John Drinnan

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

Chief's new vision for TVNZ

TVNZ's One News, here with newsreaders Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie, is an example of New Zealand's focus on a one-hour national news bulletin. Photo / Supplied
TVNZ's One News, here with newsreaders Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie, is an example of New Zealand's focus on a one-hour national news bulletin. Photo / Supplied

When the Herald revealed before Christmas Ross Dagan was the new head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, the common response was "Ross who?"

No TV journos in New Zealand had heard of the man given one of the top journalist roles.

The Sydney news boss for the third-ranked Aussie network was on the team led by New Zealander Trish Carter that launched one of the three hubs for Al Jazeera's English language global channel in Kuala Lumpur.

He is well regarded, with a profound sense of integrity, "thoughtful" and "conservative".

You would not describe his predecessor and fellow Aussie Anthony Flannery as conservative.

Flannery's era will be remembered as a time TVNZ removed the head of news and current affairs (honca) from the inner circle to focus on technology and marketing.

But what Flannery and Dagan do have in common is both have been plucked from relative obscurity to run the country's biggest newsroom.

In an interview this week Dagan revealed a refreshingly Kiwi streak of self-mockery Flannery never had.

After an exodus of senior staff in the news division and beyond, the good news for Dagan is that TVNZ finally has a full management crew and has a clean slate.

The bad news is the newsroom has been drifting rudderless for the past 12 months and there has been an exodus of talented staff who saw no succession planning or career path at the top of TVNZ news.

Ross Dagan grew up in Blackall, a small town 1000km west of Brisbane. Its claim to fame is that it is near the Black Stump - as in beyond the black stump - the apocryphal edge of the Aussie wilderness.

Growing up in the backblocks there was one TV channel - the state-owned ABC - with a public broadcasting approach to news and current affairs.

"I thought "that's a good job."

After studying journalism at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba he worked at Ten in Brisbane - which led that market - covering sports and presenting, before focusing on the future with an MBA from Gold Coast University.

"I decided a long time ago to stop scaring people as the oldest and ugliest person on TV and to focus on news leadership and management."

He worked with Ten Brisbane for two or three years then joined the start-up team for expanding Al Jazeera in Kuala Lumpur.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a new international news channel with money [backing it], working overseas in a multicultural newsroom," he says.

"Newsrooms in Australia are not all that multicultural and I wanted to work in an international environment," he says.

"Al Jazeera's approach was to tell stories no one else was telling which I found really interesting - you assume they are, but a lot of stories [are] not being told."

One News is not a 24 hour global news channel like Al Jazeera, or state-focused - rather, Dagan says, the focus in this country is a one-hour national bulletin that is all things to all people.

TVNZ news and current affairs has always been very commercial, more so under under a tough budgetary regime imposed by Rick Ellis.

Dagan insists commercial demands do not trump journalism values. "We can walk and talk at the same time. I have a personal integrity in [my] own life - as everybody does.

"Simply because we are commercial does not mean we can't hold on to that. We need to be honest and talk about circumstances where there can be a conflict."

The most public conflict this year has been with Mike Hosking, the fill-in host of Close Up, who forgot to mention he had a lucrative commercial relationship with SkyCity casino.

TVNZ banned Hosking from talking on Close Up about publicly listed SkyCity or gambling. It's an odd situation for a senior journalist.

"We are comfortable with the assurance he has given us and public does not seem to be concerned."

Should a journalist be able to have commercial arrangements like that?

"In a perfect world, no they would not - but we don't live in a perfect world. Mike Hosking only does one night a fortnight for us," Dagan says.

When commercial pressures have come crashing down on TVNZ news the marketing department will not be far behind.

That affects things such as presentation and the division between advertising and editorial content.

The most jarring example of that is with the consumer programme Fair Go, where staff were reminded they were reporting about important clients.

TVNZ marketers have been trying for years to wrest control of Fair Go away from the news division and its musty ethical considerations that annoy advertisers.

"It is logical for a marketing operation to support a news product - we just need to be sure the story comes first and the marketing and selling comes second," Dagan says.

Other shows are under pressure.

Close Up, which recently parted company with executive producer Mike Valintine, has been racked by internal tensions, though viewer numbers have held up.

Breakfast was a haven of tabloid TV when Paul Henry was on board.

But establishing a rapport between male hosts and Petra Bagust has proven difficult and audience numbers have slipped.

After the idea was publicly raised that Bagust be replaced - an idea she opposed - it seems the line-up of Bagust and Rawdon Christie is entrenched.

Dagan comes with a background in management and leadership and says the systems in place are good.

But he is a newsman as well and for viewers the test will not be in presentation and systems.

Dagan is easy company when interviewed in his office near the TVNZ newsroom. But he bristles slightly talking about the issue that has caused newsroom consternation.

TVNZ turned away internal applicants for the "honca" role and he is the second Australian import in a row for the top news job.

Dagan is qualified for the job but his appointment has led to gripes that TVNZ does not have a career structure for its own journalists. "Its an unfair assumption that as someone from Australia I am going to be a cardboard cut-out and think the way every Australian thinks - that is just not logical.

"I am not just an Aussie journo plonked in the middle of Auckland who has no sense of the world."

He says he cannot compete with local knowledge on news history over the past 30 years, but he has people who provide that background.

Insiders say TVNZ was looking for a manager and organiser rather than a newshound, which is not unusual in newsrooms nowadays

When Dagan was appointed senior news executives Cliff Joiner moved to Radio Live and Paul Patrick joined Flannery at Ten.

The lack of career options for internal staff was a factor in the defection of political editor Guyon Espiner to TV3.

Another senior executive, Richard Sutherland, defected to be second in charge at TV3 and it is expected he will eventually take over from Mark Jennings heading TV3 news and current affairs.

But TVNZ news sources say the exodus of senior people is no reflection on Dagan's skills.

Even Jennings says the dissatisfaction at TVNZ is not a reflection on Dagan.

Honca history

Paul Norris, Mid-1987 to December 1994

Foundation Honca in the new era of TVNZ as profit-oriented, state- owned enterprise. Returned from the BBC and introduced an Australian-style commercial news bulletin with opinionated current affairs in the form of Paul Holmes.

Shaun Brown, November 1994 to November 1997

Norris' understudy, ran the newsroom in a golden era when 3 News had not yet emerged as a serious threat. He was promoted to head TV One and wrote the ill-fated TVNZ charter but was ousted by the Labour Government who viewed him as too commercial.

Paul Cutler, November 1997 to April 2001

Brown's understudy maintained the commercial focus and continued influence of American consultants Magid. Blokey and steeped in commercial news, his was an era when celebrity culture was advanced.

He was also eased out by Labour and moved to a senior role at CNN.

Heaton Dyer, November 2001 to April 2003

Shortlived and personable Honca who struggled with the pressures of the job and introduced oddities such as having left-wing former MP Pam Corkery fronting a nightly news show. Dyer - who had worked in Australia and Canada - was deemed more interested in the ephemera of television design rather than the dynamics of a major news operation. He returned to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he is director of news programming strategy and innovation.

Bill Ralston, July 2003 to December 2007

Hired by Ian Fraser to provide "a bit of mongrel" to the news operation, Ralston's era was marked by gung-ho enthusiasm and personal grievance and legal cases. The Fraser era crashed and burned with Fraser at war with the board and Ralston was eased out.

Anthony Flannery, April 2007 to December 2011

Former executive producer of Channel Nine breakfast headed TVNZ news at a time when the news boss was removed from the inner circle of executives heading the company. Well regarded by bosses for delivering commercial shows on tightened budgets, he was also associated with scandals at TVNZ over its handling of the Tony Veitch case and loose oversight of Paul Henry on Breakfast.

- NZ Herald

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