure. The bulk of the dizzying cost of TV news does not lie in allowing experienced reporters a long investigative leash, but in the sheer expensiveness of television. Some of that simply will change.

My guess - and it is only a guess - is that while there are firings now, there will be hirings later, especially as TVNZ's Freeview factual channel takes shape, and that there is the potential to do something new and improved with news television (although the grandiose sentiment of the new promotional video doesn't seem to be a particuarly good sign -- the metaphor of making the whole nation gather outside with our torches is simply wrong for an era of niches). The status quo clearly doesn't seem to be working for One News anyway.

But, again, maybe that's just a print freelancer talking. My standard rates have hardly budged in more than a decade, and I'm concerned about APN's latest strategy: to remove experienced sub-editors from regional papers, centralise that work in Auckland and outsource other editing work to a sausage factory in Australia. If quality and experience are your concerns, you've got more to be worried about there than at TVNZ.

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