He may have industry experience, but is it appropriate for National Party member Stephen McElrea to sit on the board of NZ On Air?
Stephen McElrea would have made an unlikely figure of political controversy in his days as a young, apolitical zoology student in the 1960s.
But his career path took a sharp u-turn after he took an interest in drama, which lead to a career first in broadcasting, then in business. Along the way McElrea became an active member of the National Party, and by the last election the stage was set for accusations of meddling and political interference.
In November McElrea, a NZ On Air board member, voiced concerns about the timing of a NZ On Air-funded documentary on child poverty that was screened on TV3 four days before the election.
McElrea, 61, is also the chairman of Prime Minister John Key's Helensville electorate committee and one of the regional deputy chairmen of the party's northern region. He is highly regarded in the electorate, and when the National-led Government appointed him to the board for a three-year term in December 2009, Key is understood to have been one of his loudest cheerleaders.
Prompted by McElrea's concerns, NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson wrote to TV3 owner MediaWorks, saying she was "deeply disappointed" by the timing.
At a board meeting in December, NZ On Air decided to seek legal advice on whether it could prevent broadcasters from screening politically sensitive material close to an election, though this raised questions about censorship and has since been abandoned.
But questions still linger, including McElrea's suitability to lead a NZ On Air working group that acts as a gatekeeper for public service documentaries, while some in the entertainment industry have even called for his resignation.
Speculation has also arisen that he will seek the NZ On Air chair when the incumbent's term expires at the end of this month.
Friends and former colleagues describe McElrea as personable and with a good sense of humour. But is he, as Key said this week, properly qualified to sit on the board?
Born and bred in Dunedin, McElrea studied zoology at Otago University but then moved to Wellington to attend drama school.
He moved into theatre, a harsh introduction that saw him involved in productions where cast and crew often outnumbered the audience, before joining the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.
He cut his teeth as a director and producer on soap opera Close to Home, and then moved to his best known project, Country GP. He produced 66 episodes of the show over 18 months. In the mid-1980s, McElrea worked for the BBC in Britain on a Commonwealth Relations Trust Scholarship.
Around the same time, he joined the National Party, as the country was undergoing major economic upheaval under a Labour Government.
On his return to the state broadcaster, renamed Television NZ, he took charge of special interest programmes - a large department that oversaw Country Calendar, Fair Go, and religious and Maori programmes among others.
He was also station manager in Christchurch for several years before moving to Auckland in the 1990s to manage TVNZ's coverage of the America's Cup.
He left broadcasting in 1997 to establish a marketing consultancy business in Auckland, while also diving into several investment companies that owned a hotel and property developments in Central Otago in the winery haven of Gibbston Valley.
Today he is listed as a shareholder or director of several companies including Brunswick, Bella Alpha, Shellwood and publishing company Polar Publications. There is little public information on what the other companies do, and McElrea, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, did not want to shed any light on them.
For the past few years he has been a corporate broker for LINK, an outfit that specialises in selling businesses.
Some in the TV industry describe his producing days as competent, without setting the broadcasting world alight. Others say he was a TVNZ executive without ever reaching the upper echelons.
None of the several veteran broadcasters spoken to by the Weekend Herald said McElrea never mixed his work and his politics. Some were even surprised to know he was a National supporter.
Shortland Street director Wayne Tourell, 70, who worked with him on Country GP, says he is a "damn good producer, a brilliant broadcaster". And he has business acumen, making him ideal for NZ On Air.
"He knows how to spend the dollar wisely, the value of a good programme, and that's an invaluable contribution to NZ On Air."
Michael Stedman, managing director at Dunedin-based Natural History New Zealand, agreed.
"The hard thing for NZ On Air is to find people who have credible experience but who aren't in the industry, because then you really get self-interest. And New Zealand is such a small pool. Most people with good experience are still working in the industry.
"He's got a good mind, very direct, and he was someone I enjoyed working with."
Stedman was the director of production when McElrea was station manager in Christchurch. "He has a good pedigree in production, and his knowledge and understanding of story and content is very good."
But regardless of his credentials, McElrea's letter to the top brass at NZ On Air was seen as overstepping the mark.
Janette Howe, acting executive director of Screen Directors Guild NZ, said he had created uncertainty over future funding.
"Some members believe that McElrea should resign now that he has shown such a lack of judgement over this issue.
"Programme makers are worried that their proposals will now be assessed in terms of a perceived political influence rather than simply on the merit of the project."
Screen Production and Development Association chief executive Penelope Borland called for bipartisan board appointments.
Independent film-maker Tony Hiles, who was at NZBC in the 1970s, did not want to comment on McElrea's broadcasting talent.
"But I think he made a very silly mistake by opening his mouth about the documentary. He made a fool of himself, and [that has led] to a feeling that some questions ought to be asked about who should be on what boards."
The comments were not a great example of the maturity that the board chair would need, he said.
"He showed political colours ... It didn't show great intelligence to make that statement when it's clearly known that he's one of John Key's boys. He shot himself in the foot."
Stephen McElrea: The facts
Family: Married with one son, lives on the North Shore.
Early years: Born in Dunedin, a zoology major at Otago University. Attended drama school in Wellington.
Work: More than 20 years at the state broadcaster as director, producer, administrator; 15 years as a business consultant; company director; investor; NZ On Air board member.
Politics: Joined the National Party in the mid-1980s; electorate chair in Helensville, deputy chair of the northern region.