By JULIE MIDDLETON and SCOTT MACLEOD
The question, from one of the assembled Television New Zealand staff, was inevitable: why should Bill Ralston be trusted to lead news and current affairs at the state broadcaster when all he had done in the past was bag it?
Because that's what journalists do, Ralston, 49, replied. The question, and its brisk answer, came as he addressed staff in TVNZ's Auckland offices yesterday, promising them more fun, more risks and "no more boring stories".
Taking another dig, this time at the other state broadcaster, National Radio, he said he did not want TVNZ news to be "Morning Report with pictures".
Ralston says what he thinks, often bluntly, and his targets have often enough been TVNZ, its associates or its plans.
Now he is up against a fractious workplace which appears at times to be struggling to get to grips with what the Government's pro-public-service charter means, and where past news bosses such as Bruce Crossan, Paul Norris, Shaun Brown and Paul Cutler were routinely demonised.
But at least those with a penchant for challenging their heads of news know exactly what Ralston thinks in advance; there has invariably been someone around to report it.
When his TV One arts-based chat show Backch@t was axed in late 2000 in favour of more broad-based arts shows, he claimed he had become the first casualty in the relationship between a commercially driven broadcaster and Government ministers pushing a public-service agenda.
"The feedback I got from TVNZ," said Ralston at the time, "is they thought it was too Wellington arts scene ... too close to politicians and politics.
"Television and also the arts has become a very political issue under this Government ... It's been naturally a political issue anyway.
"Helen Clark and Marian Hobbs' support of the programme was a bit of a kiss of death."
At other times he was just a bemused conduit for criticism. In May 2001, in an interview with Ralston for the Independent, the then TVNZ board chairman, Ross Armstrong, foolishly described the juxtaposition of the departure of senior news executive Paul Cutler with the review going on into TVNZ's future role as "a change made in heaven" and a "dream scenario".
TVNZ journalists threw a collective hissy fit. Ralston said at the time that he could not understand what all the fuss was about: "If you ask me, as an independent observer caught in the middle of this firestorm, I think there has been an hysterical overreaction, particularly from some elements of Television New Zealand."
Ralston has never been backward about coming forward and was one of the people behind the ill-fated BlackHeart campaign, which bagged the Swiss team Alinghi's New Zealand sailors Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth during this year's America's Cup series.
In July 2000, he was at the centre of a TVNZ investigation into a scrap at a lavish Saatchi & Saatchi fundraiser at Eden Park, where he was alleged to have punched guests. Police were called to sort out the incident at the $330-a-head quiz event attended by 640 people, many from the media and the advertising industry.
A witness told the Herald she saw Ralston punch two men in an apparently unprovoked attack. Another source said Ralston had been "tired and emotional" and obnoxious for much of the evening.
It is understood that Ralston, a broadcasting contemporary of TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser, will have to give up his palette of other regular media activities for the news job.
Editor of Metro magazine from 1997 to 2000, he has been writing for the Independent business weekly and the Sunday News; he has also been hosting Radio Pacific talkback from 10am until 1pm on weekdays.
In a tidy little tie-up, his wife, Janet Wilson, has been hosting Pacific from 9am to 10am and, according to the station's programme director, Chris Gregory, she will take over his timeslot "for the time being".
Ralston will be settling into a seat left vacant when Heaton Dyer, citing a desire to get a life, left in March.
Ralston, who was born and reared in Auckland, once described himself as "the smartarse at the back of the class" who loved to write.
While he was still at primary school, a teacher suggested he would make a good writer. But getting a break took some time. Ralston was rejected by both the Herald and the now-defunct Auckland Star for a cadetship, and spurned by Radio New Zealand after a voice test.
During the mid-1970s, while at the University of Auckland, he wrote for the irreverent student newspaper Craccum.
Ralston went on to gain a bachelor of arts degree and most of a master's in political studies and history before landing a cadet job at South Pacific Television in 1979.
While in the parliamentary press gallery for television, he covered the fall of Sir Robert Muldoon's Government and the strife in the Labour Government of 1984-90.
During the mid-1980s, he also served as a foreign correspondent for TV One, reporting from Indonesia, South Africa, China, the Philippines and Europe.
In 1988 and 1989, he worked for the TV One current affairs programme Frontline, the predecessor to Assignment.
In 1989, he became political editor at TV3 and reported for 3 News.
During a five-year stint at TV3, he presented the current affairs segment of 3 News and his own weekly chat show, The Ralston Group.
But his not talking after confirmation that he had applied for the TVNZ head of news job turned into rampant rumours last month that he had landed it.
Fraser tried to shut down the gossip, saying more than 10 people had applied and that he was not going to be rushed into a decision. As chief executive, he had good reason to try to slow things: last year another of his appointments, that of head of programming, turned messy when TV3 founder Tom Parkinson declined the post, citing media badgering.
"I'm aware of the melee that has formed around Bill," said Fraser two weeks ago, "and I find that regrettable because it puts pressure on him and on us that we can do without. After a lifetime working in this business, I still don't know how these cases of mob hysteria evolve - I suspect from some sort of hothouse rumour."
At Radio Pacific, producer Bryan Staff was frustrated at Ralston's refusal to confess. "If you ask him directly," Staff complained, "he just grins inanely at you."
Ralston, uncomfortable on the other side of journalists' notebooks and possibly finding lying low out of character, also got annoyed: "Listen mate, I'm not commenting on any gossip, rumour, speculation and innuendo," he told a Herald reporter two weeks ago. "It's been really nice talking to you and I'm going quietly to bugger off now. I feel like a bloody politician."
In the hot seat at TVNZ, Ralston will need every ounce of his political nous.
By JULIE MIDDLETON and SCOTT MACLEOD