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HARD NEWS 01/06/01 - All About Me

Approved: hardnews.kiwifruit
ubject: HARD NEWS 01/06/01 - All About Me

HARD NEWS is first broadcast in Auckland on 95bFM around 9.30am on Fridays and replayed around 5.15pm Friday and 10am Sunday on The Culture Bunker. You can listen to 95bFM live on the Internet. Point your web browser to http://www.95bfm.co.nz. You will need an MP3 player. Currently New Zealand is 12 hours ahead of GMT.

HARD NEWS is also available in MP3 form from http://mp3.net.nz and in text form at http://www.scoop.co.nz. You can subscribe to the 95bFM Hard News mailing list at http://www.95bfm.com/hardnews.php and in Scoop’s My Scoop service.


GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... my story will shock and horrify New Zealand. When I get my day in court the public will finally hear the terrible truth about the cruel things that have been said about me and done to me by people who can't handle the way I wear 'Other radio stations are shit' t-shirts and grow sideburns south of my earlobes. And most of all, they'll hear about me, me, me.

Yes, whatever the merits of Work and Income CEO Christine Rankin's personal grievance, you can't deny her remarkable ability to make it all about her. Having won the right this week to have her case heard in the Employment Court, she has loudly promised a very public potboiler. We'll see.

For the government, this week's decision is cruelly ironic. Not only will Rankin's claim become a test case for the Employment Relations Act - which appears to make it a bit more difficult to avoid renewing fixed-term contracts - it will be heard in the Employment Court, which Labour and the Alliance have long defended from claims of undue activism.

Rankin will point out that she exceeded all her targets in areas like job placements. Then again, we are enjoying the lowest unemployment rates in 13 years. You would expect a few more placements when regional economies are growing at up to 4%. I confess I don't know exactly what some of the other targets - 80% "customer satisfaction" for example - mean, nor exactly who set them - but met them she has.

Yet I am struck by the contrast with 1999, when student loans and a string of other cock-ups were all somebody else's fault. And when Rankin's blame-laying for the jet junket fiasco attracted a personal grievance - and attendant financial settlement with the wronged staff member.

And I am further struck by some of the things the judge said in his decision this week. Apparently it's my fault. Well, me and everybody else who ever uttered a word of criticism of Rankin's executive style. Rankin's case, according to the judge was that the State Services Commissioner has been unduly influenced by comments not only from ministers, but from MPs in Opposition in 1999 and from people who aren't MPs at all. Bearing in mind that Rankin has this year also threatened to sue Green MP Sue Bradford for passing comment on her ability, I'm tempted to wonder: whither free speech?

Anyway, so I was in Wellington sorting out my own new gig last week and didn't report on the Budget. Just as Bill English called it a year ago, there wasn't enough money for health and there never will be. If that issue is likely to run and run, then the Budget itself already seems like a long time ago.

Especially for the Alliance, which was able to negotiate no more than a fudge from its senior partner as regards the exact extent of the paid parental leave to be introduced next April. Sure, Jim Anderton got more money for his pet regional development projects - and however ideologically unfashionable they are, they will probably pay off. It's just that nobody sees them as an Alliance idea.

And so we are beginning to see a new, less compliant Alliance. A frankly odd proposal by the Prime Minister to spend $4 million on medals for everyone who has ever served in a war for New Zealand rightly got the raspberry this week.

Of rather more substance was the refusal to rubber-stamp Marion Hobbs' proposal to split TVNZ in two. One half would contain what are effectively TVNZ's wholesale businesses: its transmission arm, BCL, the outside broadcast unit Moving Pictures, and TVNZ Satellite Services. That would be another SOE: tasked with making money and delivering its shareholder a dividend.

The other half would be the TVNZ that the rest of us see, which would be relieved of the prime directive of an SOE - to make money - and would instead become a crown entity. It would still be expected to turn a profit, but that goal would be balanced with a mission to more in line with that of a public broadcaster.

The idea has made for some odd bedfellows in Parliament. The Greens have declared themselves implacably opposed to the split, parroting the National Party's line that it would mean TVNZ going "cap in hand to the government" and lead to political interference in the public broadcaster.

These are handy clichŽs, but they don't really wash. TVNZ's current structure has never prevented political interference. The whole style of state television has been shaped by a decade of instruction from National governments that TVNZ run down programme costs and maximise revenue in preparation for sale. Now a new government is interfering it back a bit the other way.

So will Rick Ellis be reduced to begging missions to Parliament so Mike Hosking can have a new set of golf clubs? Hardly. Two thirds of TVNZ's annual revenue of more than $400 million comes from advertising on it TV One and TV2. Even if its charter responsibilities undercut that revenue, it will still make a profit. Yes, free-to-air ad revenue is on the slide everywhere, but that's a separate issue.

And why aren't National and the Greens in a similar state of upset about Radio New Zealand - which depends on the government for its entire budget? Surely there is vile and wicked political interference there? Well, no, not really.

But RNZ isn't an SOE. As Honest John Campbell pointed out in an impassioned rant on the radio recently, TVNZ's SOE status surely militates against any social goals. How can the government hope to have TVNZ do the right thing when rule number one of the legislation that shapes it is "make money"? This is Hobb's argument for the split, and it makes sense.

The Greens - and possibly the Alliance - are also opposing the split because it would make it easier for a future right-wing government to sell off the SOE part. Act is supporting it for that very reason, and it is likely that the Labour right wouldn't mind a little trade sale one day either. National MPs, of course, have conveniently forgotten they ever even dreamed of selling anything ever.

Yet even this would not necessarily be a disaster. The BCL equivalents in Australia and the UK have been sold in recent years, leaving their treasuries enriched and their public broadcasters unmolested. It's actually positively unusual for a public broadcaster to bother owning a transmission network.

But, wait, as they say on state TV at some times of the day: there's more. Somebody has to decide what TVNZ will do about digital TV. Chairman Ross Armstrong recently indicated that he was leaning towards simply supplying TV One and TV2 to Sky Digital on a free-to-air basis. Brilliant. Problem solved. Not.

How does one get a digital decoder? One pays money to Sky. And who owns the decoder? Sky does. What happens when one stops paying money to Sky? One is required to hand back the decoder. So, no digital TV One and TV2 unless you pay Sky. That seems like a pretty funny sort of "free" to me.

The vision being advanced by TVNZ and its new digital pal Telstra Saturn is one in which you and I buy and own set-top boxes or approved digital-ready TVs, possibly at something of a subsidy. We can then receive the services of our choice via our own equipment.

There's a bit more technical detail than that, and quite possibly some fairly bold regulation required, but it does sound more appealing than Uncle Rupert owning your television.

The proposed split does not preclude that future - but it does make it less likely. I have another reason not to split: that much of what I like about TVNZ - the skilled practioners, the fine engineers, the centres of excellence - would go west with the new SOE.

What it comes down to is that it's not TVNZ that's broken, it's the SOE legislation. TVNZ is struggling to convince the government of that - and it struggles in part because of its own flawed behaviour. The handling of the Cutler affair spoke of self-interested management and political connivance. And, just to remind you that this is the same broadcaster that brought you 'You Be the Judge', there's Holmes.

It is very difficult to see Holmes' recent ACC story as conduct becoming of a responsible public broadcaster. A scenario that would probably have been rejected as too tasteless for an episode of Frontline began thus:

A counsellor contracted by ACC to assess some of its most sensitive claims - rape, incest, sexual abuse - got a virus on the PC in her home office. She took it to her local PC shop to be put right, warning the repairman that it contained very sensitive files. She also asked if, while the machine was in, she could get some more storage space. So the man in the shop replaced her hard drive with a larger one. He then onsold the old drive - without first wiping the data.

The drive came into the possession of a man in New Plymouth, who contacted the Holmes show. Now, would you, if you discovered you had accidentally been given some deeply private files that belonged to someone else, contact the Holmes show? Me neither.

Holmes then dispatched reporter Julie Roberts, who not only granted herself the right to read the deeply private files of two women, but to track down those two highly vulnerable women and confront them with the awful truth. Or, perhaps, a version of the truth.

One of the women subsequently told National Radio's Kim Hill that she was never told the story of the hard drive, or of her counsellor's involvement. She said she was given the impression that this was some awful, systemic failure on the part of big, bad ACC and urged to speak out for the sake of all the other women at risk. She was assured that her anonymity would be preserved.

Holmes viewers could also have been forgiven for thinking that this was some callous, careless corporate evil. Much loaded, torrid language had passed before we were told what had actually happened.

Even then, we were left with the strong impression that this was some ACC employee who had been taking home files - when in fact the counselor was no more an employee of ACC than your local GP works for the hospital board. We weren't told, either, that the counsellor was a nun. This would presumably have spoiled the story.

Meanwhile, all hell was beginning to break loose around the women, who had given emotional, disturbing interviews to Roberts. Holmes' effort at disguising them had been cursory - no voice alteration, the bottom halves of their faces unmasked. Friends and family immediately recognised them. This, remember, was an incest case.

By the following evening, Holmes was in full damage-control mode, trying to spin the whole thing as some sort of public service item about safe data disposal.

Or, rather, the show was. Paul Holmes himself behaved like a sullen schoolboy, snapping impatiently at Gillian Reid from the Computer Society, and glumly relating a list of all the people who had refused to talk to him over the issue. Given that talking would have implied trust, who would? I was actually aapproached for help myself, with my computer guy hat on. I said I didn't do emotional pornography, thanks.

Viewers of the follow-up show were told that on being contacted in the morning, one woman said she didn't regret speaking, but that she was sorry her counsellor's name had been dragged through the mud - suggesting that she still didn't understand exactly what had happened.

Or perhaps we just didn't hear everything she had to say. Her fellow victim told Hill that when Julie Roberts called back she had said she was devastated and felt she had been taken for a fool and that she was deeply sorry for the counsellor, who she was still seeing. Holmes told us that she had "no further comment".

Meanwhile, much silliness was underway on Paul Holmes' other platform, Newstalk ZB. Holmes went into a bizarre rant attacking National Radio and Kim Hill, a transcript of which was duly - not to say amusingly - read out by Hill on her own show.

Holmes' ZB drivetime chum Larry Williams stuck up for him, declaring that the women knew what they were doing. But as fate would have it, the lawyer for one of the women was a friend of Williams and urged him to speak to her. On the following day, Williams spent five minutes taking back everything he'd said. We can only imagine how many toys were thrown out of the cot on that day.

But this isn't actually funny. It's deeply disturbing. Holmes and its reporter have created emotional carnage and simply walked away. We still don't know who actually has editorial responsibility for what happed.

There was a call here for a properly handled story about the disposal of data on discarded equipment. There was no call for what actually took place.

Somebody is going to have to take a deep breath and look at what's going down here - especially if next week's Broadcasting Standards Authority decision on Holmes' Rich Poole fiasco goes against the broadcaster. It may just have all gone too far.

Still, as the Holmes team quail before the twin threats of public disdain and mediocre ratings - in Auckland and 18-39 anyway - they can console themselves with this thought: at least they're not as bad as The Panel - G'bye!

ENDS

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