Fraser quits TVNZ over 'meddling'

By Claire Trevett

Ian Fraser formally quit TVNZ yesterday after repeatedly telling the board to stop interfering in matters including the salary negotiations of its top presenters.

Mr Fraser, chief executive for the past 3 1/2 years, claimed he had no option other than to resign because of unacceptable interference by the politically appointed board.

In a statement he said he had lost confidence in the board, whose eight members have been appointed since Labour took office in 1999.

The Herald understands Mr Fraser, who has overseen turbulent times at the state broadcaster, had repeatedly told the board he was concerned it was pulling strings in areas beyond its brief.

He finally cracked on the second day of TVNZ's strategy session late last week between the board and management, when the board tried to insist he take over the salary negotiations of staff in the news and current affairs department who earned more than $300,000.

Mr Fraser refused, claiming that to do so would be interfering with the independence of head of news Bill Ralston, whom Mr Fraser trusted to negotiate properly. He said he refused to be put in a position of second-guessing him.

"I should make it clear that this is not about the TVNZ board losing confidence in its chief executive. It's about the fact that I have lost confidence in my board.

"The board of TVNZ is politically appointed. That makes it even more critical than it would be for a commercial board to stand well back from the day-to-day running of TVNZ, particularly our news and current affairs operation."

Mr Fraser, best-known as a veteran interviewer, was appointed in 2002 to oversee TVNZ's move from a profit-based state-owned enterprise to a Crown company operating under a charter.

In that time, there have been rows over the $800,000 salary paid to newsreader Judy Bailey, the loss of Paul Holmes to Prime and the exit of Richard Long and now Bailey.

Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey is to be given a full explanation of the situation from board chairman Craig Boyce.

Mr Boyce yesterday denied any board interference.

"The board is required under its terms of reference to approve salaries with a remuneration of over $300,000. So we obviously have to take an interest in the negotiations and what is happening in that area.

"Our view is that Ian as chief executive and editor-in-chief should be involved in those kind of discussions, appointments and negotiations.

"It is simply an expression of the board and if it has led to his concern then I am very disappointed.

"We have no involvement in day-to-day operations, apart for those with salaries over $300,000, which we have to take an interest in."

Mr Boyce noted that editorial independence was enshrined in the TVNZ Act and policy documents governing the board. The board had never broken that rule.

"I have never during my six-year period, including three as chairman, known of any directive from the Government in the area of news and current affairs, or from board to management. It is prohibited."

Mr Boyce said Mr Fraser had successfully managed TVNZ's transition from a wholly commercial model to public broadcaster.

He said he still did not fully understand Mr Fraser's concerns.

"I'm sure when I talk to Ian tomorrow it will be clearer."

National broadcasting spokeswoman Georgina te Heuheu said some hard questions needed to be asked of the board if there was even a suggestion it was acting beyond its powers.

"What needs to be asked is what level the interference is at and what was it."

She said it proved that Labour's "schizoid" attempt to include the charter with commercial imperatives would not work.

Mr Fraser said he had loved the job but "the situation facing me at the end of last week was one that would have prompted any chief executive to walk away".

His appointment to replace Rick Ellis coincided with the introduction of the charter and the setting up of TVNZ as a Crown-owned company.

He summed up his job as "deliver the charter, but don't screw the business".

Mr Fraser's resignation comes amid major changes in the news and current affairs department as TVNZ tries to regain One News viewers lost to TV3.

The ratings prompted a review of the news and current affairs department and the changes made, including the dumping of Bailey, fuelled rumours that the board was looking carefully at its chief executive.

A source close to the board said its members were split on Mr Fraser's effectiveness, but most supported him and the changes he had outlined to reverse the ratings problems.

Mr Fraser has offered to stay on until a replacement is found and Mr Boyce said his departure date would be worked out over the next few days.

Top contenders for the job inside TVNZ are chief operating and financial officer Rodney Parker and assistant chief executive and head of content, Stephen Smith.

A change at the top will put other management jobs under scrutiny.

The chief executive is responsible for senior management positions including head of programming Annemarie Duff, marketing general manager Sue Brewster, and Mr Ralston, who was appointed by Mr Fraser.

Mr Fraser has been resolute in his support of Mr Ralston and some wondered if a new boss would be as indulgent. Mr Ralston would not comment yesterday, but it is understood his job is safe for the time being.


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Who's who on the TVNZ board

Craig Boyce, chairman (Christchurch)

Appointed chairman by Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey in October 2002 following the resignation of Ross Armstrong. Chairman of Smiths City Group, having been its chief executive for 10 years. The Government refused his resignation last year, which he offered after the board signed off Judy Bailey's $800,000 salary.

Robert Fenwick, deputy chair (Auckland)

Robert Fenwick is an environmental businessman with a background in brand marketing, sustainable development and broadcasting. He is chairman of the Crown Research Institute, Landcare Research, a founding director of Living Earth and former chairman of Mai Media. He is in his second term.

Bryan Gould (Hamilton)

Bryan Gould was born and educated in New Zealand before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he gained a postgraduate law degree. Mr Gould was the vice-chancellor of Waikato University for 10 years. He has previously served in the British Labour shadow cabinet and spent a number of years in the British Foreign Office.

John Goulter (Paihia)

Appointed in June 2005. The former managing director of Auckland International Airport is chairman of the Lotteries Commission, a director of the Reserve Bank, Vector and United Carriers Group. He is understood to have an alliance with Ann Hercus, and they were not totally supportive of Fraser's management.

Dame Ann Hercus (Christchurch)

Dame Ann was Minister for Social Welfare, Police and Women's Affairs from 1984-87. From 1988-90 she was NZ Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of Mission for the United Nations Forces in Cyprus from 1998-99. The former Police Minister, who maintained links with the Labour Party, has said it is not appropriate for former politicians to head TVNZ. She also offered to resign after the board signed off Bailey's salary.

June McCabe (Auckland)

June McCabe has been on the board for two years. She is director of corporate affairs for Westpac New Zealand. She holds directorships including the board of NZ Venture Investment Fund and the General Church Trust.

Philip Melchior (Wanaka)

Phillip Melchior held senior positions with the Reuters Group PLC culminating in his appointment as managing director of Reuters Media. Also offered to resign over Bailey's salary.

Trish Stevenson (Wellington)

Trish Stevenson has worked in television, education, marketing and publishing. She is a former director of New Zealand On Air and a former manager of educational publisher Learning Media's international team.

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