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Bill Ralston: independent commentator?

Written By: - Date published: 2:10 pm, May 16th, 2008 - 43 comments
Categories: john key, Media, spin - Tags: , ,

If you’ve been reading Bill Ralston’s columns in the Herald on Sunday over the last few months you’ll have noticed how they’ve started to read more and more like long-form National Party press releases. To date I’d put it down to pure laziness – after all, why would you bother coming up with an original argument when you can repeat pre-written talking points and get paid your $1500 anyway?

John Drinnan’s column in the Herald today suggests an alternative theory, with speculation Bill Ralston may be behind John Key’s recent media training:

One source suggested it was Deadline Ltd, a company whose directors are high-profile freelance journalists Bill Ralston and his partner Janet Wilson, a sometimes contractor to TV3 and TVNZ shows like Eye to Eye.

Ralston told the Business Herald he wasn’t working with Key or the Nats before suddenly hanging up.

“I’m not a public figure, I don’t have to answer your f****** questions,” said the former head of TVNZ news and current affairs. Janet Wilson called soon after and took a similar “none of your business” approach, though she was calmer.

As a contractor she did various work including media training. She was not prepared to discuss whether her clients included politicians. “Why would I?” she asked. Why not, we wondered.

Drinnan says the Herald on Sunday has provided an assurance from Bill Ralston that he is not personally involved in training John Key, but as yet there is no denial that Ralston’s company is in the pay of the Nats, whose chief of staff has refused to discuss any link.

To use a word the Nats are very fond of using these days, this is all looking very murky, and brings to mind the revelations in the Hollow Men about media personalities providing training and advice to Don Brash while simultaneously bigging him up in their ‘independent’ columns. We’ll be watching this story with interest.

43 comments on “Bill Ralston: independent commentator? ”

  1. bill ralston 1

    Bill doesn’t get paid $1500 per article

  2. Tane 2

    ‘bill ralston’ – if that’s the case then Bill Ralston is being paid below the market rate for a political column.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t pay Bill $1500 a pop for the recycled crap he churns out.

  3. sean14 3

    We’ll be watching this story with interest.

    So you can do what? If Ralston’s writing is indeed crap, people will figure that out for themselves.

  4. Tane 4

    It’s not about whether Ralston’s articles are crap – that’s irrelevant to the discussion. The point is there’s a major conflict if he’s presenting himself as an independent commentator while at the same time providing media training for John Key. Michael Bassett lost his Dom Post column over something similar a couple of years back.

    Of course, I don’t have a problem with columnists who are upfront about their biases.

  5. mike 5

    If it was true who cares, its obviously OK for Brian Edwards to advise Helen Clark and remain a media commentator.

    Same old stuff from you guys – if its not the right message then shoot the messenger or try and smear them.

  6. Well if he is providing coaching, he is doing a good job. Looks like the government is down 25 points in the next poll…….sub 30!

    Or is it that the population have finally wised up to this mockery of a government we have at the moment.

    [lprent: ‘prat – have you gotten over your fear of being moderated?]

  7. sean14 7

    Of course Ralston isn’t presenting himself an independent. His writing gives you the impression he’d vote for a garden gnome if it had a blue rosette stuck on it.

  8. r0b 8

    It’s not about whether Ralston’s articles are crap – that’s irrelevant to the discussion.

    Indeed it is, but they certainly are. I remember the exact moment I lost any last remaining respect for Bill – this piece. His column is called “Life”, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the lives of most New Zealanders.

    Anyway, irrelevant as you say. If the speculation is true then Ralston should state any such vested interest in his political writing.

  9. AncientGeek 9

    I’d agree with sean14 about what his writing does look like these days. The question is if that is out of conviction or for a wallet reason.

    He does present himself as being independent, and indeed has never said where his political convictions lie. In the past he did attack anything, but that hasn’t been the case for a while.

    captcha: know Dancer
    nope – no posts recently

  10. insider 10

    $1500 seems a bit rich. Isn’t iy about 10c per word? MAybe Ralston et al get more.

  11. Phil 11

    Have you guys seen much from Kieth Ng?

    I stumbled across a commentary of his about Winston in “Unlimited” that was really very good, but I’d only vaguely heard of the guy before

  12. IrishBill 12

    I provided Tane the $1500 figure, insider as it is the rate the Herald pays for political columns. I agree that it’s way above the freelance word rate but that’s what happens when newspapers start playing the “stable of stars” game instead of focusing on news. You’ll recall the same approach pushed TV presenters’ pay through the roof when TV3 and TVNZ moved to that approach.

  13. Billy 13

    Tane: whether I buy the SST sometimes depends on whether it’s Chris Trotter or Matthew Hooton week.

    So do you buy it for the guy you agree with, or the guy you disagree with?

  14. insider 14

    Still seems a bit steep when you work it into an hourly rate

  15. sure does.

    mike et al. Brain Edwards never made any secret of the fact his was working as a political tranier for Clark and he wasn’t writing an ‘independent’ political column. that’s the difference

  16. IrishBill 16

    Tell me about it.

  17. AncientGeek 17

    Phil: Keith Ng is great. Try over at HardTalk on the blogs on the left column here. He is very occasional, but always worth redaing. Like that guy at the law media site.

  18. Tane 18

    Hmm, my comment disappeared. Are you guys censoring me now??? 🙂

    [lprent: Nope. That reminds me of a topic for the FAQ
    “Fumblefingers – why your comment disappeared”]

  19. Tane 19

    anyway, insider, na I like reading a variety of opinions. I just find Chris Trotter interesting and Hooton a bit of a bore.

  20. gobsmacked 20

    Ralston: “I’m not a public figure”.

    Well, the audience for Radio Live is pretty small, but not quite tiny enough to be “private”.

    As usual when conservative commentators are caught out (a regular occurrence), deliberate distractions are raised and are clearly not analagous at all. Brian Edwards regularly declares his interest, so do Matthew Hooten and Laila Harre on “Nine to Noon”, and so should any commentator with a potential conflict of interest. It’s just basic professional standards, which Ralston clearly does not have.

    You choose who you serve: a politician, or the public. You can’t do both, and you certainly can’t keep it secret.

  21. insider 21

    gobsmacked

    if you read further down, he did deny doing such work, so he has no interest to declare. So unless you are saying he is lying his professional standards should not be in question (well no more than usual)

  22. James Kearney 22

    He didn’t deny his company is doing work or that he is profiting from it or advising others who are coaching Key. His answers were deliberately vague.

  23. Julie 23

    I was going to mention that Ralston also writes a regular column in The Listener, but r0b beat me to it. Also Keith’s blog, called On Point and part of Public Address, can be found here:
    http://www.publicaddress.net/onpoint

    NZ is such a small place, in terms of politics and media, that there seems to be a lot of swapping back and forth – journalists who go into PR and media training, or work for various political parties, and sometimes MPs or candidates who end up in the media. It would be nice if it was all a bit more transparent for those of us outside the beltway. Paul Henry comes to mind for some strange reason…

  24. Siege mentality is contagious Tane. You are all getting more and more testy about the slightest criticism of the current government. Rather than frothing about all contrary views being national party spin, have you considered that Ralston may be offering what has now become the mainstream view.
    What exactly has he said that you so vehemently object too?
    Also what is the fixation with Paul Henry? He is hilarious.

  25. ghostwhowalks 25

    Funny that when one arm of APN NZ Herald calls Ralston , its
    “I’m not a public figure, I don’t have to answer your f****** questions,”
    But he on the phone to APN Herald On Sunday who called later to say he had told the paper of the Business Herald’s inquiries but assured them he personally had no involvement with the media training of the National Party leader.

    yeah right thats how Not Public figures do things. A carefully worded reply done through a sunday paper

  26. ghostwhowalks 26

    Notice too its “bill” doesnt get paid $1500…
    But it could be done through Deadline

  27. Razorlight 27

    Don’t get me wrong. I understand what you are saying Tane in that Ralston should not put himself out there as an independent commentator if he is not one.

    However I hold the opinion that the Fourth Estate mirrors society. Not the other way around. When Journalist after Journalist, use what you would call National ‘talking points’ we have reched a point where Labour is not providing the electorate what they want.

    I get the impression from many over here that Journaists are stupid, subjective or right wingers if they dare to criticise the government. You can be intelligent and even objextive if you don’t agree with the Pm.

    The EFA debacle was a perfect example where the NZ Herald was written off as a Tory reag because they disagreed with the government.

    In reality these ‘Tory Rags’ are reflecting the opinions of the electorate, not the other way around.

  28. Paul Robeson 28

    That would be why the turn out for the first EFA protest was so dismal…despite New Zealand’s largest daily paper heavily pushing it and ACT’s party machine pulling that cold calling machine out of the Simpson’s to attempt to drum up support…

    The point is the journalists did not provide an impartial report about the bill.

    I haven’t seen the Attack on Democracy leading to Springbok Tour style protests involving half the country…

    That is a bit of a naive representation of the realtionship between media and society. It’s not one way. Opinion is formed on the basis of information. If the information is slanted, of course it effects the formation of opinion. Which is a big part of the point.

  29. r0b 29

    In reality these ‘Tory Rags’ are reflecting the opinions of the electorate, not the other way around.

    That’s a pretty silly claim RL. Try a quick Google for the phrase “opinion maker”. Ask yourself why all political parties put so much effort into the battle of the press releases, why mmost Western democracies have limits on political advertising, and why there is a multi billion dollar advertising industry in general…

  30. Echoing a recent thread from the now-departed Poneke blog, I’m happy to read anything provided the content and the author demonstrate intellectual integrity.

    I don’t care if someone supports the Nats, Labour or anyone else.

    Just don’t be a black-is-white, up-is-down party hack. Think for yourself and be ready to support what you say if asked. Don’t cherry-pick the facts to support your spin. Account for the whole picture, not the piece you prefer.

  31. Craig Ranapia 31

    Brain Edwards never made any secret of the fact his was working as a political tranier for Clark and he wasn’t writing an ‘independent’ political column

    He bloody well does, Steve. Any questions about the client list of Callingham Edwards (political or otherwise) is greeted with a terse and unqualified MYOFB. As far as I’m aware (and welcome a sourced correction if I’m wrong) Edwards line is that he’s considered Clark a friend for over thirty years, and he discusses every subject under the sun with his friends. He’s consistently refused to confirm, or entirely deny, that Clark or the Labour Party are clients of his media consultancy.

    I also think Doctor Edwards would take strong and uninhibited suggestion to any suggestion that he’s a Labour Party mouthpiece of any description.

    But I guess the real difference is that you more or less agree with Brian Edwards, not so much Bill Ralston.

  32. Ari 32

    Colour me suspicious that National won’t talk about who their consultants are in order to dispell doubt. Not that I expect a National to be transperant about their goings-on- they’ve made it quite clear that party insiders and third-party assistance are to remain anonymous at all costs.

    As Julie points out, we know there’ll be swapping around, but segregating the people wearing the consultant hats from the people wearing the journalist hats is quite important, so to speak. And I’d like to see a better level of transperancy on these sorts of things from other parties, too.

  33. Felix 33

    “I’m not a public figure, I don’t have to answer your f****** questions,’

    Sounds like Mr Ralston could do with a bit of media training.

  34. Staving off the inevitable are we lads?

    27 point difference in the polls today, and an 18 point lead to Key over Clark. When are you going to understand that the public is sick of this kind of personality politics?

    However, big ups to Steve Pierson for not hiding behind a nom-de-plume on Radio NZ yesterday.

  35. jon 35

    Labour, like MMP it will soon be hard to find anyone that admits to voting for them (apart from you die hards of course)
    71% of the country dont bloody want them and the media need ratings.
    “Diddums”

  36. Monty 36

    Billy or whoever is giving advice and training to Key is obviously doing a great job as the latest Poll more than demonstrates.

    Who would want to be part of the leaking sinking ship “the Helengrad” – seems to me the only people left supporting Labor are the Fie-hard loyalists and unionists. there will be no money going into the next election for labour – afterall why throw good money after bad.

    what is important in this that National continues to build on their very good lead – afterall the public are saying 9as they have said for a very long time ” we trust National to have a majority Government”

  37. Lew 37

    Razorlight: “When Journalist after Journalist, use what you would call National ‘talking points’ we have reched a point where Labour is not providing the electorate what they want.”

    This is a point on which a great deal of very well-thought-out research has been conducted; you can’t blag it away with generalisations and `I reckons’. There’s some truth to your statement, and I generally agree with your argument that media people one happens to disagree with are dismissed as hacks of one stripe or another without consideration for their reasoning. But you imply that it’s one-way traffic: that journalists and columnists represent public opinion. In reality it’s a feedback loop; they both drive and reflect public opinion, which in turn influences their columns. IrishBill makes a good point when mentions the difference between the practice until recently employed by Poneke, of letting one’s work stand on its merits, and APN’s `stable of stars’ approach. In the former model the role of columnists is much more as `reflector’ than as `driver’; but when people of perceived mana or gravitas write, they are in a much stronger position to influence opinions, and that’s essentially the point of the `stable of stars’ model: to drive opinion. Not to say APN are all National hacks – I’ve already stated my views to the contrary here and elsewhere.

    There is some truth in your idea; however I’d argue Labour is not providing the newsmakers with what they want, more than the electorate. Working journalists in the Molesworth-to-Featherston beltway are reputedly sick to death of the government and want a change just to make their own lives interesting, and so familiarity has bred contempt in their work. There’s a strong case to be made that this reflects public opinion, but I’d argue it’s more to do with this quite understandable professional selfishness and National’s ability to capitalise upon it than any genuine feeling against the government. This is also not an accusation that the media are lined up against Labour – a healthy lack of credulousness is valuable. But it sure isn’t a direct and simple response.

    L

  38. ghostwhowalks 38

    Craig when did Brian Edwards ( or his wife) last have a regular political commentary in print AND radio. How many public servants and CEOs are tutored by Janet ‘Hilary’ Wilson in the morning and then get interviewed by Bill in the afternoon
    .

    You would think going to Edwards would toughen him up, after all key gets patsy questions from Ralston as it is.

  39. Craig Ranapia 39

    How many public servants and CEOs are tutored by Janet ‘Hilary’ Wilson in the morning and then get interviewed by Bill in the afternoon.

    For all I know, as many as were getting media training from Judy Callingham last year and being interviewed by Brian Edwards on his Radio Live show.

    I also guess we shouldn’t wait for Drinnan’s hard hitting investigation into why The Herald is bleeding senior journalists like a haemophiliac who’s started flossing with razor wire — and a good number of them ending up in PR/media consultancies, corporate and political spin, or Minister’s offices. I thought the crack at Alan Walley was a little cheap, considering the number of Herald hacks who’ve vanished into the Bowen Street Triangle.

  40. John Drinnan 40

    Haemophiliacs – razor blades – why so angry Craig?

  41. I think you’ll find Craig fancies himself as jurno and can’t understand why nobody else recognises his dull purple prose and mediocre attempts at blackadderesque humour as the mark of literary genius they clearly are.

  42. Craig Ranapia 42

    Haemophiliacs – razor blades – why so angry Craig?

    John:

    Stick to the media gossip column because you suck at the amateur psychoanalysis. I’m a reasonably happy chap, and after talking to a number of acquaintances who will be happy never to work for The Herald again I intend to stay so by following their example.

    I hardly expect The Herald to report on its own rather dysfunctional industrial relations. (How is APN’s experiment in outsourcing the sub-editing going?) Nor should anyone be particularly surprised that underpaid and under-resourced senior journalists are taking their talents — and contact books — elsewhere. But as I said, I thought you snide item about Allan Walley was a bit on the nose considering the organ you write for has its own recruitment, retention and industrial issues.

    I don’t get angry that the largest and most profitable newspaper in the country is bleeding experienced staff (and you know exactly who I’m talking about), with the inevitable effects on the depth, range and quality of reportage. It makes me sad.

    [Tane: Italics fixed]

  43. John Drinnan 43

    I don’t get angry that the largest and most profitable newspaper in the country is bleeding experienced staff (and you know exactly who I’m talking about), with the inevitable effects on the depth, range and quality of reportage. It makes me sad.

    Sorry – staff have come and gone but not to PR I have no idea who you are talking about – remind me.

    Are these frinds of yours online journalists?

    Craig – if you have a good story about staff retention at the Herald you should write it – for Media 7 maybe – where I beleive you have been attached – and which has its own intriguing staff retention issues.

    Pick up the phone – ask offical comment – check claims – quote people – look at legal issues – form an argument.

    Its better than jokes about haemophiliacs flossing with razor wire.

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