Now here’s a mystery which has just been drawn to my attention by an eagle-eyed little bird high up in the journalism tree. Last Tuesday, April 27, TVNZ’s Close Up programme ran a story on small businessman David Henshilwood who, since July of 2009, had been owed $3680 for work he’d done installing television screens in the Century City Hotel, owned by multi-millionaire businessman and host of TVNZ’s The Apprentice, Terry Serepisos. It was quite a gritty little story. And, in the best traditions of Fair Go, it had yielded a result. On the previous day, Monday, April 26, Close Up had contacted Mr Serepisos’ office and outlined the basis of the story they were about to run. And, lo and behold, a cheque for the full amount owing was already in Mr Henshilwood’s hands. Hurrah! Well done Close Up.
But the eagle-eyed little bird had spotted something strange in the Close Up story. In it reporter Daniel Faitaua interviews David Henshilwood and his wife Sally about their problems with Serepisos. Referring to the interview, Faitaua says in voice-over, ‘That was them four weeks ago when they told us of their frustration trying to get paid for installing screens in Terry Serepisos’ Century City Hotel.’ Whoa there! Four weeks ago! You interviewed the Henshilwoods four weeks ago, but you only approached Sereposis’ office yesterday to seek a response. Isn’t that just a little strange? The eagle-eyed little bird thought so and made a few discreet inquiries. ‘I’m told,’ he tweeted in my ear, ‘that Close Up was instructed not to run the story because it would embarrass TVNZ for not doing proper checks on Mr Serepisos before accepting him for the show. It’s only hearsay of course.’
It is indeed only hearsay. But it does make a certain sense, doesn’t it? The disclosure of Mr Serepisos’ problems more than a month earlier would have seriously undermined his suitability as host of The Apprentice – which was mid-series and still had half a dozen episodes to run – not to mention the network’s judgement in accepting him for the job. But by April 27 the Serepisos cat was well and truly out of the bag, thanks principally to the country’s print media. It would by then have been difficult for TVNZ’s prime-time current affairs programme to go on ignoring the issue. And with viewers well and truly locked into the series and only two programmes to go, including the grand finale, it hardly mattered. It was even possible that the exposure might improve the programme’s ratings for those last two shows. It certainly didn’t do any harm. On April 13 the show attracted 296,270 viewers.
A week later the presence of All Blacks Ali Williams and Ritchie McCaw had rocketed it to a massive 455,950, by far the series’ highest rating. With no All Blacks this week, The Apprentice still pulled 391,770, almost 100,00 more viewers than it had had a fortnight earlier. The Serepisos factor? Maybe. After all, the Serepisos story on Close Up on TV1 immediately preceded The Apprentice on TV2, effectively making it a promo for the reality show. Well, if my eagle-eyed little bird has it right, it’s kinda sad isn’t it. For a network to instruct or even suggest to a current affairs programme that it ought to abandon or delay an item of public interest on the grounds that the item might damage the reputation or ratings of one of the network’s other programmes, really isn’t journalistically or morally defensible. And if it didn’t happen like that, I’m happy to retract and apologise to TVNZ. As for my eagle-eyed little feathered friend, he may have to watch out for passing birdshot.