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In this extract from his book Bloodied But Not Beaten, published by David Ling, veteran journalist Rod Vaughan tells of the rollercoaster ride of television current affairs — where what goes up invariably comes down.
Success, as they say, is something that should be savoured because you never know when, if ever, you’ll get lucky again.
So in 2002 when the accolades started rolling in for an Assignment investigation I did on alleged wrongdoing in the fishing industry I relished every moment of it.
Bill Ralston in the Sunday News was especially effusive about the story:
Rod Vaughan’s excellent investigation into the fishing industry showed that this is journalism at its best. We need Assignment because it was a sign that we are a thinking, caring society and every now and again it broke a ripper of a story.
TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser was also fulsome in his praise of the programme: ‘It was bold, it was brave and it was ninety minutes of totally absorbing television. It was Assignment at its best, well researched, defined and direct.’
I even got paid a $7,500 bonus for a job well done, something unheard of at the time.
But eight months later my life came crashing down when Fraser and Ralston, who by then was head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, axed Assignment and sent me and other members of the team packing.
I can laugh about the supreme irony of it now but at the time I thought they were the biggest hypocrites on the planet.
With hindsight I should have seen it coming when Fraser hired Ralston in 2003 to run news and current affairs. This was the man who got the job over twenty other applicants because he had, in Fraser’s words, ‘a hint of mongrel’.
‘We were not looking for someone who was going to offer business as usual. He certainly doesn’t do that,’ said Fraser when announcing Ralston’s appointment.
So in one sense the writing was on the wall from the outset, but I, like many of my colleagues, was lulled into a false sense of security when Ralston quickly dismissed rumours that he would be axing some programmes.
‘There’s absolutely no reason to take an axe to the number-one-rating news and current affairs network in the country,’ he said.
But we soon discovered that what the mercurial and erratic Ralston said and what he did were very often two completely different things. This, after all, was the person who spent years bagging TVNZ, describing it as inept, boring and byzantine and then going all out to grab one of the top jobs there.
The self-described ‘smartarse at the back of the class’ was a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper and his arrival at the state broadcaster left some wondering how the lunatic had managed to take over the asylum.
For all that, many of us gave him the benefit of the doubt when he reported for duty at TVNZ, taking over the reins from the acting head of news and current affairs, Trish Carter who, in the eyes of many, was the best person for the job.
As an executive producer Trish had put her stamp on The Holmes Show and Assignment and proved herself to be a very able manager who was liked and respected by her staff, rare attributes in the dog-eat-dog world of television.
Had she remained at the helm it’s unlikely that TVNZ’s news and current affairs department would have descended into a death spiral, haemorrhaging jobs, viewers and ratings. Nor would it have become a toxic cauldron of dissent and division where staff morale plummeted to new depths.
In 35 years at TVNZ I had witnessed a raft of chief executives and senior managers come and go, many turning the place upside down as they strove to impose their vision of what the company should be doing.
Some stayed a year or two, others longer, but for most of them it was just a stepping stone to something bigger and better, and before you knew it they had disappeared in a cloud of dust, leaving behind those still lucky enough to have jobs, shell-shocked and shattered.
But nothing prepared me for Ralston or, for that matter, his boss Ian Fraser, who must accept ultimate responsibility for the most torrid and turbulent time in the company’s history. In fairness to them both they were running an organisation with a split personality.
Fraser, a long-time friend of the Labour Party, had been hired to steer TVNZ from a commercially driven State Owned Enterprise to more of a public service style Crown Owned Company. He was tasked with implementing a charter to ensure there was a balance between majority and minority interest programmes and given more funding to do this.
At the same time he was expected to return a decent dividend to the government every year.
By any stretch of the imagination it was a difficult juggling act and called for someone with vision, energy, business acumen and management skills. Fraser had the vision but little else and it was inevitable that it would all turn to custard with he and Ralston eventually parting company from TVNZ and leaving it in a very sorry state.
There is no doubt that both men were gifted broadcasters and journalists but like most of their kin they were disastrous managers and should never have been allowed anywhere near a two-headed monster like TVNZ.
And Fraser, charming as he was at a personal level, lacked the common touch, remaining aloof and distant from his staff at a time of great change, when they needed reassurance and redirection. He never ventured far from his office and rarely rubbed shoulders with anyone on the shop floor, be it in the cafeteria or the newsroom.
I will never forget the occasion when he was called upon to address a staff meeting in the newsroom. Most chief executives in my experience would have taken this in their stride, typically arriving at the meeting by themselves, working their way through the room, pumping a bit of flesh here and there, and then getting down to business — but not Ian.
Minutes before the meeting was to due to begin his secretary rang Colin McRae, the executive producer of Assignment, and asked him to report to his office which, a somewhat puzzled Colin, duly did.
Once there it became apparent what was required of him: he was supposed to escort Ian from his office to the newsroom five storeys below, something Ian felt unable to do by himself.
It was as if the Queen had summoned a courtier to escort her to the waiting minions. To me, that episode spoke volumes about the persona of a man who, to his staff, became the invisible face of broadcasting.
Paul Holmes, who was no fan of Fraser, said in a New Zealand Herald story that he couldn’t describe his leadership style because ‘there wasn’t any . . . I saw Ian once or twice in three years.’ He said Fraser’s defection from TVNZ was ‘akin to a commander deserting his fleet during the heat of battle’.
￼Fraser left it largely to Ralston to confront the troops about the radical restructuring that he had in mind, and true to form Ralston managed to go about it in a ham-fisted way, preferring to talk through the news media than face-to- face with those in the firing line.
Most of us learnt of our fate from the ramblings of Ralston in the Herald or the Listener or whichever publication was taking him out to lunch. It was hurtful and sometimes humiliating but that hardly seemed to concern him as he made clear in a Herald interview:
‘You can’t keep calling meetings of 300 people every day to hear the thoughts of Chairman Bill. It’s not going to work. So if you can send a signal by whatever media that happen to be around, why wouldn’t you?’
Which is how I got to learn that I was in his sights. This, from him in the Listener: ‘There are people who have been here an awfully long time. Today is the 35th anniversary of Rod Vaughan entering television!’
Clearly I was considered to be institutionalised and past my use-by date, but it would have been nice to hear it first from the man in person, the man who just months previously had heaped praise on my fishing industry investigation.
Others got the same treatment as he softened up the news and current affairs department for some massive bloodletting, all designed to shave just over four million dollars from the budget so that the government would still get its dividend. At least that’s what we were told when the axe finally fell and programmes like Assignment were canned, but it was hard to swallow when the company had just turned in an after-tax profit of $29.1 million, with record advertising revenue of $305 million.
Neither could we understand why a charter-driven current affairs’ programme like Assignment was being chopped in favour of its lightweight counterpart Sunday, especially when Ralston had panned Sunday in his newspaper column:
Despite all the claims made about it, deep down Sunday is really shallow. The show is a once-over-lightly exercise and seldom tells us anything we didn’t already know.
Yeah, right Bill.
The real reasons for who went and who stayed only emerged further down the track when Ralston addressed staff meetings around the country with the head of sales and marketing. At these it was made clear that TV One had to capture a younger audience to offset the inroads that TV3 was making in the all-important Auckland news and current affairs ratings.
This was echoed by his deputy Stephen Rowe who issued a memo urging reporters to copy TV3’s ‘warmer, more engaging’ style. Their message was clear: grey-haired old farts like Rod Vaughan had no place in the new line-up but well- endowed blonde twenty-somethings did.
The fallacy of such a policy was exposed when I landed a job with TV3’s 60 Minutes programme within two weeks of being made redundant.
To be sure, TV3 had its fair share of young women who were easy on the eye but it also placed great store on the experience and expertise that grizzled old men like myself could bring to the channel.
Unlike TVNZ, they were mindful that many of the best reporters and producers that worked on top American news and current affairs’ programmes were in their fifties and sixties. In fact, the average age of the frontline staff on the US edition of 60 Minutes was 72, with the youngest member of the team being 58 and the oldest 85, and they were still pulling in the viewers.
Whether he knew or cared about this, it didn’t cut any ice with Ralston, who blindly went about gutting TVNZ of some of its most experienced journalists. Rob Harley, Kerry-Anne Evans, Jackie Maher, Colin McRae and Julian O’Brien were just some of the people who took a walk.
I learnt of my fate while filming a story for Sunday in Canada when my wife Lois, in a somewhat agitated state, phoned me to say she’d heard on national radio that I and some others were going to be made redundant. A colleague in Auckland also phoned to say that she’d seen a similar story in the Dominion Post.
Of course, I knew something was up before I left New Zealand for Canada as Assignment had already been replaced by Sunday and the redundancy drums were beating, but no one knew just where the axe was going to fall.
After getting the bad news from my wife I felt sick in the stomach, as did my producer Julian O’Brien, who was staring down the same barrel.
Over the next few days we did our level best to put the gremlins to one side as we pressed on with our filming commitments, even managing to convince ourselves there was no substance to the reports of our demise, as Bill Ralston hadn’t been in touch with us about it.
And when we were asked to fly home through Toronto to file a news story about a major power blackout in North America we were only too happy to oblige.
But the moment we stepped foot back in New Zealand the black thoughts we had sidelined in Canada returned with a vengeance. As I stepped into the TVNZ building in Auckland a colleague called out from across the corridor: ‘What are you doing here? You don’t work here anymore.’
It was delivered with a smile and supposed to be a joke, but it fell horribly flat and I entered the Sunday office like a dead man walking. Waiting for me was executive producer Max Adams who ushered me into his office and said: ‘I guess Ralston hasn’t told you yet?’
I shook my head, so he told me.
Over the years I’d done countless stories on businesses collapsing and people being made redundant but now I knew what it was really like and it bloody well hurt.
It was time to phone a lawyer but before I had a chance one called me.
I had met David Garrett a year or two previously while filming an Assignment story on capital punishment; he was all for hanging the most violent criminals and made for a lively interview. Now he was offering to help me in my hour of need at TVNZ; he’d read about my predicament in the Herald and appeared keen to lock horns with Ralston.
At the time I had no idea of Garrett’s chequered past, his conviction for assault and the theft of a dead child’s identity, but he seemed like a man who could take on TVNZ and win, so I engaged him as my lawyer. He also offered a mate’s rates deal, which I couldn’t ignore.
Garrett looked like an attack dog, and in stature and demeanour resembled a cross between a Staffordshire terrier and a pit-bull; in short someone who relished a good scrap and gave more than he got. He also had an uncanny ability to get up the nose of people he didn’t like and this manifested itself from the moment we stepped in to Ralston’s office to get the lowdown on why I was surplus to requirements.
The Staffy/pit-bull cross and the mongrel sized each other up and stood their ground, each waiting to see who would pounce first. It was left to me to keep them at arm’s length as I sought reasons for my impending demise.
The answer was blunt and couched in management speak: ‘You don’t have the right skill set for Sunday.’
‘And what would those skills be?’ I innocently enquired. At this, I was handed a piece of paper and invited to read the requirements for the job.
They looked like something plucked from a young journalist’s training manual: ‘must initiate stories, cost-effective reporting, high accuracy, consistent output, on screen impact, story-telling skills, work with minimum supervision, team player, high energy levels, enthusiasm, ability to produce hard stories,’ and so on.
For someone who had been in the business for 35 years and had worked on almost every news and current affairs’ programme, it was demeaning and insulting to be told I didn’t measure up to these criteria and I said as much to Ralston.
‘Look,’ he replied, ‘we picked a team and you didn’t get picked for it and that’s the way it is. End of story.’
Garrett, who had pretty much kept his peace up to this point, exploded, and fired a volley of abuse at Ralston, mostly using words that began with an f or a c. Not long afterwards we were shown the door and repaired to a coffee shop down the street to lick our wounds.
Over the course of the next few days we had two more meetings with Ralston, but they both ended acrimoniously and the writing was on the wall: clean out your desk, hand in your swipe card and get on your bike.
It was a rude awakening to the wonderful world of age discrimination where everyone over the age of fifty is now regarded as being over the hill. Sadly my experience was not unique; other long-serving staff members were despatched in similar circumstances, with no words of thanks for their years of service or even a morning tea to farewell their friends.
It was shameful and it was shabby and I, for one, was not going to let them get away with it, so with Garrett, I took my case to a mediator, who ruled in our favour and ordered TVNZ to pay me a not insignificant sum of money.
Despite the compensation it was an ignominious way to end almost a lifetime’s work at the state broadcaster, not made easier by the fact that Ian Fraser, the man whose television career I had launched thirty years previously, was largely instrumental in my downfall.
But that’s show biz, I guess.