Enjoying the view from both sides of the fence

Richard Griffin at his Ruby Bay home.
BRADEN FASTIER

Richard Griffin at his Ruby Bay home.

From his house in Ruby Bay Richard Griffin enjoys an expansive view of Tasman Bay.

From a similarly elevated position career-wise he also has a clear view looking out over the political and journalistic landscape.

Richard Griffin chose to retire in Ruby Bay because he spent a lot of time there as a child and as he puts it "the countryside is fantastic, the weather is brilliant".

Richard Griffin has seen politics from the outside and inside.
BRADEN FASTIER

Richard Griffin has seen politics from the outside and inside.

The fact that a group of wayward youths put a pipebomb in his Greytown letterbox might have also been a minor catalyst.

These days even though he's retired Griffin still holds sway over a resurgent Radio New Zealand having held the post of chairman for the past nine years.

When Griffin took over as chairman of Radio NZ he says it had gone back into its shell and it was defensive.

"Audience numbers were falling. It was an organisation that didn't know what it wanted, where it was going or who was leading it. "

He says from the moment editor in chief and chief executive Paul Thompson took over he had a plan and the audience numbers on every level have been on a steady climb.

Griffin says Thompson changed the culture and put together an organisation that's now geared to continue.

"I think its fair to say that some in government would have cheerfully closed the doors on Radio New Zealand 10 years ago and they made no secret of that."

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"Its very difficult being funded by someone whose hand you have to regularly bite.

These days he describes the environment at RNZ as far more productive, more forward looking and "they're having more fun than they ever had".

Griffin reflects on his own tenure as chairman as a very satisfying exercise and he considers himself fortunate to be renewed on a regular basis.

"If you have continuity in terms of policy and board management you'll have a more flexible and serene organisation."

"In three years you'd start and not finish things but I feel I have achieved a lot of what I set out to do nine years ago."

In the political arena Griffin spent a big part of his career commentating from the sidelines before running on the field as Jim Bolger's press secretary or head of communications in 1992.

He says he went to work with Bolger not because he was a big National supporter but because they got on well. They remain firm friends.

Although they clashed regularly Griffin says it was important to have that dynamic.

"The last person you need in that role is someone who agrees with you all the time. You need someone who has a contrary point of view.

"He used to call me the communist."

Griffin describes Bolger as a very decent guy and says the suggestion that he was overwhelmed by hubris is simply not true.

"You can't bring up nine children and have them all work out without the essential qualities of decency.

"He was very aware that he was a boy from the country. He didn't have the formal education that many of colleagues did so his defence mechanism was never step back."

Griffin says one of Bolger's quirks was accents. If he was talking to Americans he would talk in an American twang if he was talking to Turkish he would talk with a Turkish accent.

He recalls at an opening in Auckland attended by the Indian community he said to Bolger "we won't be doing an accent today will we. No Peter Sellers".

Bolger said ``Of course not", then proceeded to open with "good evening ladies and gentlemen" in a broad Indian accent.

"It wasn't hubris it was just his way of engaging with people".

Bolger and Griffin's tenure in the Beehive was brought to a crashing halt in December 1997 when Jenny Shipley staged her leadership coup.

"Jim and I were away for three weeks and I had someone ring me every day to tell me whether or not she was going to have a run at him.

"On our return when we got off the plane Doug Graham came over and said `I want to talk to you two. Jenny Shipley has the numbers and she's pulling the carpet on Tuesday'.

"It was just so brutal."

Griffin says Shipley and her supporters had told him prior to leaving for Europe that they weren't going to act until there had been amicable negotiation and Jim had stepped down like a gentlemen.

"But the next morning she walked into his office and said 'As you are aware I do have the numbers, I don't want to have to exercise them but under the circumstances it would be preferable if you were out of this office by 6pm tonight.'

He says there was a fightback and Winston Peters came to his aid saying he had 17 of his MPs on board.

"Sadly he hadn't checked with them and the majority sided with Shipley."

Griffin also counts Peters as a good friend who he has known since he came into the house.

He describes Peters as being always at the centre of a political storm and predicts that "he'll have some sort of meltdown" before the election.

"But he's also capable of rallying his own support in the last few weeks of the election.

"You have to admire him. Extraordinary resilience, you wonder how he gets back up, he's been knocked down so often."

"When he said maybe I'll start my own party, they all laughed but he did and he's been a thorn in their side ever since."

Griffin still speaks to Bill English on a regular basis but says its more to do with how Radio New Zealand is treating them than listening to his opinion.

He says from his experience of doing lobby work he can safely assume that people on both sides of the house thought about him as at least an honest broker if nothing else.

"I hope that is the case because I have never had a political agenda."

On the media side of the fence Griffin counted Paul Holmes as among his closest friends.

"I was his best man twice.

"Paul could be irritating on occasions but he had a really good mind. He was very funny but social justice was really important to him."

Griffin says the pay cheque was largely irrelevant as Holmes was addicted to the public platform business which probably killed him in the end because he worked night and day.

"He never let go until he got to the essence of what he was doing and he was fearless, you had to be fearless."

The pair spent a week together flying round the South Island in a small plane. Holmes was the newly licensed pilot with just 17 hours solo behind him.

"We had four emergency landings and took out two fences.

"Not only could he not fly very well but he only had one functioning eye. He had persuaded some doctor that he was OK but his left eye was 80 percent useless.

"He was touch and go literally."

He and Holmes were in Central Otago and planning a short trip over into Queenstown when they were approached by a Mt Cook pilot.

When Holmes told him their plans and the fact that he had 17 hours under his belt the pilot shook his head and said 'I've got 17,000 and I wouldn't go up there today in this weather'.

"We took his advice.

"Paul was was unstoppable. Sadly his ilk have gone."

Griffin still believes strongly in the power of the media even though the game has changed dramatically since his time at the coal face.

"The industry we're in is more than a business, it's the fabric of a democratic society and I believe we do make a difference.

"It's about truth to power. That also sounds presumptuous and overbearing I would suggest that the media around the world exposes more crime and deprivation and evil than the police do. If you don't have strong media you have dissolute society and you have real problems.

"You have to have someone monitoring and you've got to have someone prepared to say this is the truth or this is the truth as we see it."

But he also says times are much leaner now and people in the industry are expected to do a hell of a lot more than they used to.

Griffin says he can recall a time working for a current affairs programme called called Dateline Monday.

"You went out with a producer, a sound man, a camera man and sometimes a back-up assistant.

"Now people are expected to all that stuff on their own."

He says that everyone in journalism, in reporting particularly, is far better trained, better educated and far more aware than they ever used to be but they're also far less resourced.

"But they're all capable of coming back with whatever it is required, quality stuff, but you can't ask them to do as much as they're doing and expect to get that quality every time.

"I know people in the business would argue that that's the way the world is going.

"But in the end the public decide and the public now seems to be disenchanted to some degree and into the bargain expect their news and current affairs or just their information on so many levels.

"I know it's changed the landscape but it has also changed the attitudes that both journalists and the public have to what they're getting and how they're getting it.

"You can never go back."

 - Stuff

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