|Pacific Media Watch|
TVNZ admits it was wrong to withhold information
Title -- 4505 NZ: TVNZ admits it was wrong to withhold information
Date -- 10 September 2004
Byline -- None
Origin -- Pacific Media Watch
Source -- NZ Herald Online 10/9/2004
Copyright -- NZH
Status -- Unabridged
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TVNZ ADMITS IT WAS WRONG TO WITHHOLD INFORMATION FROM MPs
By Helen Tunnah
AUCKLAND (NZ Herald Online/Pacific Media Watch): A sober Television New Zealand fronted up to MPs yesterday to reveal that 11 of its executives had spent almost $370,000 on their credit cards in a year.
And the state-owned broadcaster admitted it had been incorrect to use the Official Information Act to block handing the spending details to Parliament.
TVNZ chairman Craig Boyce said the company accepted advice that treating MPs' attempts to review its financial performance as it would a media request under the act could undermine the accountability of state-owned businesses to Parliament.
"We got the message," he said.
Yesterday's appearance by Boyce and chief executive Ian Fraser was less fraught than other spells in front of the commerce select committee this year, partly because New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is serving a week's suspension from parliamentary business.
Peters, who is embroiled in legal action against TVNZ, instead sat in the back of the public gallery and watched the meeting.
TVNZ was first asked in February for details of top executives' credit card spending.
The company refused, citing the information act and commercial sensitivity.
But yesterday, Boyce and Fraser revealed that in the 12 months to July, $9.1 million was spent on company credit cards. Just under 500 of its 1200 staff have the use of a credit card.
Spending limits have now been placed on all cards - in the past dozens of cards had no limits.
Precise details of spending were still withheld. Boyce said TVNZ remained reluctant to provide information that could prejudice its commercial position.
The company had divulged that news and current affairs chief Bill Ralston had spent $21,751 on his card in a year, but would not elaborate.
Precise details such as individual occasions or who he took to lunch "would be valuable information to our competitors".
Boyce said Ralston had to undertake contract negotiations with "high-profile news and current affairs presenters", and detailing any spending around that would reveal who the company wanted to hire.
That would be "intolerable".
Boyce also said that in the case of Ralston, the basic principle of journalists protecting sources had to be preserved.
He said the company had been advised that it was good business practice to put all spending on credit cards, which cut invoicing and administrative costs, potentially saving $300,000 a year.
TVNZ believed it had robust procedures to detect any abuse, said Boyce.
The company is gagged from disclosing how much it spends on Paul Holmes' grooming and clothing by a confidentiality clause in the broadcaster's contract.
A remuneration consultant with the firm Watson Wyatt, Brent Miller, said that based on a quick look at the figures, the expenses were not surprising and were nothing to be concerned about.
Miller said the spending did not appear to be excessive based on the nature of TVNZ's business, its overseas work and the spread of the spending over 11 executives.
"If it was largely a domestically focused firm that didn't have a huge call on international resources or the need to negotiate internationally, for various reasons I'd say it would be a little hair-raising.
"I would have to say there are a lot of other organisations in the public eye which would probably spend similar per head amounts within New Zealand that I think perhaps would be even more worthy of further investigation.
"To be honest, I don't think it is a real surprise."
PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).
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