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HARD NEWS 29/7/01 - The Ultimate Fashion Victim

Approved: kiwifruit
Subject: HARD NEWS 29/7/01 - The Ultimate Fashion Victim

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... Most of the court cases we televise just aren't that interesting as news television. Seriously, when was the last time you saw an Employment Court case on TV? But this one, with spin doctors shadowing both sides and the plaintiff giving a virtuoso performance as herself, is almost constructed for broadcast.

For print journalists, it has written itself. I don't recall ever seeing stories so stuffed with quotes. National even woke up and made Parliament sort of interesting by shouting about it. Wellington, according to dispatches from the front line, is absolutely seized by it.

Yes, it is Rankin versus the Crown, now showing at the Employment Court. Most of the week was taken up with the case from the plaintiff - or perhaps that should be the victim.

The court heard reports of a lurid array of symptoms as a result of Rankin's troubled meetings with her bosses. She felt "extremely distressed ... alone and afraid ... victimised ... intimidated ... shocked ... shaken ... frightened ...physically sick" and so on. And on.

For goodness sake, she's CEO of a huge government department and she's earning a quarter of a million dollars a year. Unlike many of the women her department serves, she had choices. If she felt she had lost the confidence of her employer she had two options: deal with it, or walk.

Rankin also made an amazingly crass comparison between her luxury charter flight debacle and the Cave Creek disaster, claiming that there had been less fuss over the deaths of more than a dozen young people than over her splurge, for which she had "paid in so many ways". Apart from the fact that this simply isn't true, I couldn't help but think that this was an individual short on a sense of proportion and very, very long on self-pity.

This is not to say that anyone else appears to have performed terribly well. Some of the most tasty material for the media came from her testimony on a conversation she had with the head of the Prime Minister's Department Mark Prebble, after Prebble had asked whether they could speak frankly and confidentially.

She said Prebble had offered advice on toning it down, telling her that she was damned by her charisma, that in Darwinian terms her earrings were a sexual come-on and the amount of leg she showed was an "absolute distraction" to officials. He also said it made him very uncomfortable that he could distinguish her breast when she moved.

Was this Naked Ape stuff just naked sexual harassment? Or does a male executive have the right to express personal discomfort at what he considers the inappropriate work attire of a female colleague?

It might be easier if there was a male equivalent to short skirts and tight, zip-front dresses, but there isn't. On dress convention, you could go back to Bob Moody at the Police Association - but I don't think anybody could argue his kaftan was overly sexually assertive. I dunno, a codpiece maybe?

Rankin also spilled on conversations with State Services Commissioner, Michael Wintringham, claiming he had told her she was a "star" and promising her eight years at WINZ before being elevated to an even more senior position in the public service. She also said he'd promised to take her to lunch if she slipped away to a job in Australia. There wouldn't be anything in it, he apparently said, because he was celibate. She spat out the word.

Wintringham, in his turn on the stand, flatly denied promising Rankin automatic re-appointment. He painted a picture of a brittle, needy, self-obsessed executive who occupied more of his time than the other 35 public sector CEOs put together. The last government had been concerned by her performance and the current one just wanted her gone. Having originally seen great potential in Rankin, he came to the conclusion that she lacked the sophistication to do the job.

If Wintringham was not guilty of writing cheques he couldn't cash, the same could not be said of Social services minister Steve Maharey. Indeed, his behaviour seemed driven by embarrassment that he could not deliver in government on his chest-beating in Opposition.

Concern for his own image so long as Rankin remained is perhaps understandable. Nutting off in front of someone you're trying to ease out of a job is just stupid. And sexist? I'm not so sure.

The court heard that Maharey had once, in Opposition, described Rankin as dressing like a cocktail waitress, with earrings longer than her skirt. He was hardly the first and by no means the last to pass that kind of comment.

Indeed, media coverage of the action in court has focused on her clothes to the virtual exclusion of the actual issue in law. TV3 News had a fashion editor analysing the sexual symbolism of her zip-fronted dress. What was not on offer was much useful analysis of what the issue actually was. Or - and I'd like to have seen this - some vox pops from Rankin's clients on how they felt about the glamourpuss CEO.

Behind Maharey, the leadership appears to have been irritated by Rankin to the point that it lost all composure. Rankin was on a fixed-term contract which expired this year. Even under the Employment Relations Act, it was not compelled to re-appoint her. And yet it conducted an unconvincing merger of two agencies that seemed to be solely motivated by the desire to get rid of her.

Personally, I do not give a toss about Christine Rankin's dress sense and I never have. If pressed, I'd have to say I find it a bit tacky - sort of divorcees night at the local Harlequin. But it's not important to me and I struggle to understand why it was so important to her, and why any suggestion to tone it down was so considered so foul.

When was the last time you saw a leading male CEO, public or private, in anything other than a suit and tie? For better or worse, however dull and suffocating, there is a uniform. You deal with it or you do something else.

The fact is that a great many news stories about the running of her department in the past three years have in fact been stories about her short skirts and big earrings.

Let's step back exactly one year, to when Maharey released his response to the Hunn Report - an investigation into the first 18 months of WINZ's existence, and of Rankin's term.

Former State Services Commissioner Don Hunn found that WINZ had a serious credibility problem, both with Parliament and the public. Questions over governance across the public sector - an election issue in 1999 - still lingered.

The published report was hardly unfair to Rankin. Indeed, it was far milder than the draft version, which was changed after her objections to assertions that WINZ had an inward focus and lacked an understanding of the public service ethic; and to assertions or implications that Winz was an organisation without a brain; that it was authoritarian; that the management team was short on public service experience; that staff reported a climate of fear that regarded criticism as disloyal; and that she herself did not fit with a desired public servant profile.

Meanwhile, State Services minister Trevor Mallard promised a return to "a culture of service" in the public sector and Maharey responded to the report with a new policy of regionalisation and devolution for WINZ.

Yet, as Colin Jackson noted that week in a New Zealand Herald column, all the headlines had focused on Rankin and her personal style. Changes which would actually have an impact on the lives of beneficiaries - sorry, WINZ customers - were but a footnote in most reports.

And, having been frequently asked by her employer to pull her head in and lower her media profile, she went and organised herself a Holmes interview - a trick she repeated this year with the Sunday Star Times. It would be easy for an employer to see this as delinquent behaviour.

Rankin's personal style became a dominant media issue, to the detriment of the department she was running. You might argue that that shouldn't have been the case, but given that it was, could she not make the choice between her duty to the public and her goddamn dress sense?

In fact, by her own testimony, she did make that decision - and the earrings won. "I was willing to change anything apart from myself and the way I was," she told the Crown's lawyer Alan Galbraith. "I wasn't prepared to change the way I looked."

So that's it: the only kind of victim that Christine Rankin has been is a fashion victim.

I confess, I prefer my senior civil servants the old-fashioned way: self-effacing, dutiful and, where appropriate, visionary. Like Rankin's predecessor and mentor, George Hickton, who has provided bold, effective and transforming leadership at Income Support, the TAB and, currently, the Tourism Board. Most of us wouldn't even recognise him in a photograph.

It is a tradition as old as governance in New Zealand. Take Charles Lemon, who became head of the Telegraph Department late last century and served for 25 years during which our national and international infrastructure was created. His vision was based in a deep knowledge of and love for his work.

I fear it's that kind of person missing from the future of public television. The decision was finally made this week. Rather than being split away from TVNZ, wholesale units such as BCL will be accommodated in its new identity as a Crown Owned Company.

On balance, this is the right call. But where is the love? Marion Hobbs has never really said anything that indicates any deep affection for broadcasting or an understanding of its future. And Ross Armstrong even less so.

What there is call for here is a gifted broadcasting practioner - not a businessperson or politician - who gets it. TVNZ needs reform, but the danger here is that will be reformed on the assumptions of last century and not this one. Bandwidth is not scarce any more and that changes everything.

It appears that TVNZ's second digital plan is headed for the can now too. My understanding is that its existing channels will be offered to Sky which will broadcast them unencrypted so any compliant decoder will be able to receive them. I wouldn't trust a simple business agreement to make that one stick.

Anyway, letter of the month was surely that of former National Party candidate and now Internet entrepreneur Shane Frith, on Monday's herald. Quite right, Shane. What the hell kind of justice system gives a school bus driver a few weeks PD for selling pot to children - but throws the book if a pill should be sold to a consenting adult?

Anyway, that's more than enough of all that. I'm looking forward to two things: Margaret Bazley's testimony for the Crown next week - and Oonst Oonst Oonst Oonst this very evening. I can reveal with some trepidation that I have agreed to be part of the entertainment. See you in the royal box, then - G'bye!

ENDS


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