John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: Red faces due over Hobbit

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What is good for a heavily subsidised Wellington business is not necessarily good for New Zealand

'The Hobbit'. Photo / File
'The Hobbit'. Photo / File

There should be red faces about the media coverage of the 2010 Hobbit march.

The Government was forced to release documents this week that confirmed the emotional October 21 march through Wellington streets was based on a false premise.

You might remember the 2010 media coverage was a bit mad.

Some media depicted Warner Bros and Sir Peter Jackson as kindly Hobbits, working tirelessly to bring peace to the Shire.

Really, of course, it was about money, strategy and power.

Actors' Equity boss Simon Whipp was like Smaug the dragon - a snake-like figure, a furious Jackson warned the Government.

The atmosphere was volatile. People had strong views both ways.

Marching from Weta Workshop in Miramar and addressed by co-founder Sir Richard Taylor, about 1000 people were chanting, "Thank You PJ" and "Thank You Richard", waving placards about the perils of a union boycott.

Now, this week, 16 months later, the Ombudsman has forced the Government to reveal that boycott action had been lifted two days before the march had even begun.

It's true that some of the marchers worked at Weta Workshop, and might have marched out of solidarity with their employer even though they knew the dispute had been settled.

It is also true the Australian union that ran Actors' Equity - the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance - made no friends and mishandled the dispute.

But some media got overexcited about it being associated with The Hobbit and should have taken deep breaths. Bloggers with buddies in the self-employed industry were outraged that organised labour might be allowed in.

OLD SCHOOL

It was an old fashioned industrial fight.

Council of Trade Unions secretary Helen Kelly said most media in the country had been fair-minded. But she singled out media in Wellington for bias.

Kelly believes the pro-Jackson stance at the Dominion Post was because of views and interests of its Wellington readers.

Media can take that stance - it may be a reasonable approach. But it means we have to judge the Dominion Post reportage on the film industry from the perspective of being a cheerleader.

In my opinion what is good for a heavily subsidised Wellington business is not necessarily what is good for New Zealand, and what is good for Jackson is not necessarily good for all of the film and television industry.

The Hobbit was about more than money - it was a strategic push to keep unions out of the local film industry and was backed by New Zealand producers at the industry body Spada.

A Dominion Post editorial yesterday gave tacit support for laws being changed to keep The Hobbit, even while its value to taxpayers is in dispute.

According to the Dominion Post editorial: "The documents made it clear that Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, genuinely believed New Zealand was in danger of losing the production and as the people closest to Warner Bros it made sense for the Government to listen to their entreaties."

Elsewhere, and underpinning the financial row and Warner Bros achieving a change in the labour law to keep unions out, was a wider battle in the film industry to increase the autonomy of producers - like Jackson and Warner Bros - and further reduce the role of craft unions and guilds.

New Zealand film guilds always had a very flexible approach to filmmaking - that is why New Zealand appeals to Hollywood.

The danger of being flexible and doing what Hollywood says is that sometimes you can get bent out of shape.

Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney declined requests for comment about coverage and Taylor did not respond.

PICKING WINNERS

For a party that once insisted the state should stay out of picking winners, National politicians fancy themselves as dab hands at negotiating business deals.

The Hobbit emails show that while the Government depicted itself negotiating with Warner Bros, it was over a barrel and did what it was told.

To be fair, a Labour government would have not taken the risk either and given away extra money - that's the trouble when you get into bed with a big multinational.

It will be interesting to see what the Government does mid-year when it considers a review of its incentives for the film industry.

Like the Treasury in the past, officials at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment are believed to be sceptical about the value for money from the Large Budget Grant Scheme accessed by studios such as Warner Bros.

I hear Steven Joyce is one minister who is not convinced the film industry grants are great value for money. One question that could be asked is how much long-term employment and export income could be gained from subsidies of less photo-friendly industries such as dairy.

DEAL, NO DEAL

What is it with media and entertainment companies that means politicians love to get involved.

The other major issue recently was the Assistant Auditor General's report on the Government's deal allowing more pokies at SkyCity casino in return for a new convention centre.

I'm not convinced that Joyce has been a sap for SkyCity, but it does appear the Government has dealt Television New Zealand a very bad hand.

It has negotiated away key production facilities that TVNZ desperately does not want to sell.

No talks were held between the Government and TVNZ, which has been forced into talks with SkyCity.

Because its Government owners are desperately committed to the deal it has no leverage to secure the best price from SkyCity for the Hobson St land to compensate for the heavy costs of rehousing production facilities for its Maori and Pasifika unit and advertising studios. And there are worries the Government will impose an additional dividend to cover what it does raise.

BOARD MEETING

TVNZ chairman Wayne Walden has already established himself as a thoughtful and interested chairman.

Alas, while he sees its future as more nuanced than his predecessor Sir John Anderson, new legislation makes profits and marketing the dominant reason for its existence.

Walden inherited a state organisation that is once more dysfunctional, suffering from an exodus of senior executives and a controversial strategy for its news and current affairs illustrated by its championing of Seven Sharp.

The ship of state TV is being steered by chief executive Kevin Kenrick, a marketing man who also carries the title editor-in-chief.

The lack of leadership in TVNZ news and current affairs after an earlier exodus is also likely to come up for discussion.

GALLOWS HUMOUR

Gallows humour is common around newsrooms - and I won't try to justify it with the usual comment about letting off tension etc.

But I felt a bit queasy this week with the amount of Twitter activity about the shark attack victim at Muriwai.

Nobody forced me to look, of course, but I can't help thinking how someone would feel about these if they were involved in such a tragedy and happened to open one of these tweets.


What do you think? Have your say on this column in the comments.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

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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