Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 12. 5 August 1970

Salient Interview

page 5

Salient Interview

Outside broadcasting, what interests do you have?

I play golf and bowls, and gardening, and I swim and I do everything.

Would you think broadcasting was the main focal point of your life?

Image of Gilbert Stringer

Gallery interviewer Peter Debreceny interviewed Gilbert Stringer, retiring Director-General of the NZBC, for Salient last week.

Well it has been, but it won't be. I can put it that way. I think few people can realise what a Director-General's life is like, or, I was going to say, what my life's been like. I have a one-track mind, and I concentrate solely on that subject. But after doing it I can shift to something else and transfer the whole of my concentration to that. Giving up broadcasting doesn't worry me. It only means that I will find another job that's got a challenge in it—it could be a charitable thing; it could be in international broadcasting. After I've got it to a certain stage in New Zealand it's quite easy for me to transfer that interest to providing a service for the people of Asia, or a service for the people of the Commonwealth. It's the challenge that interests me. But a Director-General is never away from broadcasting. It's a job that is demanding and I don't think you can have many other associations. You never get free at a cocktail party to talk about fishing or anything else, or very rarely. I gave up bowls because when I was skipping, eight years ago, people would talk about the programmes to me and, while I though my game wasn't being affected, I found that for about three or four heads I would be about eighteen inches short. In other words, there was tension underneath it, and I gave it up because people wouldn't leave me alone. I play golf, and I play with the same people all the time, and they know that I'm playing it for recreation, to give me a relief from tension, from the pressures, and they leave me alone, and that's why I play with the same four.

And are the pressures very great?

Well I think it's a very responsible job, and I think that if you are wanting to maintain standards and improve standards, you can only achieve this by constant vigilance. Of course, I think that programmes are the only thing that broadcasting is concerned with. The rest is what we call 'housekeeping' and it's the Director-General's job to be au fait with the programmes, He's got to have enough experience and knowledge of the techniques to be able to make constructive suggestions. He can't be carpy. He leads a creative organisation and you don't get creativity out of people by belly-aching.

What sort of concept of the job did you have when you took it on?

I wanted to eliminate from the creative staff the need to do routine work. In particular, routine clerical work. Also I think that we've gone a long way, particularly in sound broadcasting, to give the creative people the right facilities with which to work. My job is to make sure that the 'housekeeping' is a service to the creative people. In other words what I have wanted to do is give my creative people the greatest freedom in which to create programmes.

How far do you think you've been able to do this?

A fair way, a long way, in controversial broadcasting. Not so far in drama, because for instance at the present moment we haven't got any adequate studio facilities in television. This is, as far as I know, the only country which has introduced television without borrowing. And this we have achieved by very astute financing. And it isn't until Avalon gets going that we will really break into the purely dramatic production field. You cannot make too great a demand on creative staff by burning up their nervous energy through making them work under bad conditions. And nobody can say that the conditions under which our television staff have worked have been good. Avalon, and later Tank Farm in Auckland, and later a smaller studio in Christchurch, are absolutely essential in the development of television in New Zealand. And television has been pretty stationery since 1967 in this country. We haven't made the same advances, through limited technical facilities, as we did make up to 1967.

Do you mean advances in distribution, in the technical aspect, or in the creative aspect?

The creative Field. I would like to have seen Avalon in '67. We won't burst into the Avalon atmosphere now till '72. When we found we couldn't get into a television studio by '67 we switched and bought a lot of cinematographic equipment, and this is of course when you saw Town and Around start, and so on. So that we went second-best to keep the creativity movement in broadcasting advancing.

To move back then to this business about the 'housekeeping' side of the Corporation: it seems to many people, both inside and outside the NZBC, that the Corporation is still suffering from the legacy of being a government department where civil servants still have control.

No, I wouldn't agree with that. I've worked in the Public Service, and I've worked here, and I don't think the public servants have control. We certainly have a government auditor, if by that you mean the public servant. But very few of the people in the administration of the NZBC at the present moment are actually public servants.

But a lot of them used to be, when it was a government department. A lot of people say that although we changed our status from a government department into being a corporation, the personnel and the attitudes remained the same, largely.

They shouldn't, you know, because the initiative has always been in the hands of the programme staff. We have always insisted that the administration be a service to programmes. Otherwise you're right. If programmes have to be unnecessarily curtailed, then of course creativity suffers. But I think creativity hasn't suffered. For instance, the NZBC has just turned on a magnificent show at Expo 70.

Fair enough, but our real business is broadcasting.

Our real business is entertainment, entrepreneurship. And it comes out in drama, it comes out in the concert section, music, drama, and also the visual arts, there's the scenery manufacture. No, I wouldn't say just broadcasting. There are such things as news and current affairs, but we also sell the second biggest weekly in the country, which is a high-grade publication, probably the highest grade as a journal. Okay, we're the biggest concert entrepreneur in the country because we engage overseas artists to appear with our symphony orchestra. We have the dramatic aspect, particularly in radio drama where we've done very well, I think, since certain supply groups have stopped operating. So I think you've got to look at the situation from a wider point of view than just straight out radio and television.

Can I come back to this one because a lot of TV, radio producers and personnel consider that many of the administrative staff still have a civil service hang-up. You wouldn't accept that?

I wouldn't accept it in my own case.

No, no. I'm not referring . . .

. . . but the administration is there to provide a service, just as the technical section and the engineers are what we call a service department. So the finances, the accounts section are there to pay the salaries and provide the financial service. They are what we call service departments. Now, there are ways individuals can quite often, by their actions, alienate feelings. Now all I do is lay down the format; that is, the programmes that we are here for. What I want to know is what happened today, what's happening at this very moment, and what's going to happen tomorrow. All I'm interested in about yesterday is that if we made a mistake then we don't make it again tomorrow. That's the philosophy of this place, as far as I'm concerned, and I've driven it into this place. The NZBC has grown bigger. When I came into Broadcasting there were 350 on the staff. When the National Broadcasting Service and the National Commercial Broadcasting Service were joined together there were 650 on the staff. Not very long ago there were 1300 and then 1500, and all of a sudden we'd got to 2,900. One of the big problems that we have is inculcating into everybody the philosophy, or the atmosphere of the place. I think that some of us failed, and I suppose I've got to take responsibility for it. But we have a very low resignation rate and that indicates that people like working here.

On the question of salaries, I know very well what my counterpart receives in the BBC and what I get as a salary, and the answer is that if I don't like it and I want to earn more money I've got to go to Canada or—and this I would say to a young man who is on the way up—go to Sydney and then to London. Many of the people that have left New Zealand because they're disappointed with something, go with a very good reference from me. Lots of people think that NZBC staff go because we don't like them.

They go because I realise, and a lot of us realise, that if you've got real talents to sell, you don't sell them in New Zealand, you sell them in Hollywood, New York, London. If I had the talent that some of these people have got I wouldn't stay very long in New Zealand. I don't say I'd stay away, but I think if you are a writer, an actor, a television producer, why stay in New Zealand? So they go with my best wishes, and I'm proud of the fact that our training is so good. I don't give them all recommendations, I'll be quite frank, because my reputation is bound up in this—if I give them one bad sale then hell cast a reflection on the rest. If I keep on to the people that I think have got creative ability which can be developed, and it is developed, and they keep on going, then they're accepted, and continue to be accepted.

It seems to me to be ironical in a way that one of your last acts as Director-General way to lay the foundation stone for a ten-storey administration block accommodating 400 people.

This isn't for administration. We call it the tower block: the top tower of this block will take the microwave link to Kaukau. Now the people that will be there will not be administrators. The building will have nobody in it except television staff that are at the present moment in Victoria Street and in Waring Taylor Street. As a matter of fact I will tell you that I was thrilled to be asked to lay that stone. That stone could have been laid by many people more important than me, but the point was that they realised that it was a dream of mine, that I'd bough the land when John Schroeder was Director, and that I'd dreamt and worked for it. It can tell you that practically every Sunday I go over it and woe betide the person who's messing around or driving a motor car on the lawn and what not. But this was a tribute to me to lay this stone.

Now you were talking about talent going overseas. It seems to a lot of people that the Corporation is not yet prepared to pay for talent.

That is wrong in regard to the symphony orchestra. I would think that it would be wrong if and when, we have to train a corps of radio actors, and I hope that this will come about. I've got many people over in that building there who are full time with us and they're making a living, and what is more they're able to make it in more places than us, which I think is also beneficial.

Particularly in the news and current affairs field it looks as though there's quite a reluctance to get our own look at world wide affairs by sending out our own news correspondents and our own current affairs crews.

I wouldn't say this is a reluctance. I always like to explore other avenues of achieving this before ultimately approving it. But I think in the last year or so we have been sending more people. We sent Cochran away. We've had the fair chap . . . he's been away. And we've had the other chap . . . .Paul Cheeseright . . . he's been away. So there's quite a fair bit of movement now. I do know the cost to the Australian Broadcasting Commission of operating their organisations in Singapore, in Tokyo, in New Delhi, in New York, and in London, and quite frankly I've been hesitant about incurring the costs. It's a pretty expensive operation.

We were prepared to send six people off to Edinburgh for the Commonwealth Games.

The Edinburgh one, of course, is just silly because the situation as reported by Dominion is ludicrous. It just gives you an idea of how ignorant the journalist was. For instance I don't know how many sports there were to be covered. Let's say there were fourteen different sports, and three of the staff had to stay in London. The only mistake we made was that I should have smacked that chap back to leg in the Dominion and pointed out to him what a silly facetious thing it was for him to make this comment, but unfortunately I had to fly to Dunedin and I didn't get it across. But the situation is just ludicrous. I mean how the devil do you cover four simultaneous events in Edinburgh? Do you send one person? Ask yourself . . . it was an ignorant assessment.

How far do you think the NZBC has increased in maturity over the eight years that you've been Director-General?

Well that's a difficult thing to ask me. I think that's the sort of question that outsiders should assess you know, personally. I think it has made a terrific advancement.

Do you think this has been brought about by people at the lower levels, forcing their creativity on?

No no, one of the major factors was that advancements were made in radio, while lots of people were looking at television, and then these advances were transferred to television. When we started television in Auckland it was two years and a month before we started in Dunedin. Programmes which were acceptable in Auckland, after two years and one month, were not acceptable in Dunedin. It's a question of what people will accept.

Has creativity within the Corporation come about from beneath or has it been led.

It's been led, because the Director-General is charged under the Act as the Chief Executive Officer and he's charged to administer Section 10 sub-section (2) and he does it so he gives out the delegation so long as the people to whom it s delegated accept the greater responsibilities involved. Now I remember the time when the Director-General approved every controversial programme, and he approved the people who appeared in it. There's been a development of growing confidence, the use of a new medium, and acceptability by the public and acceptability of the responsibilities by the people to whom the greater freedoms are delegated.

What sort of formal or informal pressure has there been on the Corporation from time to time, through government or any other powerful groups?

None that couldn't be withstood.

You think you've been successful in withstanding these pressures?

You ask other people that.

Do you think the Corporation will continue to be able to with stand these pressures?

You ask the Chairman on that one.

There are also complaints of bias within the Corporation.

This is just a natural problem of constant vigilance, to make sure that there isn't bias. Justice must be done and it must be seen to be done. Many of the things that we do, we do in the interests of justice being seen to be done, and I think the people concerned, when you face them across the desk and explain the position, see it in that light too.

What's your attitude to private broadcasting?

Private broadcasting is all right providing the country has the resources to sustain it. Howard Smith has already pointed out that when I said that it wants ten million people this will not be the case until the year 2040. But it still doesn't pet away from the fact that to sustain it it must have a larger population and greater financial resources.

A lot of people have left the Corporation in circumstances surrounded by controversy—Gordon Bick, Alister Taylor and so on. Do you have any regrets about these sort of incidents?

No. I recall one of the statements made by Mr Scrimmanger, who was Controller of the National Commercial Broadcasting Service, and I hope I'm correct in this quotation he said "Give me an announcer for six months and I will return him to you like a sucked lemon." I think that the constant change of staff is one of the reasons why we've made so much advance. I know people who have left us but I consider that at the stage that they left us they were burnt out. One of the problems of a creative person is that having created, and having worked at a certain level and then reached a stage where he doesn't advance any more, he becomes frustrated, and each one of us has only so much creativity given to us. For instance, this medium is a terrific consumer of creativity and nervous energy, and after you've been associated with it for a fair while people get used to your techniques. It's a question of where do you go next?

Image of Gilbert Stringer

You're not worried about the controversy that surrounds some of these departures?

No. I don't think in any case has anyone been penalised. Mr Aberdeen and I couldn't have had a better two hours together. We parted we agreed to part. That was it and there's been no recriminations. I'd say the same applied with Alister Taylor. He wanted to go a certain way.