Hard News by Russell Brown


Two media industry types have put it to me this week that commentators like myself must be loving all the current media argy-bargy. Well, yes. Grist to the mill and all that. But for anyone with a memory, it ought to seem that the Judy Bailey salary row seems to have attracted a degree of controversy beyond its significance.

The union says that its members at TVNZ are "furious" at Bailey's pay rise. I imagine they might be. But if you have a visceral objection to star salaries, television probably isn't the right business for you. I don't think even Andrew Little believed himself when he declared that "if one person is worth a 77 per cent pay rise, then everybody is."

On the other hand, if Ann Hercus did go freelance to the government with the news of the deal, it's hard to see how she can remain on the board. But is the same government that took receipt of the information, and decided to leak it before the Opposition got to it, going to dismiss the leaker? It is quite bizarre …

Anyway, earlier this year in The Listener, Gordon Campbell told the story of the real outbreak of excess - the one that took place in 1993, 1994 and 1995, when TVNZ inexplicably failed to re-register under the Companies Act. That meant it didn't report on salaries - and that records of how and why pay packets fattened apparently simply do not exist. During that period, salaries - and not just amongst presenters - went through the roof:

The point being: the salaries paid to top presenters at TVNZ have come under fire from all quarters in recent years, most notably from then-TVNZ board chairman Ross Armstrong. Certainly, presenter salaries did rise sharply during the 1990s, despite the fact that New Zealand's television "market" for their wares has only two major players. Far less attention has been paid to the interplay between presenter salaries and top executive salaries.

At the very least, according to TVNZ sources, the presenter salaries served to validate the pay rises that were taking place concurrently among the executives. Around the world, this was a period when massive pay packets were almost de rigueur, serving as self-validating symbols of potency for the senior executive class. Although neither simple nor direct, a linkage does seem to have existed. After all, TVNZ itself told Parliament in 2001 (see supplementary question 10, TVNZ Financial Review 1999/2000) that "internal relativity" was one of the main factors guiding how the company's Remuneration Committee did its job.

After TVNZ got back on the books in 1996, everyone knew who the individual in the top salary bracket was: Paul Holmes. And Holmes certainly isn't holding back now. His rant on Newstalk ZB yesterday - about the "hostile environment", "culture of disloyalty in management" and "deeply unpleasant culture" at TVNZ, about how Judy Bailey must (really?) be insulted at the way that "Ralston's out there trying to get the great John Campbell every five minutes" - was both informative and all-too-telling as regards the conflict that led to Holmes himself departing.

It also tends to bear out my impression yesterday that the risk for TVNZ management was not that Bailey might go to the competition, but that she might just walk away altogether. Holmes may well be right in claiming that TVNZ management blew the negotiations with Bailey and left her with too much power to bargain, way too late in the piece.

For Holmes, it is simply the natural order of things that "personality is everything in broadcasting". Yet without his towering personality, the 7pm slot on One hasn't exactly fallen into the abyss. In key respects it is better than Holmes was, and it might be better yet if Susan Wood could be dissuaded from suggesting how we might wish to feel about everything it screens.

Holmes might end up having to eat his words if the audience does not follow him to Prime - not because his personality is not as compelling as it used to be, but for more prosaic reasons: because Prime won't have a proper 6pm news show to deliver the audience, or because the more mature target audience can't find Prime on their remotes or won't get UHF aerials.

TV3, meanwhile, is proceeding quite happily. It has secured the services of the man most people think is the strongest contender for current affairs stardom, it is free of the wearisome accountability issues that beset a public sector broadcaster - has anyone even asked what John Campbell's being paid? - and it is happily developing programmes with the country's most accomplished drama producer, which can't even get in the door at TVNZ, such are the politics. So yes, I'm picking TV3 to prosper from it all.

Bart Janssen had some comment on the CJR essay on science, fact and the media I pointed to yesterday:

For me as a scientist and in particular as a plant molecular biologist it's been very hard watching the media over the past few years. We so often see equal weight given to the opinions of people with years of expertise and knowledge in their field and people with no knowledge to back up their opinions.

For any given topic, and molecular biology is only the topic that I'm most familiar with, there exists a real continuum of knowledge and understanding. From genuine experts, through people who have read New Scientist to get an overview, through to people whose knowledge comes from what was said over lunch in SPQR.

What I took some time to get used to was that journalists seemed to be uninterested in finding out the "truth" and then communicating that to their interested audience. Instead they seemed to look for an exciting headline and appear to be unconcerned about the quality of the source of that headline.

I guess a part of me wants to believe that journalists really feel some responsibility to communicating the "truth" to their audience. Which makes reading the newspaper sometimes a real heartache. Intellectually I know some/most journalists are just doing a job and go home at night not caring. But emotionally I want to believe that jounalists feel responsible to the society they inform and hence want to get it right.

As the essay you pointed us to shows, there are some of those journalists out there - do you think $800k per year might get a few of them to New Zealand?

And Andy, a lawyer, was justifiably unimpressed with Helen Clark's comment that "every possible opportunity to litigate around [the Zaoui case] has been taken" - those pesky lawyers, huh? The government is bringing forward plans to amend the parts of the Immigration Act relevant to the Zaoui case:

This of itself is not so surprising, and we'll have to wait and see what is proposed before making comment.

However when Winston Peters says the whole Zaoui affair reeks of Lawyers sucking at the teat of the state, or words to that effect, I can easily dismiss that as predictable moronic comment. But when Helen Clark implies something very similar when asked about whether she thought lawyers had prolonged the situation and said, well yes lawyers will litigate, I find myself very, very concerned.

But for the amazing work on the part of Zaoui's lawyers he would be still languishing somewhere on remand in prison, very possibly still in solitary confinement or worse "outskied" by now to hell knows where.

But more importantly, you would expect nothing less of his legal team: that is what we lawyers do, indeed that is what we are obligated to do. It's our job. Its called being an advocate.This is how sophisticated democracies with proper legal systems are run.

If someone was lying in hospital on their death bed and a possible operation may give them some respite you wouldn't expect that persons doctor to go, well it might work but it might not so oh well to save money we'll flag it this time.

I am stating the obvious here, but Helen Clark needs at times to be more aware of what I thought were basic Labour principles, and further, be prepared to speak out in support of them. I feel much more comfortable with the Green Party's position on matters such as this these days I have to say.

It would be fair to say that the Labour government is lately rather stronger on human rights in other places than it is here. And the parties to the right of it sometimes give the impression they'd like to live somewhere where there is no principle in law that can't simply be rolled over by a government. Malaysia, perhaps.

Some of the same issues perhaps surround the proposed new law on prisoner compensation - which Don Brash (sounding very much like he was channelling Murray McCully) claimed, somewhat inevitably, on Morning Report today don't go far enough. Phil Goff apparently explained himself in response, but Sean Plunket was shouting at him at the time, so it was hard to tell. Who gets to transcribe that one?