Wild Bill Ralston - behind the bravado of TVNZ’s maverick

By Claire Trevett, This week’s bust-up between the TVNZ board, Ian Fraser has shone the spotlight - again - on Bill Ralston. Just before Fraser’s departure Claire Trevett spoke to Ralston about his career prospects.

The man who turned lunch interviews into an art form, because "you get so much more out of them over lunch", is not allowed to be interviewed over lunch.

"It’s his office," TVNZ’s publicist decrees.

Because, of course, Bill Ralston has become famous for his lunches and sometimes - most recently with Paul Holmes - they end up reported in the papers, with the amount of wine consumed, who signed for the bill, and who had to be carried out.

"I have wine," he says wistfully, wandering over to his fridge. "But wine’s for Fridays."

He offers water, and then forgets the publicists’ decree and agrees lunch would be nice for a follow-up interview.

Two days later we are at the Herne Bay house the head of TVNZ’s news and current affairs shares with wife, Sunday producer Janet Wilson, terrier Ralph, and, when they’re visiting, Jack, her 15-year-old son and Tessa, 13, and Tom, 17, children from his previous marriage.

Past the lopsided letterbox is a comfortable, lived-in renovated villa, with faded Persian rugs on the floorboards.

There are panini to be eaten, served up with a dirty tea towel because he can’t find the paper towels and "this could get messy".

Soon after that lunch, things did get messy but not quite the way he imagined.

This week, a fortnight after our interview, Ralston’s boss Ian Fraser quit after the TVNZ board suggested Fraser take over from Ralston the salary negotiations with its high profile presenters.

Fraser appointed Ralston in 2003, and spent much of the past couple of years defending him. In the end, defending Ralston was the sword he fell on.

Now Ralston’s biggest supporter has quit, and a new boss may not be so indulgent of the idiosyncrasies that have led to a raft of headlines and stories about the man known as Wild Bill Ralston, The Maverick and TVNZ’s bit of mongrel.

"Tea?" the bit of mongrel asks.

He holds aloft a silver jug that can be described only as dainty.

"Milk?"

"Yes, but from the bottle is fine."

"I was trying to be cool."

Outside, "you will see we are avid gardeners," he says, pointing to the weeds and dried plant arrangements in pots.

One might have thought Ralston would relish ripping living things out by the roots. It has been two and a half years since TVNZ hired him to slash and burn the newsroom.

Too fat, he cried, when he looked over the news structure. Too slow on its feet, too much reliance on personality, not enough ripper stories.

He put it on a diet to reduce $4.5 million from the $46 million budget and estimates he has managed to cut about $3 million so far, mainly by cutting staff - he thinks 30 to 40 in all, among them Richard Long, April Bruce, Jim Hickey and Mike Hosking.

But amid the outcry One News managed to rate ahead of TV3 in the key Auckland 25-54 age group demographic for 18 months, after four years of swapping first place "which made me very excited because it meant the changes were working".

However, for the past seven months, it hasn’t been that way.

The troubles date back to the Paul Holmes’ departure when Ralston and Fraser refused to bow to his contract demands.

Although viewers failed to follow Holmes to Prime, the incident triggered a disastrous chain of events.

The first was Judy Bailey’s $800,000 salary, given out of fear at the impact a complete collapse of the early evening line-up would have if Bailey left too. Second, Holmes’ departure prompted TV3 to start Campbell Live, drawing more Auckland viewers to watch 3 News.

Ralston still bridles at criticism of the Holmes episode.

"We got a lot of stick when Holmes walked out. In fact, just recently an opinion piece said what a disaster it was letting Paul Holmes go. And I thought, ‘So we should have paid him $1 million a year on a three-year contract, but we shouldn’t have paid Judy what we paid her?’

"When you get into that kind of ignorant and confused thinking, you get very angry."

Nationally, One News still has double the audience of TV3 and is a regular in the top three most-watched programmes, with an audience of more than 700,000, compared to TV3’s 350,000. Its national share is 53 per cent, while TV3’s has grown slightly from 22 to 26 per cent.

But since March, after which the changing fortunes of the networks became apparent, One News’ share of the Auckland 25-54 age group audience has gone from 41 per cent to 27 per cent in October. 3 News rose from 29 to 40 per cent.

Ralston’s counter-move was to launch the review which propelled him back into the news over the fact Bailey would no longer be reading it.

Behind the front lines there have been changes to the way the news is scripted and bulletins put together. There is more emphasis on reporters finding their own stories and maintaining control over the final outcome.

Ralston estimates he is about three-quarters of the way through his big changes and is determined to carry on.

"I mapped out a strategy before I came in so that the board and CEO of TVNZ knew exactly where I was coming from.

"After the first wave of change, we started getting a good audience response. I was worried we would run a real risk of destabilising the entire One News operation if we continued to make changes.

"There’s only so much people can absorb so I thought at the time it was best to put on hold those further changes. My mistake - if I made a mistake - was stopping after that first wave. If anything, I have done it too slowly. "

TVNZ has such vast resources, he says, that there is no excuse for being behind in any demographic, least of all one as commercially important as Auckland.

"We can go further, we can go harder, we can go deeper, we can go longer. And we will, and we’ll come back. We’ll find out next year. I know we’ve got an uphill battle, but I think during the course of next year we can win all that lost ground back, and more besides."

Much of the publicity garnered from his changes have concentrated on the presenters.

The latest is Susan Wood’s salary negotiations, which prompted the board’s suggestion that Fraser take over, the point at which he resigned.

Ralston says TVNZ focused heavily on its presenters as the selling point of a programme in the 1980s and 1990s. Now he believes they have had their day, and that viewers are more worried about what the presenters are serving up than who is serving it.

He warned earlier this year that presenters could not rely on their celebrity status to push up salaries. But every axing created another headline and an outcry as the familiar faces left.

Over in Canada, whenever Heaton Dyer is having a bad day, he clicks on a New Zealand newspaper website and searches under "Bill Ralston". Dyer, Ralston’s predecessor, invariably finds the results cheering.

He left the job claiming he didn’t have the stamina to make changes that might arrest TV3’s rise. He says he couldn’t handle the constant scrutiny.

"Some people thrive in that role. More often than not I took it too personally. Bill is clearly someone who has a stronger stamina for it and it does sit well with Bill’s personality. He’s certainly better equipped for it."

Ralston came to the job with a reputation for fearlessness. He was the archetypal hard newsman whose career highlights were being shot at a Soweto school during the rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa in 1986 and told he would not be welcome back by the Ministry of Information.

He was kicked out of Fiji for his reporting in 1990, and has been tear-gassed and batoned.

When Ralston was the editor of Metro magazine, he was banned from several top Auckland restaurants because of his reviews.

Which is surprising from the child born in Northcote before the Bridge was built, who was former head prefect of Northcote College "so I couldn’t be naughty", member of the first XV, and son of "an engineeringy type" who worked for the old Post and Telegraph.

At Auckland University, he studied politics and history, and met the likes of Murray McCully, Phil Goff and Helen Clark. He grew his hair long and got involved in anti-nuclear activities, "and that was as radical as I got". He says he was "politically all over the place, but more of the Labour persuasion".

In his career he was renowned for taking on authority - a series of gonzo stunts on TV3’s Nightline saw him eventually banned from Jim Bolger’s press conferences, the catalyst for which he thinks was "that I played shots of his Heartland Tour over the Ashburton School choir singing Nowhere Man".

His style draws flak - in March Ralston’s suggestion that "If I were [Prime CEO Chris Taylor], I’d be shooting myself. I’d be pouring petrol over myself and throwing myself off Auckland’s tallest building" was in line with Ralston the news man, but not the news manager.

Ralston’s tendency to speak the truth according to Ralston draws fire from Jim Tully, head of the Canterbury School of Journalism: "The biggest criticism I would make is that on occasion he’s been quoted as saying things in relation to individuals that I would have thought were inappropriate. It’s certainly kept TV One’s profile high but I think he’s spoken out of turn and [that] can be demeaning to some."

But no one can say they were not warned. Ralston was never a candidate for the invertebrates club and his ability to "head straight at the target," says Fraser, was one reason he got the job.

Another was because "he has journalism in his DNA".

"The real issue was whether you could somehow turn someone with all those characteristics into an administrator, a manager," Fraser said in an interview before his departure.

"The stuff about the petrol can and the wonderful view from the Auckland Harbour Bridge was not helpful and I told Bill so and he knows it. He is occasionally impulsive. Some of that just has to be accepted as coming with the territory. Bill is what he is, and if you attempted to de-nature him completely you wouldn’t succeed because he is a strong personality.

"Nor would you get the performance, commitment and courage he brings to the job. You’d make him like any other boring grey suit. So I haven’t attempted to do that. I have tried to make him less impulsive, more appropriate in a managerial role."

Ask Fraser why he defended the petrol comments at the time and he says: "because I do back him. He’s got to know he’s got my support. When the world and a thousand baying media hacks are yapping at his ankles, he needs to know that he has my support. He does and that support is unreserved.

"These are lonely jobs anyway and some of the decisions are really tough. It’s just inhuman to think you can make them on your own. It also helps that I like him."

Ralston says: "I don’t know why I do it that way. I always have. I should bland it out more. Do people want people to be dull and grey and boring and just talking in political-speak all the time? Or do they want something very clear?

"There is always the danger that you attract so much flak that it’s detrimental to your product. And you don’t want to do that, particularly as we are going through some difficult changes at the moment. Anything that attracts attention away from that, or causes further problems, you’d rather not do."

Ralston has an ego, "because everybody does. But I don’t think it’s the driving force behind everything I do."

What drives Ralston, says Janet Wilson, who has had 12 years of watching the wheels go around, is "ideology. It’s a lot about the white horses of journalism. Justice and right, ya-di-ya. All that boring stuff."

Ralston is not remotely sentimental, but he can’t be that tough. He listens to Wings and watches the History Channel. And TV One, "because I’m a classic One viewer really. I’m the right demographic".

He thinks "there are people who would like to see me ridden out of town". But he has every intention of beating them to it, soon after he’s proved them wrong.

"At some point I presume the challenge will evaporate and I’ll move on. I don’t see myself as a particularly time-serving individual who is here until I’m 65. I’m not going to put a time on it. It’s just that when it no longer is a challenge, you go out and look for a new one."

According to Fraser, speaking before his resignation, this was not Ralston signalling his imminent demise under pressure from above.

"If the work is done, I suppose there is a point when Bill, like any of us, will look at whether there is enough content in the job to justify sticking round. But those words are all Bill’s. There is no pressure on him. And I hope that time is a long, long way away."

Now, of course, there is pressure on him.

Even if Fraser’s successor proves as brave or foolish, depending how you view Ralston, as Fraser in his trust of Ralston, he may well go anyway, either a victim of the ratings or of his own impatience with boredom.

When he’s done with TVNZ, or it’s done with him, Ralston fantasises about buying the Green Vespa Bar next to the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.

But he thinks he’ll stick around in the media somewhere.

"I’ve got a number of alternatives and I’ll see what comes up at the time. But at 52 I’ll probably be looking for something else to do before I drop dead."

The hardened newsman hands over a photo on his desk. It is of the gravestone of New York Times and Bismarck Tribune reporter Mark Kellogg, a 19th-century version of the embedded journalist, "who fell here with General Custer June 25th 1876".

"I take that wherever I go. I always liked it because he got a scoop but he just went a little bit too far."

Then: "I worry that I’ve just given you a photo of Custer’s last stand. The number of metaphors you could run with that ... "

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