Fran O'Sullivan

Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to journalism and business

The Government should "put a price on a vibrant democracy" and back the New Zealand media so it remains a vigorous watchdog against the abuse of power, says veteran journalist Fran O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan, NZME's editorial director of business and a Herald columnist for 21 years, was today appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Twice named Journalist of the Year, O'Sullivan says the media's role has never been more critical.

"It's more important than ever before that journalism does what it should and holds the powerful to account, in particular in business and government, where they do have the ability to strongly influence New Zealand and people's livelihoods," says O'Sullivan, who was honoured for services to journalism and business.

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The media played a key part during her career in reining in New Zealand's "Wild West" share market, which "thrived on insider trading" and had few rules about takeovers.

"It had a big role in exposing the nefarious activities of quite powerful players, advocated for change and applauding change when it happened," she said.

And with media business models under pressure, O'Sullivan said governments had a responsibility in addressing how journalism was funded.

"That doesn't mean the Government should step in and run media, but you could also set up a public-private partnership in some of these areas where contribution is made in the same way it's made to creative arts and looking at the value that we place on media in society and making sure that it is held up because it is absolutely essential when you look at what is happening internationally with foreign interference in elections and so forth," she said.

Public entities such as the New Zealand Super Fund and ACC could also take a stake in media companies to ensure they were locally owned.

"We've got to have media that acts in New Zealand's interests and that's got to be brought to the fore and it would be great to have a government that valued that."

The Government also needed to follow the Australian competition regulator's recommendations to rein in companies such as Facebook and Google, which had "undue commercial influence" in New Zealand.

Born in Blenheim, O'Sullivan undertook business studies at Victoria University of Wellington and started her career as a radio journalist in the parliamentary press gallery.

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She edited the National Business Review in the mid-1990s and was Herald Assistant Editor from 2001-2005.

In a career of stories, one of her most memorable was the Air New Zealand collapse in 2001 where she led an award-winning Herald team: "That was sustained daily journalism at its best."

O'Sullivan was attracted to the profession in the first place because it offered the ability to make a difference.

"I tend to be a little bit activist in my approach and I've been at various times a strong campaigning journalist, particularly through the 80s and 90s. I do see journalism about having the ability to shine a light on things that need to be addressed."

As well, O'Sullivan has been instrumental in creating significant platforms to improve New Zealand's relationships and links with major trading partners.

She was a founding director of the New Zealand Apec CEO Summit board, which sought to leverage opportunities for local business from the 1999 Auckland forum. O'Sullivan was also a founding director and a vice-president of the United States New Zealand Council, whose advisory board she now chairs.

She also sits on the New Zealand China Council advisory board.

With a trade war erupting between the US and China, O'Sullivan said it was essential New Zealand acted as a bridge between them to ensure the multilateral trading system endured.

"New Zealand's role to be an interlocutor is going to be quite important ... to ensure that debate is happening and relationships can remain as good as they can be and that includes business as well."

There was danger in backing one side. "China, for instance, is our major trading partner, why would you turn your back on that? At the same time, the US is also a strong player, a strong defence ally over many years and a guarantor of security in the region.

"I think it's important we play with a straight bat ... call out behaviour we don't like, but that we're not ridiculously aggressive about it either. We paid a huge price for the Anzus debacle of the 80s, there needs to be some lessons from that - we need to box very carefully, but with integrity, with both players.

"I don't see any reason why we can't."