Hard News by Russell Brown

What price the Mother of the Nation?

So in an increasingly competitive commercial TV environment, just what is a fair rate for the country's most bankable newsreader, Judy Bailey? As the government's pre-emptive strike on her new $800,000 contract gathers steam, no one seems to want to even venture a guess.

Neither TV3 or Prime has apparently sought to poach Bailey - and neither is actually likely to - but Bailey could, presumably, decline to read news altogether, a prospect which would be disastrous for TVNZ. Even such an unlikely scenario would have concentrated minds. Whether it would have sufficiently concentrated minds to procure a doubling in salary is another matter.

The key factor is likely to be the same one that led Paul Holmes to sling his hook: the fact that state TV is now only offering one-year contracts to its screen stars.

It's not so much that, as Sean Plunket said this morning, to TVNZ chair Craig Boyce, "for $800,000 wouldn't you want to tie Judy Bailey up for longer than a year?" (ooh-err!), as that when you aren't offering security of tenure you will be paying more.

There are a couple of ironies here: one is that the organisation has clearly moved to curb its "culture of excess" in salaries recently. The other is that it's only ever the dollar figure that is an issue in TVNZ salary scraps - and not the length of contracts or any possibly outrageous terms and conditions.

It's my guess that it has been those elements of contracts that have created more problems for TVNZ over the years than however-many-dollars Paul Holmes has reaped. Obvious case in point: the penalty outclause in John Hawkesby's unfortunate five-year contract in 1999: the contract included a $700,000 annual salary, but he picked up nearly $7 million for being fired. There were also rumours that a number of executives locked themselves into tasty little deals before the change of government in 1999.

Reinventing TVNZ is quoting a voice from inside the machine:

Most people given the chance would be very happy to accept $800K from anyone dumb enough to pay it, so good on Judy for seeing her chance and taking it. It will probably last only one more year, and could be seen as a 'working golden handshake'.

So is Stuff:

A TVNZ source said yesterday the size of Bailey's salary increase had angered some employees, who had got a $400 Christmas bonus while many were struggling to win pay rises in talks now under way.

The source said Bailey's working hours had increased significantly since she took over sole newsreading responsibilities this year.

When working alongside Richard Long the pair arrived at work after 3pm most days, but Bailey now had more editorial input and took part in One News' 9am news meeting.

She worked most of the day "with really not much to do but, bless her, she tries to help the reporters", the source said.

Last night's Molesworth and Featherston predicts a spanking from Mum:

But Ministers will ask whether it might have been possible to persuade Judy Bailey to stay in for any less. TV3 and Prime deny they would have hired her. They will say the Board has made a bad decision. Blame for John Hawkesby’s perceived overpayment was attributed by Beehive insiders to TVNZ’s then head of news Shaun Brown. Blame for the Bailey payment is likely to be sheeted higher.

The most surreal element of the whole business so far has surely been Bailey herself having to introduce an item about it all on One News.

In other Big Girls' Jobs news, the surprise announcement of Margaret Wilson to replace Jonathan Hunt as Speaker of the House. A shunt sideways, surely? Even the wibbliest of liberals have occasionally been unnerved by Wilson's style as attorney general, and perhaps the availability of the Speaker's chair offers an opportunity to slot in a more reassuring presence (I almost shudder to think how non-controversial and agreeable Labour will try and look in election year).

If so, then the key qualification for Wilson's replacement is likely to be possession of a penis. But who?

The month's Columbia Journalism Review has a very good essay by Chris Mooney looking at the issue of "balance" in news stories relating to science - and the distortion that bland attempts to apply that "balance" can cause.

On a related topic, Adam Bogacki directed me to The Delusional Is No Longer Marginal, a speech on the media and environmental issues by American journalist Bill Moyers.

Interesting blog fight: Juan Cole has picked up on Martini Republic's theory that blogs like Iraq the Model are the result of "astroturfing" (that is, the creation of fake grassroots) and that the perpetually grumpy Riverbend is in fact more representative of mainstream Iraqi opinion than the perpetual (and perpetually grateful) optimists at Iraq the Model.

The brothers who run Iraq the Model have become celebrities with the American right (pro-democracy activists in, say Uzbekistan, need not apply), and two of them got themselves a nice visit stateside, while Riverbend is still queueing 13 hours for gas.