John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: Teapot fiasco back on boil

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John Banks and John Key's chat was said to be confidential despite the invited media presence. Photo / Dean Purcell
John Banks and John Key's chat was said to be confidential despite the invited media presence. Photo / Dean Purcell

Prime Minister John Key's teapot fiasco is back on the boil as police prepare to set out their findings in the investigation of freelance photographer Bradley Ambrose.

Police national headquarters spokesman Grant Ogilvie said an announcement would be made soon.

The detective in charge of the highly political case, Detective Senior Sergeant Kevin Hooper of Glen Innes CIB, has been away overseas and Ogilvie could not give a timeline.

Meanwhile, the state's other crackdown on Ambrose - an attempt by the Crown Law Office to recover $14,000 of its costs in a preliminary case hearing - is also brewing.

The claim was lodged before Christmas and is still before the courts. But it is understood there have been discussions behind the scenes to resolve the dispute over claims that Ambrose should compensate Crown prosecutors for a court action to have the PM's claims rejected.

Ambrose's lawyer, Ron Mansfield, expected an announcement in the next few days.

Winding back to the heady days of the teapot tapes provides a reminder of the heavily manipulated media coverage of the Epsom electorate.

It's also a reminder of the Government's astonishing strategy in attacking media in the days before the election, pouring cold water on Key's previously warm media relations - which have never quite recovered.

AUTHORITARIAN STREAK

The taped conversation between John Key and John Banks became a centrepiece of the election campaign.

Key lodged a complaint with police about Ambrose and the tape and that set the investigation in train, leading to search warrants being served to the Herald on Sunday newspaper and TV3.

Subsequent leaks on the internet have shown the conversation to be innocuous.

The episode has drawn fierce debate, and many of the public's opinions have been based on party political views or their attitude to the press.

The debate has focused on Ambrose's intent. He has insisted the recording of the conversation on a tape left on the table at a Newmarket cafe was accidental.

Elsewhere, the debate has been over whether the Prime Minister can claim privacy protection for a very public conversation on a point of public interest.

The conversation was part of a publicity stunt held in the glare of a media who were nevertheless not allowed to overhear the chatter.

For some media the PM's approach to police signalled an authoritarian streak in the Government at the same time as it considers changes to oversight of media through a Law Commission discussion.

Meanwhile, police spokesman Ogilvie said officers were ploughing through 23 referrals relating to the Electoral Act and breaches of advertising and promotional rules.

The highest-profile case, of course, relates to MediaWorks and the Prime Minister's Hour on September 30. Some will question the delay in the Electoral Commission considering the complaint.

Others will question whether media could and should be restricted from giving airtime to politicians at election time.

FRIENDLY GHOST

TVNZ 7 is not even gone yet, but the ghost of public television is already haunting Television New Zealand studios and the Beehive.

It is understood there have been proposals lodged as a backstop for the Government if it changes its mind on the need for a public TV channel.

But in National - apart from a few MPs who miss appearances on Back Benches - there is no love lost for public TV. Even the faintest hope of a resurrection for TVNZ 7 has been out of the question for Finance Minister Bill English, says a source familiar with Government thinking.

A television industry source said a suggestion doing the rounds would have seen the public broadcaster receive bulk funding from the Government for a minimum of three years, starting at $12 million per annum, using money ring-fenced from the sale of the radio spectrum.

The suggestion was that existing broadcasters - say TVNZ and Sky TV - could provide services free of charge, such as distribution, satellite links, playout, archival access and a defined amount of cross promotion on TVNZ and SKY channels.

There would be no sports or news but some current affairs and more overseas content than TVNZ 7.

Both TVNZ and Sky TV have said they are not involved in any such proposals, though Sky's John Fellet said if a public channel like the discontinued Stratos was available he would consider having it on the platform.

Another source said the notion of taking money from the frequencies sell-off made sense since it was available only because free broadcasters had vacated spectrum.

The suggestion would have been presented as an option if the Government were changing its mind on its rejection of public television because of public opposition.

But the ghost of public broadcasting is not frightening anybody in the Beehive.

STILL LOOKING

It has been three weeks since Neil Walter stepped down as chairman of the broadcasting funding agency New Zealand On Air, and with each passing day it is less likely that Key's electorate chairman, Stephen McElrea, will step into the post.

Television producer Nicole Hoey took over when Walter retired on February 29, and it seemed that McElrea - a senior player in the National Party - had the thumbs up.

However McElrea's criticising the TV3 Bryan Bruce documentary meant his appointment as chairman would be controversial because of his political connections.

Instead the Government harked back to traditions and planned to appointed a diplomat - former Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade boss Simon Murdoch - to the media funding role.

Alas Murdoch withdrew and the Government is back looking for a replacement.

McElrea - who was very keen on the chairman's job and who in some ways is well-qualified - was no longer part of Government thinking, a source said.

AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE

Leadership posts are vacant in other parts of the media world.

Infratil's Kevin Kenrick is being suggested for the long-running vacancy to replace Rick Ellis as chief executive of TVNZ, raising the question: How long will ambitious head of sales and marketing Paul Maher hang about if he does not get the top job?

Aussie import and TVNZ head of news and current affairs Ross Dagan takes over the disarray in the news department next month, with suggestions he has been looking around the Aussie networks to fill several gaps left by Kiwis who have exited TVNZ because there is no career structure for New Zealand staff.

Meanwhile, the Radio Network, owner of Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport among other stations, is looking for a replacement for John McElhinney, who left at the end of last year.

UNCONVENTIONAL

One of the interesting aspects of the Government negotiations with SkyCity and the inclusion of TVNZ land in proposals for a new convention centre has been the fact that the Government and Ministry of Economic Development has not consulted with the broadcaster about the cost of any land deal and the loss of its creative hub.

The Government says TVNZ is free to negotiate, but practically speaking TVNZ will have no choice but to sell if the Sky proposal is agreed, and is on the back foot in negotiating.

It seems, ahem, unconventional.

Details have been sought on the MED officials who are negotiating a deal in which the Government is balancing SkyCity claims for regulatory relief in return for its wholly funding the $350 million convention centre.

Government politicians will at least be able to judge SkyCity's unquestioned skill at running conventions and functions, having held the past two election-night National Party celebrations at SkyCity.

Both the National Party and SkyCity confirmed that the terms for the election-night functions were charged on a commercial basis.

- 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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