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Coffee meeting leaves RNZ+ in a mess

COMMENT: There are some things about the Carol Hirschfeld RNZ saga that just don’t add up.

Why would a highly respected, experienced broadcasting executive like Hirschfeld repeatedly lie to her boss?

Especially given that she had enjoyed a highly successful partnership with that boss?

Hirschfeld and RNZ CEO Paul Thompson are widely credited with pulling off a remarkable revival of RNZ in the face of a funding freeze and a somewhat staid culture.

Thompson’s digital and strategic skills married with Hirschfeld’s style and TV experience seemed to be the perfect combination.

The introduction of new talent like John Campbell and Guyon Espiner and some determined producers to run programmes like Checkpoint has energised the State Broadcaster and sent its ratings on an upward trajectory.

We will probably never know exactly what was said at the meeting with Curran or what went down in Thompson’s office later between he and Hirschfeld ,his head of content.

Neither Thompson nor Hirschfeld are talking and it is likely a non-disclosure agreement will be in place – they usually are when top executives “resign” instead of being fired.

It is understandable from Thompson’s point of view that Hirschfeld had to go after she repeatedly failed to tell the truth, but the fact it got to this position means the relationship was not what it seemed from the outside.

After all, it was not exactly a hanging offence for Hirschfeld to meet the broadcasting minister despite it being a breach of RNZ’s protocols.

It took place in public so it was hardly secret and could have been explained away as being a little bit unwise but “let’s all move on.”

Clearly, both Curran and Hirschfeld wanted something from the meeting, despite the text messages released by the minister appearing to be relatively innocent.

Curran’s motives may well come from a distrust of media executives in general.

When she announced her RNZ+ policy before the election she made it clear she wanted to build a public service TV channel but had no trust in TVNZ’s management to carry out her plans.

TVNZ, with all its infrastructure and expertise, would have been the logical home of the new channel.

Since the policy announcement both Thompson and RNZ's chairman, Richard Griffin, have played down expectations of what RNZ+ will be – suggesting it is an extension of what they are already doing rather than something new.

This will not have pleased Curran who made it clear in her initial announcement she wants a high quality linear TV channel with a full range of programming.

It seems likely Curran wanted to know what was going on in RNZ and maybe even find a high-level ally within the organisation. Hirschfeld, who would have been excited by the opportunities that RNZ+ offered, was the obvious choice.

The fact this was not a secret meeting, it took place in a popular Wellington café and at least one journalist and one lobbyist saw the two talking means it was probably a relationship-building exercise.

Curran would have been testing the waters rather than having any in-depth discussion with Hirschfeld.

Being a seasoned operator, Curran probably distrusted Griffin in a political sense too. The revelation Griffin, a former press secretary to Jim Bolger, passed news of Hirschfeld’s resignation to National MP, Melissa Lee before it was announced shows she could be justified in having those thoughts.

Hirschfeld’s thinking is harder to fathom unless she was feeling frustrated with Thompson’s cautiousness around RNZ+.

The former TV3 presenter/producer and Maori TV head of programming is a big picture person. She would have had a vision for RNZ+.

The vision would have been ambitious, maybe too ambitious for Thompson and Griffin’s liking.

They may’ve been worried, understandably so, that over-reaching on TV could put the gains they have made in radio and digital in jeopardy.

Establishing RNZ+ will require a not inconsiderable capital outlay.

Where is this money coming from? If it must come out of the suggested $30 million that Curran wants to give the broadcaster it is a problem. A total of $30 million is not enough, by any stretch, to run a high quality public service channel and build the infrastructure.

Hirschfeld would know how to run a lean television channel – she worked at TV3 and Maori TV where a dollar is made to stretch a long way – but the risk of under-investment in technology must be frightening Thompson.

The quality of RNZ’s current TV offering is not great, despite the skills of Campbell in front of the camera and Hirschfeld behind it. In previous interviews with Newsroom, Thompson has struggled to define it. "Lord knows what it is. It's not television. It's televisual, I guess."

In the context of all this, Hirschfeld may have also wanted a powerful ally and who better than the minister? She may even have seen herself as future CEO of RNZ.

The result now, is that RNZ+ is a mess.

Trust between the minister and Thompson will be low. The person with the vision and the expertise to build it is gone.

Expect to hear the likes of Mediaworks CEO Michael Anderson renew his calls for the money to go to TVNZ and not RNZ.

This time, there is likely to be more people listening.

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