THE VEITCH AFFAIR: Fall from grace a staged 'media culpa'

EFFORTS BY Tony Veitch and his employer The Radio Network (TRN) to manage the sports presenter's fall from grace have demonstrated the resources a media organisation can call into play when something goes wrong close to home. Yet at the same time, the mixed messages emerging from TVNZ suggest that Veitch's television employer is finding the task far more irksome.

The media machinations by Veitch's employers were all the more intriguing given TVNZ and TRN's admission yesterday that they knew about the incident before it became public last week.

When Veitch finally fronted up to a press conference on Wednesday two days after his violent assault on his former partner was revealed in the Dominion Post he delivered a prepared statement of apology, a delicate balance of contrition and excuses.

It has been reported that speech was co-written by his friend and TRN colleague Paul Holmes. Indeed, Holmes had initially wanted Veitch to deliver the mea culpa on Holmes's own breakfast show on Newstalk ZB.

Instead, though, Holmes delivered his own honeyed commentary on the Veitch affair on-air Thursday morning. He spoke of his "guts churning" with the difficulties of being both a friend to a colleague in trouble while also honouring "what the public expect of a broadcaster".

With ambiguity and nuance, Holmes said that, despite his friendship with Veitch, "we know what is right and we know what is wrong and we know how big the violence issue is in this country and how quick we are to condemn it.

"What Tony did was very wrong, but there are always complications. These things are not simple. Perhaps they are. I cannot be sure."

(A similar line had been taken by Veitch's Radio Sport colleague Brendan Telfer. "He's suffering badly. Sure he brought this on himself, but he does need support," he said after Veitch's press conference.)

After his initial musings, Holmes then ran an unusually long talkback session on the issue, a move which some commentators have described as the network "taking the pulse" before deciding whether to support Veitch or drop him. It was not until late on the same afternoon that TRN finally suspended Veitch.

Holmes's hand of friendship is likely to be proffered again today: he interviewed Veitch for Auckland's Herald on Sunday newspaper. That newspaper is part of the APN stable, the Australian-owned media organisation that is also a 50% owner of The Radio Network.

Such exploitation of cross-media ownership is hardly unusual, said media commentator Jim Tully. "There's no doubt that if you have cross-ownership, you can facilitate access much more easily. If Veitch is going to talk to anyone he'd talk to someone within that company, but also someone more sympathetic." However, adds, Tully, "people aren't stupid. They can see what's being said".

People outside the media, whom Tully has spoken with, have been "quite scornful" of Veitch's formal statement of "I'm not giving excuses but...".

If Holmes did write that speech, said Tully, there is a relationship which goes beyond being employees in the same company. "There seems to be a conflict of interest."

TVNZ was even slower to bite the bullet: although Veitch was stood down from his TV One role on Tuesday, he was dumped from TVNZ's Olympics reporting team only on Friday. Veitch was even on air on Monday night, the day the story broke, but TVNZ itself did not cover the story that day. Veitch's TRN boss Bill Francis who accompanied Veitch to Wednesday's press conference was also with the sports broadcaster when he met TVNZ on Monday to discuss the issue.

The state-owned broadcaster has hired former NZ Idol judge Paul Ellis as a publicity consultant over the affair, but that doesn't seem to have prevented a less-than-consistent response. All week TVNZ management has fended off media inquiries, and on Wednesday night TVNZ reporter Lisa Owen took them to task.

Tully said he was impressed by the editorial independence shown by the "strong and quite surprising" item in which Owen criticised her own head of news Anthony Flannery and CEO Rick Ellis, contemptuously waving what she described as "a rather bland statement" from Ellis. What she wanted to know, she said to camera, was who at TVNZ knew about Veitch's assault, how much they knew and when they knew it. On Friday, Owen referred questions from the Sunday Star-Times to TVNZ's press office.

Another version of TVNZ's approach was evident as Martin Devlin was left squirming on the Breakfast couch on Thursday as he tried to justify continuing support for his "mate". TV reviewer Jane Bowron was unimpressed. In her column in Friday's Dominion Post she wrote that TVNZ "should have come out straight away to reassure the audience and the troops on the ground, rather than retreat to their bunker and dither while they tested public feeling".

TVNZ's management of the situation has led to frustration among staff, who feel they are being kept in the dark. "We're back on the front page again and it's like management haven't learned anything from the bad old days," said one network employee. The lack of communication led to frustration among reporters that they were being scooped on an in-house story by other media organisations.

Many of Veitch's colleagues, particularly females, were revolted by his actions, and the general consensus was his career was finished. "There's no coming back for him."


Sunday Star Times