John Drinnan 's Opinion

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Media: Who will become TVNZ's new boss?

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Lynley Marshall. Photo / Supplied
Lynley Marshall. Photo / Supplied

It could be another case of back to the future as Television New Zealand looks for a new chief executive.

A woman executive at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who almost took the top job in 2002 is in the running again.

TVNZ is keeping a tight wrap on the search to replace Rick Ellis, who has left to run digital media at Telstra in Australia.

But it is understood that Lynley Marshall, the director of commercial operations at the Australian public broadcaster, is among the contenders.

Marshall will tick many of the boxes for executive search company Heidrick & Struggles. A New Zealander who worked here in commercial media, she has played a key role in developing the ABC's digital strategy. Public broadcasting experience is not a stepping-stone to success, but Marshall has worked in the revenue-earning part of the organisation and headed commercial since 2007.

New Zealand media experience includes a period working at The Radio Network when it was headed by Joan Withers, who is now the deputy chairman of TVNZ and some believe will be appointed chairman when Sir John Anderson ends his term shortly.

Marshall did not return calls.

In an unusual move last September Fisher & Paykel Appliances appointed the Australian public servant as a director, a role that would give her an introduction to New Zealand's business world. Marshall's name has been mentioned for previous vacancies to the TVNZ top post.

Sources say that in 2002 - when her curriculum vitae was less impressive - then chairman Ross Armstrong surprisingly selected an underqualified Marshall to replace Rick Ellis in his first stint as CEO when he was eased out by Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, who thought that he was too commercial. But at the last minute the appointment came unstuck, ostensibly over small details of Marshall's remuneration package.

TV sources say the state broadcaster had to deliver compensation to the ABC executive and Armstrong later appointed Ian Fraser to the chief executive role. Fraser subsequently fell out with the Government and Ellis was returned in what was the first back to the future appointment. Now it appears Marshall is once again a contender to replace Ellis as the head of state-owned New Zealand television.

The shortlist has not been named but internal candidates are likely to include deputy CEO Rodney Parker and the brusquely efficient head of sales and marketing, Paul Maher, who is credited with a big role in TVNZ taking a larger share of television advertising revenue.

Sales and marketing is one area of stability at TVNZ, which is changing chairman, has no CEO, lost its head of programming, Jane Wilson, is waiting for a new head of news and current affairs to start and has no political editor in the Parliamentary Press Gallery since Guyon Espiner defected to TV3 late last year.

DAMAGE UNCONTROLLED

New Zealand On Air chairman Neil Walter says debate over the Bryan Bruce child poverty documentary "has done some damage to NZ On Air's image".

But he seems to regard controversy as all but over. He does not see a problem having senior National Party northern region deputy chairman Stephen McElrea as a gatekeeper for public service documentaries about health, education, whanau ora and one other unspecified project. They have been allocated $1.1 million of public cash.

That is significant with McElrea tipped as a contender to replace Walter in April.

The broadcasting funding agency caught flak from media and some members of the public who criticised its stiff reproach of TV3 for running the documentary four days out from the election claiming it hurt NZ On Air's reputation for political neutrality.

McElrea is a senior player in the National Party and chairman of Prime Minister John Key's Helensville electorate committee.

Defenders of Bruce would have been furious if there was a conservative view on the causes of poverty right before the election. Maybe we are just getting too fired up about reflecting strong views when expressing opinions before an election.

But NZ On Air giving a special role to a party political official over political documentaries seems wilfully complacent about the perception of bias and the potential to influence proposals that seek public cash.

Details of the initial stoush over the timing were revealed in this column on December 16. The report included McElrea's role overseeing four documentaries given $1.1 million of public money.

There has been no suggestion of any political interference in the development of the project, which involves some of New Zealand's best documentary makers. Walter said NZ On Air would be "reviewing our handling of the child poverty to assess whether we could or should have done better".

NZ On Air sought legal advice on whether it could legally specify when programmes are shown - an approach some see as censorship and some see as valid given the amount of cash it gives the TV networks.

In any case, the idea has been abandoned. "The opinion made it clear that this option would create difficulties, and so we did not pursue it," Walter said.

"I regret that NZ On Air's political neutrality has been called into question by some commentators. I also regret that one board member has been singled out for criticism. His role in the matter has, in my view, been misrepresented.

"No action taken by any board member has contravened any of the principles of good governance."

WELLINGTON MALAISE

In my opinion it is bad governance and it may be due to a Wellington malaise and a view that media is no different from any other product and does not require special care. It's not just about independence, it is about the perception of independence.

It is understood that John Key played a significant role in his Helensville electorate chairman being appointed in 2009.

In yesterday's Herald he supported McElrea's role. All members of NZ On Air are politically appointed and some will have party political affiliations. Close friends of former Prime Minister Helen Clark sat on the board in the past and some on the present board are Labour appointees.

But McElrea is not only a former TVNZ executive - he is a senior player in the governing party during what many expect will be a contentious term - particularly in the relationship between the Government and the media.

That does not mean he cannot serve on a media funding agency.

But he should not have additional input into a public service documentary series.

Why are any board members involved in programmes? McElrea sits on the subcommittee with fellow board member Nicole Hoey, television manager Glenn Usmar and TV3 executive Sue Woodfield.

Walter said: "The board expects that all members will put any political or other affiliations aside when they participate in a board meeting. There is often lengthy debate and discussion of the proposals. Almost all our decisions are taken by consensus. We also pay a lot of attention to identifying and managing any conflicts of interest that might occur in relation to any specific subject or proposal. If I had had any concerns on that score I would certainly have taken action to correct the situation."

GOBSMACKED

TV3 journalists are said to be "gobsmacked" over the resignation of veteran news editor Mike Brockie.

Staff say his resignation came out of the blue with news boss Mark Jennings - a longtime colleague - away on holiday. Brockie has been in charge of the day-to-day operation of the newsroom and his departure will mean a big hole for TV3.

The timing may be annoying for Cliff Joiner, a senior news executive who recently resigned from TVNZ after missing out on the top news and current affairs job. Joiner started recently as producer for RadioLive breakfast host Marcus Lush but he formerly worked in a senior role at the TV3 newsroom.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

John Drinnan is the Media writer for the New Zealand Herald.

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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