Fresh from the Paul Henry fiasco, Television New Zealand has stumbled into another case of current affairs gone bad.

TVNZ is considering five formal complaints against Paul Holmes covering the Hobbit dispute on TV One show Q&A on Labour weekend.

Holmes appeared agitated on Q&A and his comments in other media showed strident opinions about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.

A fortnight after Henry's resignation and a review on live broadcasts, TVNZ let Holmes wade into the Hobbit dispute.

Interviewing Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly and South Pacific Pictures managing director John Barnett, Holmes gave fawning praise to Sir Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor and put Kelly in her place.

"You see, I think the impression people have, Helen, is you're well out of your depth. When Jackson calls you clueless and tells you to go home - this is a New Zealand-produced genius, the like of which we'll never see again."

On Newstalk ZB, Holmes let loose on Actors' Equity union leader Simon Whipp, whom he called "a dick".

The same day as the Q&A interview, producers could have read Holmes' column in the Herald on Sunday. Holmes - who had played a hobbit in The Lord of the Rings - was emotionally involved.

"Man I'm angry. Angry that a group of gullible actors allowed themselves to be used by some bolshie left-wing filth from Australia," Holmes wrote.

Following the argument of Jackson and the Screen Production and Development Association (Spada) - dutifully repeated by some media - the production industry may have behaved impeccably through the dispute. There is no question Actors' Equity made a hash of the dispute.

There is no guarantee the complaints will be upheld. But the Q&A item raises questions about how some TVNZ news programmes are being managed.

You'd think a current affairs show like Q&A , which is 100 per cent funded by the taxpayer, would not allow its impartiality to be undermined.

Kelly said that neither she nor the CTU are among complainants but she was concerned by Holmes' motivations.

Q&A producer Tim Watkin - a big fan of The Lord of the Rings - provided a commentary on Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch about how difficult it was for journalists to cover the dispute.


The screen production industry holds its annual conference in Auckland next week. Organisers at Spada are conducting a post-mortem about issues that led to The Hobbit production being kept in New Zealand.

The campaign against a boycott by Actors' Equity squeezed an extra $33 million for Warner Bros and delivered Jackson and local producers astonishing political concessions with a new law that, in theory, limits the ability of contractors to claim they are effectively employees.

Labour law spokesman Charles Chauvel - who as a lawyer played a part in the Bryson dispute that underlies it - says Spada was wrong to believe the issue clear-cut, and that the hastily drafted law passed week has several problems.

The dispute - a battle for the union to gain influence in the industry, and industry attempts to keep them out - got ugly.

The Spada conference starts next Thursday and the first session examines the impact of the Hobbit case - "what really happened, from a producer's perspective".

Spada executive director Penelope Borland says the session will be explaining the chain of events that led to securing The Hobbit.

But it's clear the debate will be controlled by Spada. Borland will be on the panel alongside Hobbit assistant producer Philippa Boyens and Spada executive member Richard Fletcher.

Like Actors' Equity with its actors, Spada represents a minority of the production industry and even within the industry there are critics of the settlement and Spada's role.

It is not just producers who will attend the pow-wow but it would be a brave person who would stand up in the session and question Spada's handling of the issue or Spada's past approaches to dealing with industry guilds.

There is a case for Spada's position - that union influence should be minimised. Actors' Equity's handling of the dispute gives credence to that view. But the industry also came across as union-bashers.


Dominic Sheehan was a former president of the Writers' Guild and worked there for seven years. He said the guild wanted to talk about a minimum pay agreement back in 1999. "Like Equity, we had only been looking for a meeting but the initial response was met with incredible aggression."

The industry is producer-run, which is not unusual. But Spada has a history of rejecting overtures and in New Zealand we have no bottom line. The Spada attitude was they wanted a non-union industry and would do anything to stop minimum terms.


Media covering the Hobbit fiasco commonly described taxpayer incentives to Hollywood as "tax breaks" or "tax rebates".

In fact, the Large Budget Screen Production Grant is a 15 per cent direct rebate on money spent here - and not linked to the tax system.

One film industry source was sceptical about the payback to New Zealand taxpayers from the enlarged production grant available to Warner Bros.

Based on the production spend and additional money allocated, the source said Warner might be expected to receive roughly $100 million.

Estimates on the value of the Hobbit to New Zealand's economy are difficult to assess. But on the rather generous estimate that the two movies will create the equivalent of 1000 full-time jobs for three years, those jobs would cost New Zealand $100,000 each to subsidise.

That figure excludes the economic impact from activity created by the production and the intangible impacts on tourism.


Spada executive director Penelope Borland criticised the Herald's coverage of the Hobbit saga.

This column sought clarification about the seminar and its value debating the issues. When I pointed out that there might be differing views about Spada's handling of the dispute Borland said: "Look, can you get down off your high horse and let me explain what the f*** this is about. Can you just shut up," she said.

She did not appreciate being "provoked" by the Herald.

"The Herald has run a bloody line about this all along. They have been pro anything that the actors had said and not the producers."

Borland said there needed to be some analysis of what had occurred and that would be available at the conference.


There are rumblings on the Radio New Zealand board of governors over Simon Mercep being appointed co-presenter for Morning Report - the job Sean Plunket held for nearly 14 years.

It's not Mercep himself - though his softly, softly style is so much like Geoff Robinson's that some staff assume Robinson will retire soon and RNZ will look for another hard-nosed interrogator.

But at least one of the National-appointed directors is said to be furious Mercep was announcing his new job to TVNZ colleagues before the board had been told.

Then RNZ announced the appointment at 4pm on Tuesday - in the run-up to the Melbourne Cup, when it was assured of limited publicity.

With RNZ facing Government pressure to change its ways and stay within budgets, chief executive Peter Cavanagh has been coy about sharing operational information and resisted requests to know who was on the short list.

There was a promise that board members would be told 24 hours ahead of the announcement, but Cavanagh was away and that never happened.