Ralston criticises Clark for salary fiasco at TVNZ

Former TVNZ head of news Bill Ralston has tongue lashed politicians for their handling of the state broadcaster and singled out the Prime Minister for starting a chain of disastrous events.

In a Herald on Sunday opinion piece Ralston broke his silence about TVNZ.

"TVNZ can and does become a political football as puffed-up politicians use it to boost their own profile by grandstanding on its every mistake and attempting to embarrass the Government as a result," he wrote.

Ralston said the duel role of returning a profit and meeting charter obligations was failing; "In short TVNZ is dysfunctional because it's designed that way."

Ralston said Prime Minister Helen Clark's position against large salaries for presenters cost the network millions and was a "major factor in bringing the place almost to its knees".

He said her stand against big payouts led to short term contracts which alienated presenters such as Paul Holmes who quit.

Judy Bailey then sought to double her salary to $800,000 and the board agreed. Ralston said TVNZ could not afford to lose her.

The board tried to cancel the contract but then chief executive Ian Fraser and Ralston refused.

"The board backed down and the effluent hit the fan. Helen Clark and Minister Steve Maharey went into hysterics over it and publicly flogged the board."

The network also lost Susan Wood which Ralston partially attributed to her fight over a salary cut.

"In all three cases I could have handled the situation a hell of a lot better but the infuriating thing is all those costly disasters came from a purely political butt-covering exercise rather than any serious commercial decisions."

Ralston said the politically-appointed board was often more interested in "sucking up to its political masters than running a business".

Ralston said he feared TVNZ would become more dependent on Government funding as it invested in digital television. He forecast more management change and instability.

"The only real hope is for some kind of non-partisan agreement by the politicians on making TVNZ completely independent of government and they need to decide what they want the network to be: a public broadcaster or simply another commercial channel? I cannot do both. That much is clear from the calamities of the past seven years."

Fraser and departed chairman Craig Boyce have also previously hit out at politicians. In emails between the men before appearing before a select committee looking at the salaries fiasco they labelled politicians "bastards" and "the enemy".

Fraser fuelled the fire during his appearance during which he blamed Miss Clark for breaking news about the Bailey salary.