Once upon a time Duncan Garner and Kris Faafoi were junior reporters at TVNZ.

Both went on to greater things. Garner joined TV3 where he became political editor, then a radio host and is now anchoring Three’s AM Show.

Faafoi left TV behind for a political career with the Labour Party, rose through the ranks, and is currently Minister for Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media.

Garner once wrote about Faafoi in a column for Newshub – MediaWorks’ overarching news brand.

“We’ve worked in newsrooms together, had a few beers together, watched live music together and basically know each other pretty well, well enough to attend his dad’s funeral a number of years ago.”

Fast forward to last week when Garner used his programme as a platform for a very strange outburst in which he accused Faafoi of bending the rules for TVNZ and begged his former colleague to save his and other reporters’ jobs at Three.

He seemed personally wounded by the news that the Government has accepted TVNZ’s recommendation that it skip paying dividends in the near future because, like all local media, it’s struggling to compete with the likes of Netflix, Facebook and Google.

MediaWorks sees this as the Government aiding TVNZ’s “uncommercial behaviour” and allowing “the uneven playing field” of the local TV market to continue.

It has long held the view TVNZ gets away with overpaying for programmes (outbidding Three in the process) and is inefficient because the government doesn’t hold it to account.

Garner qualified his comments with “this isn’t bitterness or sour grapes.”

But it was cry baby stuff – something Garner is hardly known for as he came from the ranks of hardened political reporters and was among the toughest of his era.

What prompted it? Is the axe hovering over his and other news shows at Three? Probably.

MediaWorks’ executives have made several trips to the Beehive and put their case to Faafoi and, separately, to Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Newsroom understands that as well as pushing to have TVNZ 1 turned into a non-commercial station, which would put about $300 million more into the available advertising market, MediaWorks asked the Government to fund Newshub. In other words, It wanted its news programmes paid for by the taxpayer.

Not surprisingly, the Government declined. Had it said yes, its door would have been beaten down by Stuff and most other news media as they rushed in for a hand-out.

Peters and co. would also be cognisant that MediaWorks is owned by an American-based private equity fund and is constantly for sale.

Public pressure

Maybe Garner was acting independently and suddenly had a fit of desperation, but that is unlikely.

His “scripted” plea looked well planned. The studio director dimmed the lights as Garner suggested his employer might have to shut up shop.

The same day, his boss Hal Crawford, Newshub’s Chief News Officer, published an emotional editorial on Newshub’s website.

First, Crawford got stuck into TVNZ and railed at how it was able to escape commercial reality.

“While their revenue stalls, they are increasing their costs.

“They are still selling advertising in a putatively open market and commanding a higher rate than their competitors.

“Next year on their own forecast, TVNZ will lose $17m. And while they are losing this money, they will be taking a disproportionate amount of Government funding from New Zealand On Air.

“In terms of local content quotas or adherence to a charter, they are sweet as. They have no quotas and no charter.”

Crawford’s rant revealed the pressure he is clearly under as MediaWorks’ television business continues to lose money despite its recent increase in audience share.

“I’m angry that my newsroom, Newshub, is part of a business struggling to keep its head above such polluted waters.

“I’ll be damned if I lay off one more person or say “no” to one more important assignment without expressing it: TV in New Zealand is broken. And it could have a big impact on news in this country.”

Also on the same day as the Garner and Crawford outbursts, website the Spinoff ran a story written by its managing editor, Duncan Greive.

Greive appeared to play a key part in MediaWorks PR onslaught. His story was based around an interview with MediaWorks CEO, Michael Anderson and contemplated the end of Three.

Anderson was on message, positioning TVNZ as the evil empire.

“They are as aggressive as any competitor I’ve ever worked against,” he says. “That goes from poaching your key talent, to outbidding you on content to doing whatever it takes to win.”

MediaWorks’ executives and its high profile journalist Paddy Gower began tweeting and posting links to the story.

On air, the PR campaign moved into overdrive.

Garner, not sated with his own utterances on the situation, interviewed economist Shamubeel Equab about Anderson’s comments in the Spinoff. Equab is his own man, but his views coincide with MediaWorks executives. He gave Garner the answer Newshub was looking for. “There is a very strong case for Government to intervene in the media market, mainly around the broadcasting side…..”

Later on the AM show, Greive joined a panel discussing the issue and talk host Sean Plunket also drank the Kool-aid.

Plunket used his slot on MediaWorks-owned station Magic Talk to push the company line.

MediaWorks is quite entitled to give its views on government policy, it is after all a private company, but using its own journalists ,on its own platforms, to attack a competitor feels like a misstep. It’s the sort of thing the Rupert Murdoch-owned media does in Australia when it attacks the ABC, or others, to further its own commercial interests.

TVNZ has little opportunity to put its side of the story. It can’t ask its journalists or hosts to counter MediaWorks’ claims.

If it did, it could point out that MediaWorks has been undercapitalised or debt-ridden for much of its 30-year history. In an interview with RNZ, media academic Peter Thompson adroitly pointed out that just after the GFC, MediaWorks was carrying nearly $700 million in debt.

Dubious management has also cost the company dearly at times. When the current owners, Oaktree, put the company into receivership so they could get out of onerous contracts with various Hollywood studios they also lost the network’s most important programme at the time – Home and Away.

Not only did the Australian soap provide a lead-in that allowed Three’s 6pm news to compete with 1news, it was also one of the network’s few profitable programmes due to the attractive demographics of its audience.

Since losing Home and Away the company has spent millions on trying programme after programme in the vital 5.30 pm slot. Nothing has worked and TVNZ has held the early evening ascendancy ever since.

TVNZ could also point to the millions MediaWorks has lost and continues to lose with its 7pm programme, The Project. The high cost, Australian-franchised show is well produced but because it is only half an hour in duration (as opposed to an hour) it will never be profitable or cost effective in the small New Zealand market.

Yes, it is a nice bridge between news and the entertainment programmes that follow it but if it wasn’t for Anderson and Crawford’s emotional attachment to the programme it would surely be gone.

MediaWorks’ PR guru Charlotte McLauchlan will probably be pleased the way other media have picked up on the lines that Garner, Crawford and Anderson have been running, but the campaign is unlikely to have any impact on Faafoi or the Government.

While Faafoi is a rising star in cabinet, he is still a relatively junior minister. He is sure to have consulted Finance Minister Grant Robertson and possibly Winston Peters before waiving TVNZ’s dividend obligation.

Faafoi well understands the problems currently facing MediaWorks and the news media generally. He made it very clear to media bosses, including Crawford, at a recent summit in Auckland, that he accepts there is a crisis and is planning to help.

It seems inevitable the Government will carry out some sort of restructure of public broadcasting.

It may include a non-commercial TVNZ 1 and possibly a merger of TVNZ, RNZ and Maori TV.

But this is a highly complicated task and given the vastly different cultures of TVNZ and RNZ, Faafoi will probably want to start with a clean sheet of paper; he will also need to figure out the future role of NZ On-air, which distributes $80 million to all media through its NZ Media Fund.

No campaign from MediaWorks is going to hurry this process. At best it will take 12 months, at worst several years. Faafoi, a careful and conservative operator, knows he can’t afford to botch it.

He will take his time – that is the reality.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

Leave a comment