TVNZ boss Simon Power must use his skills and lead from the front

Television New Zealand chief executive Simon Power needs to use his undoubted abilities and start leading the organisation from the front.

Throughout the excoriating saga of Breakfast host Kamahl Santamaria’s inappropriate behaviour and subsequent resignation of the networks head of news, Power has seemed to be far from the front line.

What began as a manageable problem turned into a mess, not only in terms of staff morale but also public perception of the state broadcaster. Tom Dillane’s extensive analysis of the issue in the Weekend Herald  traced the broad scope of the malaise afflicting the newsroom and associated departments. The problems clearly run wide and deep and are not solely a result of Santamaria’s transgressions.

This could not have come at a worse time – TVNZ should have been preparing for its integration into a new public media entity with a positive outlook and sure of its place in the new organisation. Instead, its culture has been shaken, its processes found wanting, its newsroom leadership placed in limbo, and public trust in the organisation damaged because those who hold others to account are expected to be above reproach.

The statement repeated throughout the meltdown has been that Simon Power is not available for interview, nor will he answer written questions. Employment issues are bound up in complex law and do require careful handling. However, questions around Santamaria’s hiring and the subsequent handling of an allegation against him were well-and-truly in the public domain and TVNZ was naïve to think it could stay almost silent.

Stuff  began chasing the story within days of Santamaria’s unexplained absence from the Breakfast couch. TVNZ’s subsequent mishandling – claiming he was away dealing with a “family emergency” only to be outed when an allegation of inappropriate behaviour surfaced ­– went from bad to worse. Only 1News, with admirably independent coverage, rose above the mire threatening to swallow the rest of the organisation.

Reporter Kim Baker Wilson, obviously working under instruction from frontline news executives, told viewers that following Santamaria’s resignation he had put an extensive list of questions to Power, to the Head of News and Current Affairs Paul Yuricich, and to TVNZ corporate communications. The questions went unanswered but, following Stuff’s revelations about the reason for the resignation, Power and his executives were asked to reconsider them. Baker Wilson told viewers the only response he got was “we do not comment publicly on the existence or substance of any individual employment matter”. A further text to Yuricich resulted in a ‘no comment’ reply. Baker Wilson then went on to reveal an extraordinary step taken by the newsroom – it had consulted an independent lawyer on the story rather than taking the more usual step of referring it to in-house counsel.

Even when Power announced an independent inquiry by lawyer Margaret Robins, he did so by way of a media release. He did not front. Nor did he do so when Yuricich went on indefinite leave, nor when the review findings were announced, nor when Yuricich resigned. Nor since then.

Simon Power is no fool. Far from it. His CV is an impressive combination of law, politics, and the corporate community. He is the sort of executive well-placed to manage the change that TVNZ is about to undergo.

He has the necessary skills to lead the organisation. He has not, however, fully understood what is required of the chief executive of a public broadcasting organisation. He must be its public face.

Director General Tim Davie is the public face of the BBC. Managing director David Anderson is the public face of Australia’s ABC. Both men front-foot on their organisations’ behalf, as did predecessors like Tony Hall who led the BBC for seven years and Mark Scott who ran the ABC for almost 10 years. Sometimes it’s singing the praises (Anderson wrote a book extolling the ABC’s virtues earlier this year), but much of the time these public broadcasting leaders appear in front of the camera to explain and, where necessary, defend.

By putting a corporate communications shield between himself and the public, Power has sent a series of wrong messages.

He has left the impression – warranted or not – that he has not had control of the situation. This impression has been exacerbated by the fact that there was protracted radio silence over Santamaria’s empty place on the couch, the misrepresentation of his absence, and (having commissioned an independent review aimed at reassuring staff and the public), failing to release more than a summary of the review findings.

This was a situation where leadership was not only required but needed to be publicly demonstrated. It was serious enough for Power to take direct control of all aspects from the start and to be seen to have done so.

The missteps left staff – and the public – thinking that high-profile presenters are handled with kid gloves by TVNZ. Worse, it gave the impression that a complainant was given less consideration than the subject of the complaint.

Power’s failure to front for reporters and face their interrogations unfortunately allowed the public to wonder whether there was something to hide. And his reticence risked a knock-on effect.

His refusal to directly answer questions signalled to other chief executives that it is okay to stonewall news staff. Why should the heads of organisations being held to account by journalists feel any obligation to answer questions when the reporter’s boss repeatedly fails to do so?

Paul Yuricich’s leave of absence was directly linked to the complaint against the Breakfast host. That was confirmed by his subsequent resignation after the review found appropriate recruitment processes were not followed with the hiring of Santamaria. However, it is now clear from reporting and commentary by numerous other news outlets that there were more long-standing issues between Yuricich and his staff.

The Head of News and Current Affairs was not appointed by Power. He was in place when the new chief executive arrived earlier this year. However, a number of resignations within the news division and two poor staff satisfaction surveys must have signalled to Simon Power that all was not well. Circumstances such as that do not bode well in crisis management and the Santamaria situation should have been foreseen as a tipping point.

To its great credit, the TVNZ newsroom was determined to ensure the public knew all was not well at 100 Victoria Street West. Nicole Bremner summed it up in a live cross from the newsroom during the lead item on News at Six last Wednesday. She said: “This has been a dark period in our newsroom. The review comes as a relief for many who now just want to move forward”. Insiders felt there was more to her comment than the resolution of an inappropriate conduct complaint.

The background to Yuricich’s difficult association with at least a portion of the newsroom may be traced to several factors: His preference for hiring former Al Jazeera colleagues (of which Santamaria was one), his management style, and the manner in which he pursued the digital-led newsroom renewal mandate set for him by Power’s predecessor Kevin Kendrick.

The link between Yuricich and Santamaria will inevitably draw together the complaint and the broader newsroom situation. The chief executive should have been aware of the potential for that conflation to create an even bigger PR problem. Again, it is reason for front-footing issues, not trying to manage them through an inadequate corporate-speak lexicon.

And the fact that Power’s communications have been drawn from that much-maligned dictionary leaves the impression he is afraid to publicly present himself. That is unfortunate because the impression is erroneous. He was a member of Parliament for 12 years and a cabinet minister. Then, and in opposition, he was in front of the camera. He is no stranger to stand-up interviews. Perhaps the subsequent decade he spent in the less-than-forthcoming banking sector adversely affected him but he knows how to front.

Fortunately for him (and for TVNZ) impressions can be changed. He has the ability and skills to publicly front on behalf of TVNZ as the head of a public media organisation must do. He knows he must not interfere in editorial matters, but he has the ability – through the right decisions and the right support – to resuscitate morale in the newsroom. He knows what must be done to ensure staff feel safe in their workplace. He has the ability to guide TVNZ’s digital strategy in a way that staff will embrace. And he can persuade the public that trust in his organisation is not misplaced.

Phil O’Sullivan has been acting Head of News and Current Affairs since Yuricich went on leave and will stay in that position until an appointment is made. Power would show the right sort of leadership by making O’Sullivan’s appointment permanent and, in so doing, he would also dispel the impression that only outsiders are capable of forging a path to the future.

A bouquet

To RNZ journalist Johnny Blades for an enlightening The House podcast on what happens in Parliament at night. While you and I are settling down to watch Married at First Sight, politicians are still debating the affairs of state. But, as Blades says, it’s a time when the weird and wonderful can happen.

A sample: “In recent times, those watching on have been treated to spectacles such as Gerry Brownlee in a delirium over mysterious voices he heard but couldn’t work out where they came from (it was a Green MP participating on Zoom with no picture); Statistics Minister David Clark getting hopelessly tangled up while trying to take his mask off to speak; Trade Minister Damien O’Connor repeatedly forgetting a key word in his own legislative statement and being corrected; and Nicola Grigg almost choking on a fruit burst as she took the mic.”

Here is the podcast: Parliament at night: scenes inside the ant hill.

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