My Days at Fiji TV

“Go and Take Over the News…”

Early Days of TV in Fiji

I had been to Fiji several times in the late 1980s as a trainer, teaching radio and TV news reporters from various South Pacific Islands the rudiments of news gathering, reporting and sub-editing. The courses had been arranged by PINA (Pacific Islands News Association) with financial assistance from both government and non-government agencies.

Television New Zealand (TVNZ) became a stakeholder in television in Fiji almost by accident. In 1987 TVNZ organised a crude TV set-up which transmitted just to Suva and surrounds enabling viewers to watch, live, the Fiji team play in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The team reached the quarter finals. Television was introduced relatively cheaply and easily to Fiji because for years there had been a roaring trade in the video hire business, so most households had a television set and required just an aerial and a re-tune in order to receive free-to-air TV.  When the time came to pack up the temporary, make-do equipment after the rugby in late June 1987 and return it to New Zealand, the Fiji Government asked TVNZ if the framework could remain and would the New Zealanders expand on the facilities,  enhance local and imported programming and extend transmission, ultimately to viewers throughout the two main islands. And all this, it was planned, would be supervised by TVNZ pending Channel 9, Australia, taking over as the preferred service provider. In the end the Australians lost out and TVNZ was left with a contract to develop television to a full free-to-air, commercial, service. It was Fiji’s only TV station operated by Fiji Television Limited (FTL) which opened mid-June 1994, its local employees supported by a handful of TVNZ staff seconded to Suva.

The company had to decide whether to include News in the programme schedule, and, if so, would it persist with supply from the Government’s National Video Centre. An alternative emerged when a local video company offered to contract for the provision of a daily news bulletin. Then there was another proposal, with costings prepared by TVNZ, to set up FTL’s own newsroom. It was decided to go with this in-house option.

News was, thus, added to the ongoing “grand makeover” of TV in Fiji and in 1994 I was asked to go to Fiji to participate in this project: specifically to set up news operations. I remember the words of the then Director-General of TVNZ: “Ric, go and take over the news”. At that stage Fiji TV was broadcasting out of temporary studio premises in the old Masonic Hall in downtown Suva just opposite Government Buildings.

Masonic Hall converted to temporary TV headquarters and studio

The cavernous hall had been crudely sub-divided by temporary wall-board partitions to provide offices, a studio, presentation and programme-preparation… and, soon, a newsroom.  The studio itself was, in fact, a small area with curtains, drapes, minimal lighting and just enough room to accommodate two cameras. It was going to be a squeeze to fit a newsreader’s desk into the confined space.

News would share the building with other Fiji TV Departments: the Masonic Building comprised the whole business – thus accounts, sales and marketing, personnel and management all had allocated space in the improvised premises.

Fiji TV had been broadcasting from the Masonic Hall for some time. Cables conveyed the signal to a transmitter in the hills behind Suva enabling reception to most places in the bay.  TVNZ engineers would later complete a distribution system so all inhabitants of both main islands could receive TV. But this was still in the planning stage when I arrived and it was obvious it was going to be a long job, with some ingenious engineering, to provide TV to the main islands in the Fiji group.  A fibre-optic circuit (although in Fiji it was officially called an “optic-fibre cable”) was being installed between Suva and Nadi in the West and this was to be a god-send, enabling TV signals to be sent between the two major areas of population. This link was a major project and would take some time.

The Masonic Hall, built in the 1950s, was not air-conditioned: it had a system of hatches all the way along the side which, if opened, sometimes afforded cooling relief inside – it depended which way the breeze, if any, was blowing.

Technician Jim Meachen adjusts the camera in the small studio in the Masonic Hall

We experienced a tropical downpour almost daily, usually in the afternoon, and if there was a live-to-air studio presentation going on at the time the technicians had to turn up the audio so viewers could hear against the din of the rain on the iron roof. If it was a pre-recorded piece, operations were suspended until the rain ended.

From time to time the building was plunged into darkness: the combined electrical draw-off of all the equipment and lighting was just too much for the 40-year-old circuitry and the main fuse would blow. There was a well-followed drill: minimise disruption by running around to turn off some appliances and to douse a few lights and then re-set the fuse.

A large satellite receiving “dish” had been erected at the side of the Masonic Hall, enabling Fiji TV to download TVNZ’s nightly news bulletins and other programmes. This was a very expensive way to access content: most programmes were received on videotapes, regularly air-freighted from TVNZ, Auckland.

Starting Local News from Scratch

I set about establishing a newsroom with equipment and services required to produce a local half-hour daily bulletin. By local I mean it was to comprise entirely of items gathered in Fiji about events in Fiji. Since TVNZ’s news hour was also shown on Fiji TV’s early evening transmission, I took the view that the audience could find international and New Zealand news there; our locally-produced bulletin would include only items gathered in Fiji. Management agreed, though wondered if there was enough material to fill a half-hour programme 7 nights a week. I had done my arithmetic, plotting a typical half-hour which, taking out commercial breaks, amounts to about 24 minutes of editorial content. Apart from news I planned a sports package, a brief round-up of currency and commodity prices (petrol and gold), and, of course, a weather slot.

Masonic Hall – warning to visitors not to enter – video-recording in progress

Restricting ourselves to local news meant we did not have to subscribe to expensive overseas wire services for the supply of international news copy or TV items. But I established my own, personal, sources from abroad almost as soon as I arrived in Fiji. I had brought with me my transistorised shortwave radio so I could tune in to overseas broadcasts. At first I had no luck with reception but soon fixed this by acquiring a long length of wire from Fiji TV technicians, attaching a weight to one end and throwing it as high as I could into the giant Mango tree that grew outside the apartment I occupied in Gorrie Street. Once this aerial was connected to the radio I had no trouble receiving Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia and they were my “required listening” late at night and with breakfast. I found I was thus very well informed on Pacific news – I used these sources to tip me off about storylines that we should be following up with a local angle.

Fiji TV’s make-do Sales Department in the Masonic Hall

I ploughed on with planning for local-only content, and the Sales Department was pleased when I advised that in addition to the usual 2 commercial breaks, there would be other opportunities to earn a dollar or two. I was keen to retain the almost-international convention that news programmes per se are not sponsored but I offered 3 programme slots within the bulletin – weather, business news and sports news – which could have “in association with” sponsorship. Within no time local companies had signed up to purchase the rights for all three.

As a safety valve in case on any night we ran out of items gathered in Fiji, I had Graphics prepare a shoulder heading to introduce “News from Our Great Pacific” which would introduce items of interest to Fiji viewers which had been gleaned from anywhere from Australia to California. (I think I used the caption just once to introduce an item about a Fijian who had been arrested in Samoa and was to be deported home. Otherwise, we managed to report all meaningful Pacific stories as seen through local eyes and with local comment).

FTL’s News Policy

It was up to me to set the policies and guidelines regarding the gathering and publication of news at Fiji TV. I researched rules and policy from the likes of the BBC, TVNZ, and other established broadcasters,  compiling these in a Charter of six main points plus a number of lesser ones, written in everyday language.

First draft of Fiji TV’s News Charter

Manager, Richard Heath, took the document to FTL’s Board which, thanks to his careful stewardship, was approved without alteration. I had it printed and circulated to anyone who mattered, from the Minister of Broadcasting and his cabinet colleagues, down. Some found it difficult to imagine what the new programme might look like because, to date, the daily news bulletins were being prepared by public servants in the Government’s own National Video Centre, tasked to deliver, daily, a 20 minute bulletin to our studio at the Masonic Hall in time for the 7 o’clock time slot on Fiji TV.

The new News service on Fiji TV had its doubters. Could we do it?  I quickly found these misgivings were entirely justified, based on what viewers had to-date seen on-screen.

An Appalling Record

Night after night the Government Video Centre supplied poor content reflecting the ill-equipped facility and inexperienced staff and their inability to provide news of substance and variety. Moreover, reporters and producers, being state servants, always had in the back of their minds that the material they prepared for broadcast must always please the Minister and the government, both in the “look” and in “the message”.

There were many problems with the arrangement under which the Government Video Unit supplied Fiji TV with its nightly news bulletin. So many things went wrong that we at Fiji TV could not wait for the day that our own newsroom would take over in-house production and presentation of the bulletins. Because of its convoluted production processes, the Government Unit imposed an early afternoon deadline on itself enabling the material to be prepared in time, ready to be “packaged” into its evening bulletin. The complete bulletin was supposed to be pre-recorded early evening using one of the Unit’s newsreaders. But some Fiji TV staff believed recording sessions often ended before 5 o’clock, knock-off time for public servants. This was a little cruel because frequent delays and breakdowns meant they worked right up to deadline.

Once Fiji One took over the News, we would be transmitting live, thus right up-and-into-the-minute items would be seen, same day. This was in sharp contrast to the Unit’s content: pre-recorded and sometimes days old. The other problem with the Unit’s operations was that when the videotape was delivered to the Masonic Hall its content was often very much short of the expected duration of 20 minutes. One night I recall there was just 7 minutes of material. Another night there was no news at all because a local power failure at the Centre meant staff could not complete the compilation of the material.

It was very difficult, if not impossible, for Fiji TV to anticipate these shortfalls and plug the gaps with stand-by material or run the whole evening’s programme schedule early. The other frequent problem was that the tape was delivered late to the Masonic Hall, arriving long after the expected time. I can remember several very close calls with the news tape being frantically threaded on to the video play-out machine while the last commercial was playing immediately before News was scheduled at 7pm. For these close-calls, the Unit’s vehicle would be driven right up on the grass verge outside the Masonic Hall and the driver would pass the tape through one of the ventilation flaps straight into the hands of the operator in the play-out room! Worse, some nights we would get a phone call to say that there was a serious problem: that the tape would not be delivered until well after 7 o’ clock, the scheduled on-air time. Technical problems at the Unit would be blamed – the poorly-maintained, old equipment had failed once again. Other nights we had to send a car up to the Unit to pick up the tape because for some reason the Unit was without transport and could not make the delivery. Several times their Government vehicle broke down so we had to send a car to locate the disabled van and fetch the tape. Taxis saved the day sometimes, fetching the tape to the studios at Masonic Hall but always at the expense of Fiji TV since the Unit’s Manager said he had no budget for such things: he could not approve, nor pay, for taxis used in these emergencies. A few other times the technical quality of the TV signal on the tape was so bad we were hesitant to broadcast it.  Altogether, it was a most unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The indifferent technical standard, the limited choice of topics, the poor presentation and the unreliable service was, in one way, good for me: bettering the Film and Video Unit’s appalling record would not be difficult. But no wonder there were those, on the basis of the poor reputation, who voiced reservations that the new Fiji One would deliver as promised!

Latest logo – Fiji One News

The name Fiji One had been chosen as the brand for the “new look”, revamped, TV.

Getting Ready

I hired some new staff, from the local government radio station (Richard Broadbridge and Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum) and later Rita Narayan from the newspaper. I recruited just two people from the beleaguered National Video Centre: Mary Loma Loma, a polished presenter and Fernando, a tape editor who showed promise and whom I thought would quickly convert to requirements of commercial TV. We were not due to go to air with News for several months: this time was used to teach the newcomers some of the fundamentals of reporting for TV, the daily routine of a TV newsroom and to get them familiar with our  News and Current Affairs Policy. Given the political atmosphere, such matters had not been considered so important by the local media in Fiji. I also imbued a new collegial culture which also included video editors, graphic artists, camera operators… in fact all those who had an association with gathering, processing and presenting news on Fiji One. We built a close-knit team, essential if we were to meet the challenges of daily deadlines once our news service began on-air.

We designed a news set, auditioned several very able presenters and then it was time to create our opening sequence, the scenes and titles which, every evening at 7pm, would start the news half-hour.  It had to be representative of Fiji, endure the rigours of daily exposure and the music had to be distinctive – our theme – which nightly would signal to viewers that their daily news programme was about to start… their appointment! Finding appropriate pictures and music was much more difficult than I had imagined and, in the end, we settled on absolute neutral topics being depicted in the opening titles, side headings and closing titles. Ultimately we decided on local trees, birds, butterflies, animals, the reef, the sea, the mountains, the sky and other natural objects. This took away any politics connected with people and gave us great colours of the tropics to work with. Local artists and recording technicians put the new graphics and music packages together. I was well-pleased with it and management decided to “premiere” it privately for staff at a function accompanied by morning tea.

This was, I think, the turning point in the establishment of News on Fiji One. Our staff, through the graphics and music could see the on-air look-and-feel that we were trying to achieve. There was acclamation, favourable comment and a welcome for the themes just as soon as the presentation ended and the sequences were repeated several times. Staff could see the presentation was going to be far better than any previous local production.  News on Fiji One became alive, assured and real. A team was born.

Our reporters on-location got more confident directing the cameramen to get the shots they wanted to help tell the story (and cameramen accepted that this would ever be so!). We began “processing” – researching, scoping, shooting, editing and scripting whole items. These training efforts concentrated on “people” and “places” storylines that did not date. This was deliberate. These “evergreens” were put on the shelf for the “rainy days” when news might be a bit short and we would welcome ready-made content, instantly available.

We sent out letters, introducing our new News service to every organisation we could find a contact address for. We mailed Government Departments, non-government organisations, sports bodies, social clubs, service associations, major companies and local Councils and Committees. We invited them all to advise us about their important activities so these could be considered for inclusion in our news bulletins.

Together with the Manager, Richard Heath (also a TVNZ Executive who had been seconded to Fiji TV), I called on most Ministers of the Crown to have morning tea and explain how we planned to operate once we began our own news bulletins. They were all hospitable and friendly even if a little suspicious of how things would pan out. Most offered assistance with news releases and signalled their co-operation when we sought interviews and comments. My message to them all was that we would be fair and that we would seek their comments, to be broadcast together with whatever topic we were dealing with that was covered by their particular portfolio. We attempted to see the Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, to have the same chat but his office declined saying he had heard about our intentions from his Ministers.

Sitiveni Rabuka. National Library of N. Z.

Rabuka came to power in the 1987 military coup. By the time I arrived in Suva to work for Fiji TV the routines of government had settled down but there was an underlying feeling of mistrust with a certain instability. One got the impression that while things appeared reasonably smooth on the outside there remained an underbelly of distrust.

While I got on satisfactorily with the Ministers I came into contact with, notably the Minister of Broadcasting and Communications, the same can’t be said for the heads of the various departments, the Permanent Secretaries and other bureaucrats. Unless they had something positive, super-positive, to say on TV, they did not want to have anything to do with Fiji One News.

As our on-air day approached we ran rehearsals and dummy schedules, looking at all known events each day and deciding which ones we would do, who would be assigned, did we have enough camera crews, what time would the material be in the newsroom and would there be sufficient staff and facilities to process it by deadline? Notionally we went through all the daily processes which were soon to become the regular routine day-in, day-out. We started stocking up on graphic material and footages shot during training exercises which all ended up in our library of catalogued stock shots. We rehearsed our news readers. I remember, of the presenters employed by the Government Video Unit, just one, Mary Loma Loma, survived into Fiji One. All the rest were new faces and thankfully we found one who had on-camera TV experience overseas.

Then, for a week before our on-air date we ran complete rehearsals, gathering news items in the field, editing and processing them and in mock broadcasts, presenting them as if live at 7pm. We mixed and matched the teams so everyone got a taste of what the real thing was going to be like – anyone who was in any way connected with anything to do with News was involved. We added the sports items. We made sure Fiji Meteorological Office could supply up-to-date weather maps 7 days a week, and in the form we required. We also ensured Westpac Bank could provide latest exchange and commodity prices. (I was disappointed we could not quote sugar prices: rather than a tradeable commodity, its price was set season-to-season)

These dummy runs gave us a chance to iron out difficulties, particularly any presentation or studio problems: in a live broadcast there’s no opportunity to hide mistakes or errors: the viewers get to see blemishes or blunders, big and small. And, unlike the recorded news programmes from the Government Video Unit, all our bulletins would be live and right up to the minute!

At last opening night arrived. It was now the real thing. Some station executives wanted to pre-record the opening just in case, for some reason, we did not get away “cleanly”. I resisted: “live” was what we had practised for, “live” it was going to be. Nervousness and tensions overcome, it was credit to all involved that the first night went very well, almost blemish-free, and the light and bright, modern “look and feel” of the programme went down very well. Station management was pleased. We had many well-wishers congratulate us, including members of the FTL Board. I was very fortunate in the choice of foundation reporters: they all did very well right from day one, their good works equalled by the newsreaders out-front and others behind-the-scenes.

Doubting Thomases were proved wrong. We had a smooth opening. Now, having successfully made it to air, they were saying that we couldn’t keep it up! And I knew, from experience, that production of a daily bulletin has a very voracious appetite and takes a lot of effort to sustain.

Fiji One News

What we achieved in the Masonic Hall studios was a marvel. We had long been planning for the move into an almost new building next door, fronting Gorrie Street, which had been custom-outfitted as a TV station. While planning news operations in the very restricted, crude, facilities in the Masonic Hall… and getting the programme up and running… part of my task was to ensure the new premises would be adequate for our needs. Fortunately, there was opportunity to submit my “shopping list” of equipment and to participate in the design of offices, studio and work-places within the new building. We found that “state of the art” equipment was affordable after we carefully set the budget. We could have latest technology in field cameras, videotape machines and graphics. The studio, which had to be multi-purpose serving all local programmes, was specially designed so it easily converted from one set to another during the day… and then, early evening, was ready for the news bulletin.

All this planning paid off and it was a great day when we left behind the temporary facilities in the Masonic Hall and transferred to the new building. It was if news operations were re-born, the set-up so much improved: equipment that wasn’t subject to breakdown, a sound-proof studio and technology that allowed staff-members to stretch their techniques and talent. And electrics that did not trip the fuse under load!

A few teething troubles apart, News could not help but flourish in the new facilities and it went from strength to strength with the few problems quickly overcome with help from management. There was little, or no, editorial interference.

The one major difficulty was our inability to provide optimum same-day news coverage of events in the West, the major centres like Nadi, Lautoka, and Sigatoka. We could not ignore this part of Fiji with its important storylines. It had big centres of population – some reflecting focussed Indian cultures – as well as the main-stay of agriculture, the sugar industry, then the airport and tourism: all leading contributors to Fiji’s economy.  We appointed a reporter in Nadi, Saitiri, and a cameraman, providing them with a vehicle to enable adequate coverage of the Western districts.

Way Out West!

The problem was that at this stage there was no fibre-optic link between Suva and Nadi.  We had to fly-in news items each day using the regular light-plane service from Nadi to Suva’s Nausori airport. The flight, chock-to-chock, averages an hour. This meant much earlier deadlines for material shot in the West. Saitiri would shoot her items and then get them by road to Nadi airport. Her videotape would come to us as cargo on the next available plane, and though Fiji Air and Sunflower Airlines tried to keep to their timetables, weather and mechanical problems sometimes upset schedules. Then, once landed at Nausori, we had a friendly taxi driver, Mary or her husband, who would pick up the precious videotape and fetch it to the TV station in downtown Suva. The road trip was at least another 30 minutes.  The items would then have to be edited, their voice-overs checked and graphics added before being ticked off, ready for broadcast.

We at the new Fiji One endured this irksome and delaying process for some months, then at last the fibre-optic link was opened, linking Nadi with Suva, so Saitiri could send her rough-cut items to us on-line, effectively halving the deadline and no more reliance on airline schedules. This enabled us to much better honour my policy for Fiji One: “same day news – gathered today, seen tonight”.

The air-freighting of items was repeated when we appointed a reporter/cameraman to cover items for Fiji One News on the Republic’s second biggest island, Vanua Levu. As we experienced with items from the West, it was nowhere near ideal!

I was determined to put some life in what I call “institutional stories” so we tried, with marginal success, to break down passive TV coverage of government and other organisations having meetings, workshops, conferences and teach-ins. Items from the Government Video Centre had previously shown these, night after night, ad infinitum. There was a kind of formula… first a Minister or another VIP would be seen opening the function, then pictures of people sitting around being spoken-to and then shots of the new Power Point screen. Everyone always looked bored, some were asleep while just a few others pretended to take copious notes, probably just for the benefit of the TV cameras.

I spread the message that we weren’t doing this anymore. I would tell organisers of these gatherings  to “get outside” and I gave the example that if they were talking about how best to grow taro or sugar cane, we won’t do the “sitting around shots” but we would accompany the group into the field when they are doing something meaningful and photogenic. “Get outside!” But it was very difficult to ignore important themes like women’s rights, environmental issues and poverty reduction where, for days on end, very worthy but boring-looking sessions would continue unabated. I tried another tack. “We will take a few shots of the formal sessions, put these on ice ‘til the last day, come back to interview the organisers about what’s been decided, or achieved, and broadcast a short (definitive) package”. Nothing doing – we found so many gatherings ended without resolution or follow-up action it was difficult to keep our end of the arrangement and so many of these activities went unreported or under-reported!

I found it most uncomfortable reporting proceedings of the Magistrate’s Court when we had not been present in the courtroom. For me, it was the norm for reporters to be sitting at the media bench, taking notes, when cases were being heard. I recall the first important hearing we missed. I remonstrated with the reporter who should have been in Court at 10 o’ clock for the hearing. “And now we’ve missed it!” I exclaimed. “Oh, no”, she said, “no we haven’t, I’ll go and see the magistrate during his morning tea break and get the details. Don’t worry, Ric, we’ll get the story.” I was flabbergasted! In New Zealand if you missed the hearing there was no way you could belatedly and reliably pick up the “facts” and as for access to the Magistrate to look over the papers and get him to tell you what had taken place,  that was absolutely out of the question. However, it was obviously not the same in Fiji because not long after our conversation the reporter returned from the court with the story. She had, indeed, shared a cup of tea with the magistrate and he had given her far more detail that we could use!

A Few Firsts…

The whole Fiji One news programme was a first: it looked so different to previous attempts, it was there every night on time, it filled the whole half-hour: technically and editorially it was a great improvement and began to look as slick and meaningful as TVNZ’s bulletin that immediately preceded it. Comparison was thus a nightly test. I think Fiji One’s presentation more than measured up most evenings!

Rugby 7s

But there were other notable firsts, too. Being live we had the potential to broadcast up-to-the-minute sports results so we exploited this. We ran into difficulties, though, when viewers expected the results of the very popular local Rugby 7s in our Saturday night sports bulletins.

Rugby 7s at Prince Charles Park

Sometimes we could not get results – but it wasn’t our fault. We had to explain on-screen, several times, that there had been so many teams entered in the one-day tournament that organisers could not keep to the timetable and the finals had been delayed. At 7.20pm, when our sports news went to air, the final was still being played at Prince Charles Park using car headlights to illuminate the action on the field! I recall on several occasions we still did not have the final result by the time News ended at half past seven. After a deluge of phone calls we decided to put up a caption when the final result was known and repeat it throughout the evening.

The poor lighting at the stadium also affected our TV coverage of the game (which would be shown the following night) and the authorities decided to purchase floodlights for Prince Charles Park. Money was allocated, the equipment bought and, from memory, lights etc were shipped to Fiji. But no lights were installed: somehow they went missing in transit.

The vigour and skill with which Rugby 7s was played later produced the winning team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil having won the inaugural Rugby World Cup 7s in 1997 and many other similar Cups plus numerous World and Pacific Games titles. These games are “major events” throughout Fiji. Live TV coverage is central to its popularity: each game Fiji plays brings the nation to a standstill.

Melbourne Cup

News teamed up with, or perhaps it would be better said “came on the coat-tails”, of outside broadcasts for special events. The Melbourne Cup was one-such, with coverage from Flemington laced with local colour at the Travelodge Hotel on Suva’s waterfront.  A link between the hotel and our studio was established using cables strung from palm tree to palm tree bordering Albert Park beside Government Buildings. The signal to the hotel carried satellite coverage from Melbourne race-course, while the return signal to the studio captured the colour and events of the local gala at the Travelodge.

Travelodge, Suva.

Although the venue, climate and surrounds differed somewhat from Flemington (!), there was a fashion-in-the fields contest and bookmakers were stationed poolside taking bets. We also showed preliminary races before the Race of the Year.

Damien Oliver wins the 1995 Melbourne Cup on Doriemus. Herald Sun.

We concluded our special coverage when that evening Fiji One’s sports news was fronted from the Travelodge, live to air.

Local Celebrations

Fiji One was fast breaking the “Fijian” mould and another first was highly significant towards showing the nation’s diversity in our bulletins, but which, in my everyday treatment of happening news events, I did not realise at the time.

It was a Sunday afternoon and, perchance, I noticed scores of Indian families bathing in Lauthala Bay with flowers and other accoutrements, probably religious icons or some such. A cameraman was despatched to get pictures of the event: the journalist of Indian descent already knew what the day was, how the religious rites were performed and their meaning.  And so that evening we had a colourful item of the religious bathing. Reaction was immediate from startled but delighted Fijian Indians who had never seen anything like it on TV in Fiji before. A few came to the studios next day to tell us so! I could not believe that one item could create such agreeable follow-up.

It turned out that up until this time the Government News Service had filmed only Christian events, the religion of  most native Fijians: some extraordinarily devoted to their protestant or catholic doctrine. Methodist affairs, particularly, had been well-covered. Holy Days and events celebrated by other non-Christian religions had been ignored by the State’s news agency. Those who chose storylines for the old Government TV, and who felt they had to please Ministers of the crown, ignored the fact that half the population was not of indigenous origin and therefore observed other religions and traditions. Times had changed!

The law at the time, honouring the Sabbath, dictated that no public events, other than church services, could take place on Sundays, thus curtailing all community and sporting activity, shopping and entertainment, including movies. This, of course, meant there wasn’t much action to cover in Sunday night’s news bulletins – this is when we often drew on the store of “evergreen” items.

This restriction on Sunday events was lifted in 1995, a big news event in itself.

The next celebration among non-indigenous folk was Diwali or Deepavali, celebrated by Hindus but a public holiday for all in Fiji. It’s the “festival of light”. Houses throughout the islands are festooned in electric lights while, inside, a small traditional lamp is lit, usually a clay or metal lamp-bowl containing ghee which fuels a single wick. For the duration of the festivities I arranged to place one of these traditional lamps on the newsreader’s desk, plainly visible on TV.

A Diwali lamp graced the newsreader’s desk

We ignored criticism from those who did not observe the festival – and the ill-considered fire safety experts – and lit the lamp each evening until Diwali night when we featured in the news bulletin those houses which had won prizes for the best-decorated.

Ironically, the light is a metaphor for knowledge over the darkness of ignorance. The symbol on the newsreader’s desk, I thought, also stood for a new light cast on the nation’s TV news: it belonged to everyone and that’s the way Fiji One News intended to continue.

South Pacific Games – Unique Coverage(?)

Another first was the attempt to cover Fiji’s participation in the South Pacific Games in Tahiti in 1995. Fiji fielded a big team of athletes in almost all disciplines, transported to and from Papeete on a chartered Air Pacific jumbo jet.

The games logo

We planned major coverage, our first South Pacific Games, and sponsors were readily found who wanted to be associated with content from Tahiti. But our broadcasts in news bulletins were less than successful for several reasons. There was no guarantee by the Games’ Host Broadcaster, French TV in Tahiti, of live coverage of even the finals of the main events. This was unusual: broadcasters from participating nations were routinely offered live coverage, with appropriate satellite access to at least major events and the opening/closing ceremonies. Our next hurdle was that any telecast would be in the French language with the added disadvantage that any events we videotaped in Tahiti would have to be air-freighted to Fiji: direct flights were not exactly frequent and there were built-in delays if the packages flew on more regular services, but via Auckland or Sydney. Notwithstanding, we despatched Green, our top sports reporter, with a cameraman, who travelled with the team. We asked Green to capture those events in which Fiji was expected to triumph and to maintain a phone link with us: he might be our only source of daily updates.

 

We did not expect to see much of his recorded coverage until he returned: anything arriving by air cargo before his arrival would be a bonus. We obtained a high-powered short-wave radio so we could tune into RFO signals broadcast from Papeete radio. We planned to translate the French commentary and results and to do this we enlisted several people from the University of the South Pacific who were experts in the language.  We planned to put these people in the studio while News and Sports programmes were on the air. They would be listening to the radio signals on earphones and, ideally, preferably verbatim, they would interpret “on the fly”, giving the details, in English, to Fiji TV’s audience. We rehearsed the set-up late one night and while a bit hit-and-miss, they could hear the radio programme, they were getting the hang of listening with one ear, making an instant translation, voicing it – all in front of TV cameras.  And so the Games began. To get word pictures of the Opening Ceremony we linked the newsreader in the studio by phone with Green in Tahiti. The newsreader interviewed Green seeking information about the venue, the atmosphere, who led Fiji’s team into the stadium and other colour.  No pictures were possible of the event. We had schooled Green on what was wanted and, for what it was (radio with poor vision!), it worked quite well. We had a stock of library pictures ready to help illustrate the coverage whenever Green mentioned a particular athlete. And he did, because we had told him to, so that there could be occasional relief from the fairly static picture of the newsreader in the studio listening to Green at the other end of the phone.

Green’s Own-Goal

That was, I think, the last we heard of Green in a professional capacity for the rest of the Games.   The next day he was crossing the road outside his downtown hotel, stepped off the footpath, forgot traffic travelled on the “wrong side” in Tahiti and was knocked down by a motor scooter. He was carted off to hospital for treatment to what turned out to be a severely broken ankle. His assignment at the South Pacific Games was effectively over and it was also the end of our dedicated contact in Tahiti.  And our videotaped coverage was now in the hands of our cameramen, without a front man/ interviewer/director/voicer, all the tasks Green, himself, was to carry out.

We turned to our radio/translator scheme. It fell to bits for several reasons, mainly that while reception from Tahiti was reasonable late at night when we had rehearsed, the frequency was just static and hash earlier in the evening: unintelligible. And in any case most of the finals and main events which we had hoped to relay were held in the cool of the evening in Papeete, long after Fiji One had gone off air!  We resorted to phoning a friendly correspondent in Papeete to pick up the results of finals in athletics, swimming, rugby, soccer, netball and lawn bowls – the events Fiji expected to do well in.

It was not coverage I could be proud of. Green eventually returned and compiled a lengthy Fiji TV’s Games Special, coverage salvaged from what the cameraman had managed to gather, what we had been able to obtain from the Host Broadcaster and interviews Green specially shot with the winners and the vanquished after their return to Fiji.

As the production was coming together I could see we had a reasonable programme. We promoted this heavily on-screen, mainly to placate any dissatisfaction arising with sponsors.  The  programme was very well received. Apart from the fact it was the Games with a particular Fiji flavour, it had a unique quality: it was all new material being seen on Fiji TV for the first time. Highlights, as we know them, are usually re-edited versions of content already seen during Games coverage: often sequences of winners seen over and over, infinitum.  This was fresh! Green, still recuperating from a broken ankle, had his own triumph. His documentary was a real face-saver for Fiji TV’s coverage of the 1995 South Pacific Games.

Live Courtroom Coverage

In mid-1995 the Fijian Association Party alleged that the Member of Parliament for Tailevu and Minister of Fijian Affairs, Adi Samanunu Cakobau Talakuli, had been elected illegally: that at the time of her election in 1994 she had been ineligible to stand.

Adi Samanunu Talakuli Cakobau. Fiji Village

This, the Fijian Association Party maintained, was because she held a British passport thus barring her under Fiji’s Constitution. The High Court was asked to rule on this. Adi Samanunu was a high-profile MP and a member of the Cakobau dynasty so there was intense interest in the court hearing. We decided to break new ground. Technicians said it was relatively easy to provide live TV coverage from the courtroom. They planned a similar route for cabling we had erected before to the Travelodge Hotel, strung along a row of trees, but then with a detour into the Court Room through a well-placed window.

The courts occupied part of Government Buildings in Suva

We wrote a letter to the Court Registrar applying for permission to not only install cameras in the Courtroom but also to broadcast proceedings live-to-air. In no time there was an audience with the Chief Justice, Sir Timoci Tuivaga, to iron out the finer details… and he gave his permission.

Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuiuvaga

We were elated. The project went without a hitch: we extended transmission and the Programme Manager vacated as many regular features as possible in order to show as much of the courtroom drama as we could. Anecdotes and thanks indicated the coverage had been widely viewed.

It ended in Sir Timoci ordering that the defendant was ineligible at the time she was elected and that, as she was still ineligible, she could not stand in the by-election to contest the vacancy she had created.

The precedent had been set for cameras in a courtroom in Fiji: and while this occasion had been a high-profile hearing in the High Court, it stood us in good stead if we again applied to show  any court proceedings in this way.

A Birthday

I celebrated my 50th birthday while working at Fiji TV. Little did I know that my colleagues had set up another “first”. A videotape containing birthday wishes from my friends at TVNZ had been recorded in New Zealand and sent by satellite to Fiji TV, added after the end of the daily transmission of TVNZ’s news bulletin.  The entire Fiji TV staff gathered mid-afternoon and I was belatedly invited along for afternoon tea, a surprise! A few speeches followed and, to my utter astonishment and delight, the videotape was played showing numerous birthday greetings from New Zealand.  This was followed up with dinner at the floating restaurant.

Tikos floating restaurant. World of travels with kids.

There was another un-intended follow-up: the satellite transmission containing birthday greetings had been overseen in control rooms and newsrooms throughout USA, Australia and the Pacific. I received further birthday wishes from overseas: former workmates and colleagues who had seen the video!

Sail Board Champs

Another first for Fiji TV was our international coverage of the World Wind Surfing Competition staged at Pacific Harbour near Suva. We had not begun news transmissions when the event was held so I decided to turn our coverage into a training exercise for cameramen, sound operators and post-production people. And if the resulting programme warranted, we would offer it for sale on the international market and maybe earn Fiji TV some money! There was an excellent response to the championships with entries from many countries around the globe. We had a special “Pacific” interest because we reckoned the Kendalls from New Zealand would repeat their successes on the world stage and take the top prizes.

The coverage went well. We shot from the beach, from a raft moored out in the bay and from a traditional Fijian sailing canoe (which gave us a very steady, but mobile, shooting platform). The colours of the sails, the deep blue sea and the good speeds achieved in the stiff breeze meant the sport was a natural for the cameras. We shot the events over several days, ample opportunity to practise different coverage techniques and “try out” our apprentice cameramen. After the finals in each category we made news items which we gave to the Government Unit for inclusion in their bulletins. More importantly, and profitably, we sent these by satellite to interested international broadcasters. We attended the prize-giving and that was a wrap. We cut a commercial hour-long programme, chose appropriate music and I wrote a script. I ended up voicing the commentary in the quaint surrounds of the old studio in the Masonic Hall. Jim Meachen, the technician, set up the recording equipment and a monitor so I could see the pictures. Jim hit the go button and 52 minutes later the voice-over was done – we had completed it in just one take. “Shows you’ve been around a bit, Ric! Like riding a bike, I suppose, once learned never forgotten!” Jim said, later skilfully adding the music and a few extra sound effects. The resulting programme was sold to commercial, pay and public broadcasters around the world. It was another first, something the Government Video Unit would never have dreamed of doing!

Tony Philp – World Champion

And the event, and our coverage for local viewers, was also notable because Tony Philp from Fiji took the title, one of many “worlds” he won during his windsurfing career. This was the icing on the cake of our coverage!

Saturday Rugby Turns Violent

Men from the Mountains

Our staffer Green led the small team of Fiji One’s sports reporters and he covered a rugby match one Saturday afternoon at National Stadium where a visiting team from Naitasiri was playing the local Suva side. Naitasiri is inland, high in the hills, and its village warriors have long been known as “fighting men from the mountains”.

A big crowd had gathered for this major event on the local rugby inter-club calendar: Green was there with, I think, two cameras to ensure good coverage. The game started straight-forward enough, but the “niggle” (as rugby commentators prefer to euphemistically describe scrappy hand-to-hand fighting, pushing and punching) became more frequent and then both teams became engaged in all-out fighting, kicking and stoushes.  Green did the right thing, kept the cameras rolling and shut down the commentary letting the sound effects take over. The referee, plainly, had lost any control he had. The melee quickly progressed to an all-consuming brawl. Spectators and supporters saw their mates were getting a physical beating on the field. Within seconds the grandstand and terraces were emptying, hordes of men leaping the perimeter fence and running on to the field to take sides and help their friends. Pieces of the fence were broken off and became timber stakes to wield and use as weapons. Sideline flag posts turned into spears while advertising hoardings were smashed to be used as battering rams. The few police on hand were outnumbered. The battle continued, blood discoloured rugby jerseys while other players, stripped to the waist, were going all-out to defend their space, themselves and their team-mates. Police reinforcements, aided by rugby officials, eventually restored order. The game was abandoned, the injured treated at the grounds by St John or taken to hospital, while police were hungry to lock up the perpetrators.

Green’s coverage was complete and, once back at the newsroom we cut three versions, a short clip for sending via satellite to TVNZ in New Zealand. On my instructions, this was hastily despatched: it was likely there would be interest in it from other international broadcasters. But more importantly, the satellite uplink may be suddenly closed (as had happened before when we wanted to send out controversial footage). In these cases the operators always said the facility was closed “for operational maintenance”, but this was really code for “shut down by Ministerial directive”. Two longer clips of the action were prepared for Fiji Ones’ news that night, one to lead the bulletin which showed the coverage, followed by reaction we had gathered from rugby, police and sports officials. The other clip was for the sports segment, analysis of the game before the trouble, what led to the trouble, what the score had been and asking what was to happen now that Club Competition had been interrupted. As soon as the first item was shown on Fiji One the Minister, just as I had guessed, decided it was essential to carry out urgent, overnight, maintenance at the satellite station, and ordered it closed, forthwith, for this most important, pressing work.

The satellite station first opened in 1983, celebrated with a postage stamp

But the Minister was too late… the coverage had already been sent out. Apparently we managed to get it transmitted just before it had been spotted that there was need for urgent maintenance!  We discovered the closure when other broadcasters requested us to send them the pictures. Without a satellite uplink we could not respond, so we referred interested parties to TVNZ whom we authorised to release and send on the coverage.

Unwelcome Visitors  #1.

Next day representatives from Naitasiri district came to Fiji TV headquarters threatening trouble because we had shown their rugby players fighting and they had heard from relatives in New Zealand and Australia that the coverage had been seen on TV there. They were all men, big men. They were angry. Unexpectedly they arrived in a bus that pulled up outside Fiji TV’s officers in Gorrie Street. They meant business: their bus blocked traffic and they didn’t care. They alleged that TV had shown Naitasiri rugby team and its supporters in a bad light. A number crammed into the small reception area inside the front door while a few elders were shown to the Manager’s office. They thought we had said in the TV coverage that they had started the fighting.  Moreover, they said that they did not think Fiji TV should benefit by earning dollars offshore by selling footage to overseas TV stations that put Naitasiri in a poor light. Fiji TV’s manager placated the group, somewhat, I understood at the time, when it was pointed out that their “villages” had shares in Fiji One Limited, and as part-owners they would benefit from any revenue generated by us selling the coverage. We could easily point out, by replaying the items, that we did not blame anyone for starting the fracas. An apology for any offence caused to Naitasiri people went a long way: the men boarded their bus and left.

Unwelcome Visitors  #2.

Then the police visited us at Fiji TV headquarters.  They wanted us to hand over all the unedited field coverage that we had shot at the stadium so they could go through the pictures frame-by-frame, identify those guilty of assault with the view to prosecute those breaking the law.

[For me this was a repeat of the 1981 Springboks’ rugby tour of  New Zealand when police expected TVNZ to hand over all its footage for the same reason – to identify those breaking the law and arrest them. TVNZ wanted to retain its independence as a gatherer for TV News rather than be forced to take the role as evidence-gatherer for the police. So TVNZ resisted all efforts by police to obtain the footages. In the end we went to Court to challenge the police’s search warrant: a contest we knew we could not win, but we would have made our point, our reluctance to co-operate with the police in this way to protect those we had videotaped for news items. The Court ordered us to hand over the material.]

Fiji police had in the past dealt with a compliant Government Film and Video Unit and apparently always had immediate response to their “requirements”. So police were left astounded when Fiji TV refused their request (or was it a demand?) to hand over the coverage. “Come back with a search warrant” was our message, which the police, non-plussed,  very much disliked.

They tried to negotiate a short cut, mildly threatening. In reply, we made much about the unedited footage being like a news reporter’s notebook: not usually for public disclosure. They took some time to cotton on to this principle, so requested a copy of the TV news items, as already broadcast. We told them that items already broadcast were in the public domain and that police were welcome to them in the normal course of business. They could purchase copies like anyone else, cash up-front with order. Obviously it had never occurred to them that they might have to pay for evidence they sought! They said they had no money for this kind of expense so we gave them the alternative with the same message – “come back with a search warrant”.

And so they did, later that day, expecting to take away the tapes then and there. The Inspector prosecuting the warrant anticipated a straight exchange – they thought that he would hand us the warrant and we would immediately give them the videotapes. He stopped in his tracks when we said we would have to check out the warrant, to ensure it was legitimate. Police were surprised that we had taken the step to have a lawyer on hand to look over the document. There was a delay while counsel made certain it was genuine and legally binding. I think he telephoned the Court to ensure that the warrant had been properly processed and that the Magistrate’s signature was genuine. Our lawyer said it was authentic and that we should comply with it. The Inspector had been hanging out in anticipation, expecting us gather up the tapes, put them in a box and hand them over to him. He was further visibly frustrated when I asked him when he would like the tapes.

“Now” he said impatiently, “I want them now in terms of the warrant… read the warrant”

“Well, we’ll give you the original tapes now…”

“Great, yes, you have to do that to comply with the warrant” the Inspector interrupted, beckoning to his assistant to come forward to help carry the proceeds of the warrant.

“… but, if I may continue, Inspector,” I said curtly, “ if you take the originals you won’t be able to view them because they are the new-style Beta-Max tapes, professional standard, and I don’t think anyone else in Fiji has the equipment enabling you to replay and view them.  Have you seen Sony tapes this size before?” I asked showing him the videotapes.

Deflated, the Inspector saw that he was obliged to accept further delay until we could set up arrangements so detectives could view some of the tapes on our premises. Meanwhile we copied all the tapes on to VHS so detectives could replay the material at the police station until their hearts’ content.  Our office wag reckoned they would be more intent on watching the rugby than the fighting: police, he thought, knew their priorities!

We made much of the seizure of the coverage on Fiji One’s news bulletins that night. The Inspector had not expected to be on-camera while presenting the Search Warrant. Our coverage had two “messages” we wanted to get across. First, that we were no “push-over” by police, insisting on due process. Second it was designed as an alert – all those involved at National Stadium were now aware that the long arm of the law was on the job, following up events of the abandoned rugby match and, if they were involved, that they better be ready for a visit from the constabulary.

Vatukoula: Trouble at Mine

When I arrived in Fiji the economy seemed quite bright. Tourists from Australia and New Zealand had resumed sun-soaked holidays, particularly from May to August to escape the winter months at home. They’d heard that the Coups made little difference to the enjoyment of their holidays at resorts along the west coast and on offshore islands. Military regime? Why, they hardly ever saw a soldier!

While the tourist industry was stable, the other mainstay of the economy, sugar, was not quite so certain. While the lifeline of a pricing and supply agreement with the European Community remained, aging sugar mills were continually breaking down, interrupting the crushing season. Delays meant the cane was often not at its optimum by the time it was processed. Farmers were never quite sure whether, or when, their harvest would be transported to the mills. The uncertainty of the future of huge tracts of farmland, much of it in sugar cane, also hung over the economy – what was the future of this (mostly) leasehold land now that so many leases were expiring?

There was also continuing doubt about another major earner for the economy, the gold mine at Vatukoula, although it was probably true that most of the profits from the Emperor Gold Mine went to its owners off-shore.

Emperor Goldmine at Vatukoula

There had been festering industrial unrest at the mines over many years: in 1991 hundreds of workers had gone on strike to push their demands which went beyond basic employment issues. Their main complaint (and the only one entertained by mines management) was that the company would not recognise their trade union, Fiji Mine Workers Union, when the workers tried to engage in collective bargaining. The Company took this attitude despite the fact that it had dealt with the Union for many years. The strike also alleged low wages, poor working conditions on site and underground, unfair housing arrangements, an unhealthy work-place environment and poor conservation practices.  Sympathisers pointed out that Fiji was not profiting from the industry as well as it could because “sweetheart deals” had been forged between the Government of Fiji and the company regarding taxes. There were also accusations  that, while the company carefully cast its financial accounts so that annual reports boasted substantial profits for the Australian-based enterprise, the Fiji part of its business was performing poorly. This despite an annual gold yield, at that time, in excess of 100,000 ounces.

Production at Vatukoula

Victoriana in Tropicana

As part of their collective bargaining the workers wanted better wages, shorter hours (especially the underground shifts) and a break from the practice straight out of the slave-days whereby women in the community were expected to toil, without pay, for the company working in the laundry, preparing meals in the canteen and cleaning offices, toilets etc.

Workers also wanted an end to the company’s Victorian system of having to purchase their own essential tools and safety equipment from the Company, the costs deducted from wages. The mine-site community was also a page reminiscent of one of Dickens’ novels. Without wanting to insult the great writer, here’s a word picture of the situation at the Mine when I visited in 1995, accompanied by a cameraman to obtain library footage.

It’s on the main island, Viti Levu, in the north, a remote works village and industrial area situated some 9 kilometres inland from the nearest town, Tuvua. An unsealed road, dusty in the dry and a pot-holed quagmire in the wet season, leads to the site which would have originally been hewn from tropical jungle to provide a clearing for the works and the village.  The staff housing comprised a collection of small, thoroughly run-down weatherboard and corrugated iron-clad bungalows. Once on-site I stood looking at the collection of “houses” for some time, incredulous. The unkempt structures looked like the worst of the shacks we saw in pictures of Soweto or remote South American settlements. Windows were not glazed… all had wooden shutters. The “village” had all the appearance of a film-set, designed and built to create an atmosphere of decadence and abandonment for an appropriately-themed movie set in the early 1900s. It was obvious there had been no maintenance for many years and, getting close-up, I could see the interiors were just as run-down as the deteriorated, unpainted, exteriors. The houses contained only the barest of essential furnishings: most had just a communal room without bedrooms, bathroom or kitchen. Cooking and ablutions were done outside. There were also single men’s unfurnished barracks with all the appearance of a Victorian workhouse. They were like bunkers: single-storey, no-frills construction and all thoroughly rundown. Despite this, some barracks housed families with young children. None of the accommodation I could see had attached toilets. The whole settlement appeared derelict, as if it had been abandoned a decade or so ago. The few “shops” (shacks with a serving hatch and security grilles), the health clinic and the school had all been poorly maintained. “Shabby” was an understatement.

I found out later that one of the reasons that the houses were so dilapidated was that the company had sold some to employees. But the contracted arrangement was for the sale of the structure itself (such as it was) but not the site it stood on: ownership of the land was retained by the company. The sale agreement also included the condition that the employee could only live on site so long as he was employed at the mine. This effectively tied purchasers to continue working at the mine whatever their lot: if they left the company they lost everything since it was nigh impossible to remove the ramshackle building: it would have collapsed if attempts were made to bodily pick it up with a crane to remove it. If dis-assembled the materials would not be fit for re-use anywhere. In a kind of “catch 22”, those workers who continued to rent houses from the company alleged excessive rents, especially given the sub-standard condition of the buildings.

The Works

The industrial part of the complex showed no better housekeeping with abandoned vehicles and plant, makeshift mechanical and structural arrangements and primitive, unmaintained outbuildings.

Vatukoula. From “Fiji Village”

It was easy to imagine, given these surroundings, that not much care was given to safe working practices above and below ground.

There was a pervasive smell of chemicals throughout the complex, overwhelmingly diesel and oily fumes but mixed with other odours. I guess these were part of a cocktail of smells which, among them, included some of the toxic material which, the workers alleged, affected their health on the job and that of their families who lived in the nearby housing community. Hydrogen Sulphide, particularly, they said. It was given off from the works and vented to the air during processing of the gold.

I saw the heaps of tailings, the material fetched to the surface from which the gold is extracted, acres upon acres, with run-off draining into ponds or pools (in effect small lakes in some cases, surrounded by swampy marshlands) which also contained residues of processing including, the workers claimed, traces of cyanide, zinc, cadmium, ammonia and other elements.

A Death, and a belated Enquiry

In March 1991 the company won a court injunction declaring that the protracted strike was illegal. More than 499 workers were dismissed, and the company asked Fiji Police to enforce an eviction notice served on the striking workers. The Government agreed with the request: a ready-reaction team, including members of the Riot Squad, made its way to the mine site. Police knew whose side they were on because the mining company was transporting, accommodating and feeding them.

When police moved in on the strikers there was tragedy. They had been accompanied by a bailiff, officially known as a Court Sheriff, whose duty it was to oversee the enforcement of the Court-ordered eviction notice. Confrontations with the workers turned violent in the village and there was a scuffle after which miners opened up on police, pelting them with a barrage of rocks. Police retaliated briefly, withdrew and then fired tear-gas towards the men. When there was a lull in the action it was found that the bailiff, Mani Lal, had been killed in the melee.  Six miners were eventually arrested and later jailed for obstruction and damage to police vehicles. But the eviction of all the protestors was unsuccessful.

Unperturbed, the striking workers continued their action and, by July, the company had dismissed them. Mining carried on despite the industrial action.

4 years later a Commission of Inquiry commenced with eminent Suva lawyer, Gyaneshwar Prasad (G.P.) Lala, appointed Commissioner. He began investigations in February 1995 and presented his report in July that year during my time at Fiji TV.

Release of G.P. Lala’s report was something of a red-letter day for the protesting workers. Generally, it found all their claims justified.  It said the mining company should improve underground working conditions, the environment in and around the mine site should be better controlled, the tailings and dams must be inspected and monitored for chemical emissions and that a treated domestic water supply should be provided for the village. The report, reflecting on its findings about general conditions at the mine-site, also recommended that the company make a “humanitarian lump sum payment” consisting of four years’ salary and the cost of living for striking workers, and that another fund be established to improve housing conditions in the community.

The Lala report, which was extensively reported on Fiji TV One, called Vatukoula “a social disaster of great magnitude”, adding that it was abundantly clear nothing had been done since the last government inquiry, 14 years earlier, into inadequacies at the  mine which had been commissioned after a series of similarly bitter industrial disputes.

The company, Emperor Mining, did not agree with the findings, reacting swiftly to seek a Judicial Review of the Lala Report. This legal action was prolonged: while the review was pending before the Court the matters could not be debated in Parliament which must have been a relief for some of the stakeholders.

Report Set Aside

The long-awaited judicial review was was finally resolved in 2004 in favour of the Company. It turned out that the Commission, when it called for submissions back in 1995, set a date by which time all submissions had to be received. But it continued, against its own terms, to receive material after the deadline. The review also found that the Inquiry had exceeded its brief when it recommended funds be established for housing and that the workers, although legimatelly dismissed ought be compensated. The Court ruled that the GP Lala Commission of Inquiry report was, thus, null and void. An appeal was mounted and in 2006 the High Court turned it down noting that the Inquiry’s recommendations were only that, non-binding recommendations, and that the Government had plenty of time in the intervening years to implement any of them, had it wished to do so, regardless of any litigation.

Throughout the years stalwarts had continued the strike, maintaining the picket lines.

Closure… and re-Opening

In December 2006 the Company closed mining operations, citing uneconomic returns. 1,700 workers were given 8 weeks’ pay and declared redundant.

This announcement coincided with the country’s fourth coup since 1987, when the military led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, said it had taken over the running of the country. But the mine’s owners said the coup had nothing to do with their decision, based on falling production, aging infrastructure, restrictive labour practices and the costs of providing power from oil-fired generators.

In April 2008 the mines were taken over and reopened by Vatukoula Gold Mines PLC, a London-based company with the aims to refurbish the works and restore production to previous returns of more than 100,000 ounces of gold per annum. And once this was achieved, the company anticipated extending operations and exploring other sites. It employed 700 at the time of takeover.

In mineral terms, the company says the mine has a proven, and probable, reserve of 830,000 ounces of gold and a measured, indicated and inferred resource of 5.15 million of ounces of gold. And that reserves and resources, at the then current rate of production, meant the mine had a life of more than  40 years.

In 2011 Vatukoula Mines Limited said the future was bright, given recent increasing gold prices. “There’s a new story to be told” says a company spokesman “with industrial and community relationships now second to none.” In 2013 Chinese interests invested in the company taking a 65 per cent interest in the company.  It advised considerable growth in 2021 with 27,420 ounces of gold  and 17,296 ounces of silver shipped out – revenue jumped from $89,247,111 in 2020, to $101,177,836 in 2021.

In March 2022 a new shaft, Dolphin, was completed to a depth of 650 meters, one of 5 operating at the mines where some 1,400 staff are employed. The future of commercial mining, first begun at Vatukoula in 1933, is set to continue, notwithstanding its many disputes and setbacks.

Revelations

Revelations in commissioner, G.P. Lala’s, report on the labour dispute at Vatukoula gold mine, which he delivered in July 1995, should have had greater and longer news value in the media. But his findings and recommendations quickly went under the radar. Discussion was effectively suppressed when Emperor Mining Company took court action challenging the findings… and there was another topic that diverted news media, claiming its most urgent attention. About the same time as the Lala Report was released there was an event that plunged Fiji’s economy into crisis. The National Bank of Fiji collapsed with massive debts.

Scandal – Collapse of the National Bank of Fiji

A Stinging Report

The newsroom was aware of various stories about the National Bank of Fiji under-performing: we thought the more extreme versions of these most unlikely, rumours saying the bank lent more money than it had in reserves.

Then, in early June 1995, newsman Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum called on the Acting Auditor-General on a routine matter. At that meeting Riyaz was asked if Fiji One News would like a copy of the report on the National Bank of Fiji which was to be released in a few days’ time. In fact, there were two annual reports. As well as the current report for 1994/5, there was one for 1993/4 because there had been delays in “processing”.

Riyaz accepted the Acting Auditor-General’s offer, and advised us in the newsroom to expect the documents later in the week. But because of the rumours about the bank we went back to the Acting Auditor-General and asked for a copy of the reports, under embargo, in advance of their release. This is common enough practice: the newsroom is usually given, or requests, a document in advance, under strictest embargo until the date and time of official release. This enables reporters to work on the document and prepare news items ready for publication. In television terms, getting documents in advance like this is important. Presentation of the storyline is often greatly helped by the addition of on-screen graphics and these take time to prepare. And pictures appropriate to the story-line can be shot in advance.

The Acting Auditor-General was not at first prepared to release the documents in advance, but we pressed the fact that documents such as he regularly releases were generally all about numbers, charts, comparisons and scales – the very information we wanted to convert to on-screen graphics to assist our viewers understand what is sometimes quite complicated data. And, besides, here we had two annual reports on the bank which would have to be combined into one item – a lot of work!  He agreed, and journalist Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum was despatched to collect the reports.

When he arrived back in the newsroom his cursory perusal of the documents turned to amazement. He could not believe his eyes. He began taking notes, paused after a while – in sheer astonishment about the content and utter delight about a major story breaking – and popped into my office to reveal the contents.

A major news story brewing…

We both studied the reports very carefully, agreed that our interpretation was, indeed, what the Auditor-General was saying and at that point we concurred that we had a very big story to tell arising out of, particularly the latest, the 1993/4, report on the National Bank of Fiji. In short, it had gone bust.

We went on to discuss how we might treat the story for television (heaps of graphics), we talked over the structure of the storyline (there was so much detail to reveal), then listed who we might line up to comment on the report after it was released (among them the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Bank, first off). Finally we tried to figure what down-stream effects there would be on the bank, its customers, the economy and the government. It was obviously a bombshell; more or less right out of the blue and having an advance copy of the report meant we could work on it so that we could have a polished piece of television journalism to transmit the following night once the embargo was lifted.

We also had to bear in mind the political climate in Fiji at the time – the Auditor-General’s report was condemning of so many people and organisations who, through neglect of duty had allowed the bank to get into difficulties. So how come he was the one to burst the bank’s bubble? It must be remembered that he reported not to the Government but to Parliament and to this extent the office was supposed to be independent. He certainly showed a certain autonomy in the authoring and release of this document. It was dynamite.

Beginnings

The National Bank of Fiji was founded in 1976 on the back of the Savings Bank of Fiji which had been established in 1907. Its troubles began soon after when it lent big sums to the Stinson Group, a local company rapidly diversifying into new industries. The company ran out of further financial options with all the trading banks in Fiji, so went to the National Bank of Fiji. Several of the loans advanced by the bank were made without sufficient security and at the time it lent Stinsons $2.7 million the bank had a capital of just $500,000. Over 7 years the bank took over Stinson’s debts to other banks. By 1984 Stinson owed the bank $5.6 million – the company relied entirely on the bank to keep trading and in turn the bank relied on Stinson’s repayments. They were both insolvent.

So how was this state of affairs allowed to continue – what of banking laws? The Reserve Bank of Fiji had been established in 1983 and showed no interest despite its supervisory and surveillance roles of the banking sector. Then there was the government. All must have known what was going on.

Charles Stinson

Sir Charles Stinson, former head of the company, was made Minister of Finance and he either didn’t care for the banking rules, or overlooked them, and exercised powers waiving the provision in the National Bank of Fiji Act that loans to one client must be limited to 25 per cent of the bank’s equity.

The renamed Stinson Pearce Group, realising the interdependency, took advantage of the situation and became lax about reporting to the bank such things as its finances and company changes. It ignored the bank’s inquiries about the state of its balance sheets.

In May 1984 the bank agreed not to charge interest on company loans totalling $5.7 million. Despite this accommodation, Stinson’s debt had increased to $6 million by 1987… the year of the coup.

Sitiveni Rabuka

In May 1987 Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka stepped out from relative obscurity and led a military take-over at the point of a gun, deposing the government led by Fijian Indians elected to office earlier in the year. Rabuka was out to re-install Fijian supremacy, determined to make Fiji a better place for the indigenous Fijians – in contrast to the Fijian Indians, residents of Indian extraction whose antecedents first arrived in the islands around the late 1880s as indentured labourers for the sugarcane fields. In the intervening hundred years their numbers grew. The 1996 census showed there were just about as many Fijian Indians as indigenous Fijians.

Takeover 

The surprise coup and its consequences, with the new government beginning its programme championing ethnic Fijian interests, drew attention away from the beleaguered bank, and in September focus was renewed on political matters when Rabuka staged a second coup to reinforce the policy “Fiji for Fijians”.  Ramuka didn’t approve the actions of the emergency administration led by the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, when he tried to forge a coalition of National Unity (including Fijian Indians) to form a new government. The military did not like the sound of this arrangement and Rabuka staged this second coup and a few weeks later formed a military government, declaring Fiji was a republic. While claims of a republic prevailed, the government did not: it was short-lived and in early December Rabuka handed over to Ratu Sir Penaia as President of the Republic who duly installed Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as Prime Minister. Rabuka, one of the Army officers included in the new cabinet, was made Minister of Home Affairs.

But Rabuka, before he handed over power to Sir Ratu Penaia, had made at least one appointment which underlined his authority and ethnic assertion. On the second of  December Rabuka arranged for uniformed soldiers to call at the Head Office of the National Bank of Fiji. Having been introduced to the acting-Chief Manager, Harry Slatter, (filling in between permanent appointments) the troops demanded the keys and escorted him from the building.

Soldiers outside the National Bank of Fiji headquarters in Suva. APF

The soldiers then announced to the bank’s staff that the vacancy of Chief Manager had been filled. Their new boss was from Rotuma Island, Visanti Makrava, whom many Head Office staff knew as a manager of one of the Bank’s branches.

Visanti Makrava – took over the bank

They must have wondered why the new administration had chosen him. He had no overseas experience, no qualifications, nor service that would equip him for the job ahead.

Makeover

Makrava hit the ground running, taking no notice of rumours about “a bad bank”: he was determined to transform the National Bank of Fiji into the biggest, best and most respected institution among the Republic’s banks. He presented the bank’s positive points, promoted senior staff (nearly always indigenous Fijians), promised a period of growth and put the bank’s services within arm’s reach of customers. He reviewed all the main branches and where they didn’t meet his standards of appropriate and classy surroundings, he either moved the branch to new, upmarket premises or gave them a makeover, inside and out.  And Makrava also provided services in locations where the bank did not have a presence. In 1988 there were 110 agencies: by 1993 this number had grown to 135. Makrava’s expanded operations required more staff. Numbers increased from 191 to 600 between 1987 and 1993.

Makrava’s enthusiasm paid off if deposits are any yardstick – they increased from $107 million in 1989 to $420 million in 1993, and in the same period foreign exchange earnings doubled and loans and advances increased from $75 million to $420 million. Makrava, it appeared, had added profitable new products such as a local Mastercard credit card service in partnership with a Malaysian banker. In 1993 previous losses were turned around – there was a modest profit of $2.2m.

But at the same time there were allegations of kickbacks, soft loans for staff, unfair acquisition and purchasing practices and promotion of ethnic Fijians to key roles within the bank. The Reserve Bank’s Inspectorate had found some of these irregularities and put the National Bank on notice in 1993 and again the following year. But National Bank managers took little heed. It seemed all would be well with  Makrava at the helm. The fact was that he had taken the philosophy “Fiji for Fijians” too literally and had personally approved loans to hundreds of ethnic Fijians without taking account of their ability to repay them. The stage was set for a scandal, an insolvent bank. Unbeknown to us in the media there had been a report written by two Senators, Aidney and Dickinson, both accountants, which had been given to the Minister of Finance, Berenado Vunibibo, in June 1995.

Minister of Finance, Berenado Vunibobo. Islands Business.

The report concluded the bank was bust: the Minister must have known.

More from the Auditor General’s Report

Now, here in the newsroom we were faced with an Auditor-General’s Report on the National Bank of Fiji which, publicly, was saying the same thing: the bank was insolvent. The Auditor-General started out his investigation by trying to verify loans and advances, testing a sample to see whether, in fact,  they existed and whether they were valid and had been made within the Bank’s own rules, Next… were they being repaid… and borrowers were contacted to ask if they had the funds to meet repayments.

He found faults in every one of the 84 loans he examined, totalling some $53 million dollars. All were serious matters such as insufficient securities, lack of insurances on mortgaged properties, irregular loan repayments – or none at all – and repayments being made from debtors’ overdrawn accounts. He also commented adversely, but obliquely, on the introduction of credit cards.

Magical Mastercards

So Fiji TV’s newsroom did its own research and found an incredible blunder which had cost the National Bank dearly. When it launched its new product, Mastercard credit cards, it turned out that for a time the processing arrangements were incomplete. The bank had partnered with a Malaysian company, MBf, thus securing an international associate to help set up the facility. It appeared that MBf’s computer system could not “talk” to the National Bank’s aging IT setup so that purchases made overseas and paid for by Mastercard went unrecorded and charges were unaccounted-for in Fiji.

Mastercard, for a time, was magic – nothing spent came to charge!

In short, cardholders were not being charged for their purchases. Those who knew about this short-coming, including politicians and frequent travellers, had quite a spending spree during offshore trips until the gap was closed. But someone had to pay for the shopping, hotel rooms and travel that had been charged to the cards. It was left to the National Bank, adding to its losses.

The Auditor-General’s report featured the way the bank had broken all its own rules, and the laws governing banking in Fiji, as well as pure business common-sense, when it came to loans.  Makrava interpreted his appointment as an extension of the Government’s ethos. He lent to mostly high-risk local borrowers, many of them turning to the National Bank because they knew they would get a sympathetic hearing, something they found lacking in their approaches to other banks. It was the bank of last resort. There were examples where the National Bank followed unsound banking principles, including allowing soft loans for employees, accepting land  – without deeds – as collateral and turning a blind eye to shortfalls in monthly repayments that nowhere near met the terms of the loan.   Then there was the loan to Rotumans. Visanti Makrava came from the island of Rotuma, a dependency of Fiji but, located some 650 kilometres north of Suva, it was much separated from other islands that made up (at that time) the Republic of Fiji. Rotuma has a population of up to just 2,000 and relies on arable agriculture for its economy.

Rotuma – traditions where tourism is still discouraged. Ministry of Pacific Peoples, NZ

Farmers suffered several successive crop failures so Rotuman elders went to the bank seeking a loan enabling them to re-estabish their gardens. They expected to be well received: after all, its Chief Manager, Makrava, was a fellow countryman.  Just when it appeared they couldn’t find anything of value to offer as collateral, they recalled that the instruments of the island’s town band might be sufficient. So a loan of $500,000 was agreed, with Makrava’s approval, on the strength of, unseen, a battered bass drum, a trumpet without a mouthpiece and an aged tambourine or two!

This was just one of a sample of 33 loans that the Auditor-General investigated at the bank’s Rotuma Branch. All but a few had questionable practices attached, and totalled many millions of dollars: excessive considering the small population and the islands’ frugal and fragile economy. The Auditor-General concluded that this portfolio of loans, like most of the others on National Bank’s books, presented the bank with what he described as “overwhelming risk”. The loans to Rotuma, he ventured, were never likely to be repaid. And there were many others in the same category.

 “Now, Here Is The News…”

Riyaz drafted his news item and a cameraman was detailed to get some of the pictures we would need to help tell the story. This was going to be a scoop for us – I was determined we would make a job of it, leaving nothing of substance for radio and newspapers to follow up.  Once we could see how the details would unfold we commissioned graphics from our in-house artist. Pie charts and “Manhattan” bar charts were going to be crucial. I pressed home the requirement that everyone watching, especially those with no knowledge of financial or banking matters must be able to grasp the gravity of the Auditor-General’s findings. Otherwise the value of our scoop would be lost.  Journalism 101 – but story-lines can get lost in jargon!

From memory, I think the first draft of Riyaz’s report was about 11 minutes long. Compare this to the usual minute, or so, duration of your average news item! Even the most judicious editing of the bank story resulted in sacrificing valuable detail. I believe we got it down to an estimated 8 and a half minutes.

Riyaz suggested that, perhaps, we tailor the item into 2 parts, broadcasting them on successive nights. I thought that it was a good idea. The content would be such compelling viewing I thought that we would easily “take” the audience with us, and they would be back the next night for more. Two things, I told Riyaz, had to be carefully considered before we decided to make it a two-parter. The first was a sort of standards thing. I didn’t want the news programme to look and feel like a soap opera. We would be bound, (as a commercial broadcaster!) to trailer Part 2, advertising it on-air, and to me this might have the trappings of a cheapened news broadcaster.

The second reservation I had was that someone, like the bank – or a Minister on behalf of the Government – having seen part one and, wanting to prevent part two going to air, might take urgent legal action which, if successful, would deny viewers the full story. Naturally we would have to comply with any restraining order from the Court.

After discussion with station management, we decided to go with the story as a two-parter. But there were also two provisos to meet my concerns – we said that the trailers would be carefully written and presented, matter-of-fact rather than persuasive or salacious, to reduce any soap opera theme. And secondly that, in case of legal action, the first part would, on its own, be self-contained and have sufficient detail that would leave no doubt in the viewers’ minds about the fragile, if not terminal, state of the bank, as reported by the Auditor-General.  And part two would, similarly, be self-contained so that viewers who had missed the first part could easily pick up on the storyline. And of course we hoped that word of mouth reaction to the first night might encourage many more viewers for the second night.  I had involved station management in these discussions because, apart from valuing their views on how the story might come together, I wanted to negotiate a couple more minutes’ duration for the news programme those nights. We had other News of the day to squeeze in, too! The extra time was agreed by the Programme Manager, along with some slots in commercial breaks for our on-air trailers advertising the upcoming news item.

Part 1 was prepared: this was one item we could pre-record which would prevent any live-to-air hitches in presentation in what was a fairly busy 4 minutes’ worth, a mix of on-camera, graphics (some of them “animated” to reveal figures and facts) and pictorial coverage – material shot specially for the item and footage from Fiji One’s library.

We did not seek legal advice about the content – to me it was to be a straight-forward presentation of the facts of the Auditor-General’s report. Provided we stuck strictly to its content we could not be challenged. I went through Riyaz’s script, and the accompanying graphics, word for word. This process involved Riyaz reading his script and as each new point emerged I asked him to stop and show me where in the Auditor-General’s report he had found the information, the subject of his script. There was a similar systematic check of the dollars and other facts stated on our graphics. We then went through each of the sentences or phrases quoting the Auditor-General to ensure that they were, in fact, part of his report and that we had copied them, word-perfect, to the graphics. This was a time-consuming exercise… but editorially essential.

All fell into place. Riyaz and the small production team went to the studio to record the item. The last thing to do was to make a couple of trailers and write the newsreader’s introduction.

Part 2, already scripted and checked, would be put together next day.

Revealed and Unwelcome Reaction

Journalists and others who work on a TV news item get close to its content. By the time it goes to air they are intimately familiar with it – the novelty of the storyline often wears off a bit.  They will all tell you that there’s a test of the real item of interest. If during the transmission of the item, the studio crew temporarily forget their control-room and studio tasks, and become engrossed in the content, then the viewers will have a similar reaction: they, too will find it compulsive viewing.

Part 1 of the item about the National Bank of Fiji passed the test with flying colours: the staff members on duty at Fiji One that night were spellbound as the item went to air. The facts, as presented on camera by Riyaz, spoke for themselves, enhanced by the graphics and video pictures. Anticipating more phone calls than the station usually receives after news programmes, a receptionist stayed back to take the calls. She was overwhelmed and our night watchman, Joe, stepped in to help her, followed by other staff members. All but a few calls were congratulatory along the lines of “a story that had to be told”, “an item very much in the public interest” and “we had no idea about how serious this is, and I work for the bank”.

We believed we had done a good job: it was our scoop, we had broken a story the effects of which would echo in Fiji for many years to come. But there was still the promised part two to be broadcast, plus follow-up comment from various Government, banking and consumer spokespeople.

Next morning the “Fiji Times” newspaper had the story, front page. They had turned over nothing new in the Auditor-General’s report and when we looked carefully through the columns, knowing what was still to come in our second part, we knew there was more than enough new material remaining to sustain, indeed enhance, our viewers’ interest.

Riyaz polished part two during the day, preparing all the material for the pre-record session in the studio.

Late afternoon, around 4.30pm, I was told there was a visitor at the front door to see me. It was one of Fiji’s best-known jurists. I did not have time to invite him inside the studio building because straight after a greeting he said he was the bearer of bad news for Fiji TV. He had come, he said, straight from the High Court where he had observed that the National Bank of Fiji had made an application before a Judge to restrain further broadcasts. The bank had been granted its application for an ex parte injunction preventing Fiji Television Limited broadcasting the second part of the news item arising from the Auditor-General’s report. In addition, we were prohibited to make any further broadcasts based on the content of the Auditor-General’s report.

I was stunned. We had been gagged! The eminent lawyer held a sheath of legal documents in his hand. My mind was instantly preoccupied with a torrent of thoughts, like, I had anticipated legal action trying to stop part two, and now here it is. But then, we had planned and prepared part one for just such an eventuality and it had already told a fulsome, solid story. I also realised we now needed legal advice, instantly, because, at half past four, lawyers’ offices throughout Suva were closing. The Court had already shut its doors for the day. And then the thought occurred about how, so late in the day, we were going to fill the four and half minutes now apparently staring us in the face if part 2 could not be broadcast!  In the background to this rush of thoughts, the lawyer on the doorstep was explaining to me what an ex parte injunction was… as if any journalist that has ever written a controversial story doesn’t know the meaning of those words!

An ex parte application is when one party, without notice to other affected parties, appears before a judge seeking, for instance, an urgent injunction (in this case preventing certain topics being broadcast) which, if granted, usually remains in force until the matter comes before the court again when all parties have an opportunity to make their case. This ex parte application had thus been heard in Fiji TV’s absence and without our knowledge.

So it was a shock when the lawyer arrived on the studio steps waving court papers, advising that an application had succeeded, the Judge had made an order, and that no more news was to be broadcast about the National Bank of Fiji. We had been gagged whichever way you looked at it!

By now Riyaz had joined me on the steps, dismayed at what he was hearing. I realised there was little more dialogue to be had with the lawyer: the next time this matter was likely to be aired would be many months later in Courtroom One of the High Court of Fiji arguing our respective cases.

For now, it was critical to get legal advice to follow-up on what, exactly, was in the Judge’s restraining order. Local lawyer, John Scott, was contacted and it was left with him to make enquiries, now after-hours, with Court officials. We stressed how urgent it was, given our looming deadline.

Meantime Riyaz recorded Part 2 and it was ready to go. Elsewhere in the building, news items were being lengthened to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the Bank item. A few extra spoken items were written for the newsreader to present and we looked on the shelves for any stored items, kept for just the emergency now facing us. We dusted off an “evergreen” item and it was readied for broadcast.

If I am not mistaken, I think it was more than an hour of tense waiting before lawyer John Scott appeared at the studio. Station management gathered in an office where he delivered his findings. They were the second bomb-shell of the afternoon. First the eminent jurist on our doorstep, now it was our counsel’s turn!

“Go ahead with Part 2 of your story about the Auditor-General’s Report. The application for an injunction brought by the National Bank this afternoon was dismissed by the Judge. He threw it out, without any restraints ordered. Not one! So nothing to stop your broadcast tonight!” He then went on to warn about ensuring that our item would be legally watertight, needing to reflect, exactly, the Auditor-General’s findings. I said I could guarantee this: we had already been through the process and every fact, figure, graphic and quotation had been checked and double-checked. Green light!

But what of the lawyer’s unwelcome conversation on the steps which led us to believe there was a Court Order forbidding the broadcast? For now, we agreed, we would say that he must have been badly mistaken. There was work to do. No time was lost in re-jigging the rundown for the programme to accommodate Part 2. Within the hour it was on the air.

Part 2 ended with a summary of the Auditor-General’s Report which repeated his finding – the National Bank faced bad debts totalling, on present calculations,  about $80 million. The newsreader then advised viewers that we would be covering reaction to the Auditor-General’s Report the following night.

We received even more favourable comments phoned in from viewers than the night before.  Among the callers were tipsters offering information about irregular loans they knew about. There were also messages from several of the bank’s stakeholders, and members of Fiji’s financial circle, wanting to make statements about the National Bank situation. These, together with comment from others like the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, bankers and any other relevant people would be gathered next day – if they were talking. We would have loved to obtain pictures of those battered musical instruments, but Rotuma was a bit beyond reach of our news gathering!

Fallout

In the event, few Government spokespeople made themselves available to talk about the Auditor- General’s report. But… notably, they were not denying any part of it, nor our coverage. We were granted an interview with the spokesperson for the National Bank who challenged the sentiments of the Auditor-General’s findings, with an defensive air of “he got it all wrong, we know better”. There was also a mixed message to our journalist during the videotaped interview. To all questions put about any one of the dubious loans, the spokesman was demanding names of the borrowers and account numbers which, he assured, would enable him to follow up and give specific answers. But then in response to a later question the spokesman attempted to discourage any further enquiries and to close down discussion by saying that these were confidential matters between each client and the bank, so there would, or could, be no comment.

Meanwhile, despite a similar “no comment” from the Government, there had been concerns among Ministers and their officials about the revelations and they began making a plan to minimise the fall-out. We were told that the Minister of Finance, Mr Vunibobo, was most unhappy with our revelations contained in the Auditor-General’s report. Not because the story about the bad bank had finally emerged, but that he would now have to do something about it!  Mr Vunibobo decided, rather than to give an instant reaction to the media, it would be better to try to clear the air with a carefully worded “damage control” statement. This, he must have thought, would help stem continuing media reports about a bad bank. Besides, he did not want gathering condemnation to spook the locals into a run on the bank.

The Loss – $90 million… and Growing

On June 15th he called a news conference, starting by saying he had some alarming disclosures, revealed that he thought the National Bank’s loans totalled $90 million. Nothing new in that: Fiji TV had told the nation about that. But the Minister went on, trying to minimise the bad news saying there were plans to rehabilitate the bank, restructuring it under a 2 year programme which would be strictly overseen to ensure progress towards regularisation. Overseas banks would be asked to help and expatriates would (again) be appointed to the top jobs. In the long run, once healthy, he foresaw the bank being privatised. But his statement that followed was the one that caused uproar… he virtually said  the losses were “all water under the bridge” and that it was not the time to push the blame on to anyone. “Rather than having the luxury to sheet home the blame, we must go on now to protect the integrity of the bank” he continued, part of his strategy to prevent a run on the bank’s dwindling funds. But this backfired, receiving adverse criticism everywhere… in the media, in Parliament and among non-Government organisations. Opposition politicians had a field day with it: some extending this “it’s all water under the bridge” and “look the other way” attitudes to other forms of corruption and wrong-doing that they claimed was rife in Fiji. Newspaper editorials repeatedly advocated sheeting home the blame for the $90 million dollar loss: “someone was to blame: someone has to pay” they said.

In interviews with Finance Minister Vunibobo, we asked where the shortfall would be made up in the Government’s budget, we asked him on-camera whether government services would have to take a hit, particularly high-spending ministries like education, health, justice and agriculture. He always replied that we had to wait – the Budget would be announced in November. Speculation of a bail-out to the bank proved correct. The budget speech included $20 million allocated for this purpose.

Cartoon depicting Minister Vunibobo getting ready to prop up the ailing bank.

But the Government kept a low profile: no blame was sought, nor attributed, for the ultimate demise of the National Bank. No one person or organisation was ever held responsible despite their being obvious candidates for blame – Government, the bank’s governing board, its management and staff  and the Reserve Bank – all had ignored a deteriorating situation over the years. The Government shied away from any form of an Inquiry which ought to have found out what went wrong and, perhaps, then apportioning blame.

A new Chairman was appointed, Makrava was relieved of his position, replaced by bankers from abroad.  The bank was divided into 2… the National Bank, a good bank which continued trading as a “personal banking operation” and the Asset Management Bank (AMB), the bad bank, which was to manage liabilities, minimising them and clearing them as soon as possible.

Both banks were downsized with redundancy arrangements for staff totalling $7.8 million, a further call on Government funds.

The Loss – $120 million and Set to Double* 

By the end of 1995 a figure of $120 million was being publicly quoted as the sum the National Bank would require to help balance the books. But politicians and pundits were saying this would not be the final figure: interest charges on money borrowed to make good lhe lost funds would accrue, with a further bill of many millions of dollars for years to come. Vunibobo was the architect of a Bill to go before parliament designed to both restructure the National Bank and to incorporate measures preventing similar problems in future. It provided for the “good” and “bad” banks and outlined how they would operate to minimise costs of restructuring, preserve as many jobs in the Bank as possible and minimise further collapse. Critics said the Bill missed essential reporting, checks and audit to ensure there was no recurrence of its present ills. Nonetheless Finance Minister Vunibobo presented the Bill to Parliament in July 1996.

The new Chairman of the Bank, Lionel Yee, said that many of the bank’s past difficulties arose out of political interference – “Rehabilitation will not work without political will; let professional bankers run the company, that’s the intention. It remains to be seen whether we can put that into practice.”

The Loss – $330 million

It was then, for the first time, the Minister revealed the full costs of the National Bank’s failure and the fact that losses would have to be found from Government revenue. Restructuring of the bank, he told Parliament, would cost $220 million over the next 2 years, and interest on this would amount to a further $18 million for the 2 years while interest costs over the next 10 years would be in the order of $115 million. Total cost to the Government, he said, had ballooned to about $335 million.

Mr Vunibobo went on to point out this would require about half the country’s annual budget… and that just the interest charges, alone, for the first 2 years would have to be diverted from funds usually earmarked for teachers and hospital staff salaries and capital costs such as the planned roading and transport projects.

Money had to be found from somewhere: sale of Government assets were considered and it was decided to privatise “the crown jewels of the public sector”, Amalgamated Telecom Holdings, and sell this enterprise to help offset National Bank losses and restructuring costs. The Government got a good deal at what was considered “top dollar”,when the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) offered three times more than commercial bidders. Despite public controversy over the value of the sale, the Government sold 49 per cent of its holdings to FNPF for $253 million: the biggest single financial transaction in the history of Fiji. The sum went towards paying for the National Bank fiasco.

The exact cost of the Bank’s failure will probably never be known because there was no inquiry. One authority puts the cost to taxpayers at around $372 million in total**.

Little did we know, the day we first went through the Auditor-General’s report, just how big the story would grow, along with the bank’s losses. In an economy the size of Fiji’s the damage can only be described as colossal.

Visanti Makrava was charged by police on four counts allegedly involving official corruption, larceny by a servant, fraudulent conversion and embezzlement when he was National Bank of Fiji’s Chief Manager in 1994. In October 1998 the media reported an elated Makrava had at last been cleared by a High Court Judge of all charges in connection with the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji.

*Because I had returned to New Zealand by this time, figures from this point on are taken from various references, principally “Crisis, Collapse of the National Bank of Fiji, by Grynberg, Munro and White, a USP publication.

**Sada S Reddy, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, addressing the Fiji Institute of Accountants, Yanuca, Fiji, 11 June 2010.

Reflection

The revelation of the National Bank of Fiji’s terminal situation was, by far, the most significant story-line during my time with Fiji One News. Apart from the scandals surrounding its management and operations, it was obvious the ramifications to Fiji’s economy would be felt for years, perhaps decades.

Arising so relatively soon after Fiji One’s founding, I believe the solid journalism and the detailed presentation of the bank story, showed the newsroom’s absolute professionalism.  Moreover it showed our policy was to deliver objectively and without fear or favour, whatever the storyline: something that had not always been observed in the past.

For a while we considered taking action against the lawyer whose questionable actions were no doubt designed to bully us, to hood-wink us, muzzling our broadcast of part two of the story about the ailing bank. He had failed in his false-errand: the broadcast went ahead. Live and let die, we thought.

A Little Bit of Down Time

Most people have the idea that the whole of the Fijian Islands have silver-sand beaches, spreading palm trees, blue-water lagoons and surrounding reefs. No blame for this impression: the tourist pamphlets and TV commercials gush descriptives! But there are many kilometres of coastline that don’t match the paradise, including around Suva. It was built for its port when shipping, before air- travel, was paramount for trade. The beaches near Suva and uninviting, muddy, shallow and very tidal. The nearest easily-accessible, decent, swimming beach is at Pacific Harbour, about three quarters of an hour’s drive from Suva. So that’s the trip made some Sunday mornings, just to get out of the Capital for an hour or so, with the opportunity to visit a “real” Fijian beach!

Beach at Pacific Harbour

Pacific Harbour was, exclusively, a resort with numerous hotels and guesthouses. But it has become a town in its own right following sub-division along the coastal strip which includes a number of time-share apartments.  Pacific Harbour has its own micro-climate: certainty of good weather and ideal facilities drew large numbers of athletes from throughout the South Pacific to compete in Ironman and other annual sports events staged there. It has several offerings for tourists including charter cruises and diving trips: one operator guarantees an encounter with friendly sharks!

Our swimming at Pacific Harbour and the picnics on the sand were welcome relief from the hum-drum of Suva and the ever-presence of newsroom operations working to the 7pm deadline! We had other occasional, memorable excursions further around towards the West, to Natadola and to another remote beach at which we were surprised to find an abandoned resort, apparently victim of bankruptcy.

Off the Air

It was Christmas Eve 1995 and, mid-afternoon, Fiji TV’s offices, like everywhere else in downtown Suva, was rapidly winding down for the Christmas break. For us, the relaxed atmosphere was suddenly jolted, mid-afternoon, with news that screens in the west of the main island were blank: no Fiji One. A few phone calls quickly established that the whole of the west was “out” which pointed to a fault in our transmitter near Nadi, equipment that normally received the signal from Suva and fed it to TV sets across the West from Sigatoka to Raki Raki, including main centres like Nadi, Lautoka and Ba and the hinterland: much of it farmland. Importantly the transmitter also served all Fiji’s main tourist resorts.

Now, here on the eve of the Christmas break when all services were fast closing for the holidays, the transmitter was down. A contact, a sort of agent Fiji TV had in Nadi, was asked to travel up the hill to the transmission site to investigate. After a time we received a report that while surrounding areas had electricity there was no power getting to the transmitter.
“Someone had obviously entered the locked transmitter hut and deliberately turned off the main switch on the control panel”.  At first there were no clues as to who had done it. Our agent turned the power on and the transmitter burst into life. We welcomed the return of the signal, everything back to normal. About 20 minutes later complaints started coming in again from the West. The programme, callers said, had been restored but only for about quarter of an hour when screens went blank again.

Then a little while later another call from our agent: “I was coming down the track from the site when I was stopped by villagers. When I said I was from Fiji TV, checking the transmitter, they told me to go down to the village and wait. They went off up in the direction of the transmitter. I went to the village and one of the headmen told me to wait until the crowd returned… they had gone to turn the transmitter off again. When they got back there was a gathering of what seemed like all the villagers. The message is ‘they want more money for renting out the land on which the TV transmitter sits, and there’ll be no programmes until the increased rental is met’.

This demand was met coolly at Fiji TV’s headquarters, but how to fix matters given it’s Christmas Eve and there’s no way negotiations and a contract, even a handshake, was possible given the timing.

“By the way”, one of the managers asked “how did the villagers get into the locked compound, it’s supposed to be secure?” “Easily,” was the answer “one of the villagers works for the power board and he has a key to the padlock so he can read the electricity meter every month!”

There was a flurry of phone calls between our agent, the villagers, the Ministry of Home Affairs and Lands and Fiji TV and just before nightfall an agreement had been arrived-at and the villagers went back up the hill to turn on the power, restoring TV to the whole of the West just in time (ironically, or perhaps aptly) for our mid-evening messages of seasonal goodwill!

Back in Suva we celebrated an end to what might have been a protracted negotiation, with consequent blank screens over the Christmas period. Fiji TV’s Manager, I think it was, remarked that the mataqali (land-owning villagers) now had a small square of land which, without a doubt, had the highest rental value in the whole of Fiji!

Fiji One’s nightly news programme was over by the time we had resumed transmission in the West so we made on-screen announcements that the news would be repeated at 10 pm for those who had missed it.

I was later told that the residents’ demands were similar to those in 1991 when Television New Zealand was establishing TV in Suva in time for the World Rugby Cup tournament. The site for the transmission mast had been chosen in the hills behind Suva and work was well underway when locals claimed they owned the only access road and demanded payments, a toll, for its use. No agreement on the sum could be reached so the mast was relocated. While the new site was, technically, less than ideal, it was easily accessible by engineers, at no cost!

Copycats

The Copyright Act and international conventions which apply to copying and passing-off others’ works were non-existent in Fiji: that’s to say it was observed much more in the breach than in the observance.

The Government realised the rules were being flaunted, going back pre-TV in the Republic when VHS videotapes were copied and sold.  In fact there was quite a sophisticated copying outfit in Suva, churning out anything and everything that its owners thought might be popular on home video players: movies from Hollywood to Bollywood.  Situated in an old factory in the back streets of the waterfront industrial area, the copying centre did not attempt to disguise what went on inside. Unashamedly it had its own shop in the front for direct sales. The pirates did everything except fly the skull-and-crossbones flag from the masthead!

Pirates in Suva: missing just the skull-and-crossbones!

They also worked a system which provided, within hours, illicit VHS copies of the brand new movies being shown for the first time in downtown Suva cinemas. This entailed one of the pirates purchasing a ticket to the movie, taking a seat and then pointing a VHS camera at the screen, recording the action. The quality of the picture, and especially the sound, was questionable: there were no apologies for people suddenly standing up in front of the camera, members of the audience coughing or laughing and cell phones could sometimes be heard ringing in the theatre. Occasionally the odd hat or head blocked the view of the screen. Crude, but saleable, and movies were copied in their hundreds for immediate sale on the black market in the main centres throughout Fiji within 24 hours.

Music videos were the same. An ‘original’ would arrive in Suva by airmail, perhaps copied from TV or from an authorised CD by relatives in the United States or Australia. In Suva the video would be copied many times and offered for sale weeks ahead of the official versions arriving in Fiji shops. It was a ready market and must have been lucrative, even though the illegal copies were sold considerably cheaper than the copyright versions.

Government Ministers had been getting complaints about the pirates from overseas rights owners. So it was arranged to fly in copyright and Customs experts, together with lawyers who specialised in the topic, to lead a 2 day public workshop in Suva. The idea was that once the laws and conventions had been explained to all those in the industry, the police and government agencies would crack down, enforcing the law. For their part the Ministers promised Fiji’s rather archaic copyright laws would be revised, updated and strengthened. The pirates would be sunk!

I attended the workshop which was carefully arranged to offer a carrot to Fiji operators (full explanation of the law, the reasons for copyright, and the consequences of prosecution), followed by the stick (if they did not stop their pirate activities they would be before the Court).

The result was quite the opposite: the pirates ignored the message and looked for new treasure to plunder. And this time it was Fiji TV which suffered at their hands: they exploited a yawning gap in our transmission coverage! It happened about the time our programme schedule changed: a wider variety of shows with more mature programmes being shown. And at the same time Fiji One’s new News and Sports programmes were proving very popular. While Fiji TV could be received throughout the main island, Viti Levu, it could not yet be viewed on the second biggest island, Vanua Levu. This was because engineers could not figure an easy, affordable, way to transmit the signal across the water to Vanua Levu. It was just too far, outside the range of conventional microwave signals.

Once the new, attractive, programme schedule kicked in there was an instant new business for the pirates. They began distributing tapes of Fiji One’s nightly programme to customers on Vanua Levu.  The TV signal was being taken off-air at the pirates’ Suva recording centre, dozens of copies were made overnight, flown to Labasa on the first flight out next morning and delivered to subscribing households on Vanua Levu, ready for viewing that night, just 24 hours after the original broadcast. Viewers paid for the privilege:  the delivery man would leave today’s VHS tape in the letterbox and uplift yesterday’s tape so it could be recycled.

We at Fiji TV were keen to see this piracy stopped because if we knowingly let it continue (and how could we stop it?) we, technically, infringed agreements we had with the owners of the content, like BBC, CNN and TVNZ (in the news) and Warners (entertainment). We were supposed to ensure such illegal copying was stopped by alerting the authorities and encouraging them to enforce the law. In fact, representatives of Warners visited Fiji about this time and, while acknowledging the pirates’ entrepreneurial initiatives, they said they wanted it to end, and I think they chatted to the appropriate Government Minister about it when they met him.

The quickest way to kill this racket would be to extend transmissions of our programmes to Vanua Levu, but we did not have the technical solution for the inter-island “hop” just yet, even though it was just a couple of hundred kilometres, line-of-sight, from Suva across land and sea to Labasa, the main town.

So it was decided we should follow in the pirates’ footsteps.  We set up a process which would record our daily programme from opening to closing, commercials and all, and fly the tape out to Vanua Levu each morning.  We built a transmitter site at Labasa, installed play-out facilities and hired a staff-member or two to ensure the tapes were telecast. And so Fiji TV officially arrived with free-to-air TV on the “second” island.  The locals did not seem to mind that all programming was exactly 24 hours behind the scheduled timetable and that news was “just a little out of date”.  Those who had been subscribing to the pirates’ pay service now welcomed free TV. And all those other viewers knew the delay was the difference between having TV or not! Overnight this part of the pirates’ business ended.  (A link was later established enabling Vanua Levu to receive TV programmes simultaneously with the rest of the Fiji)

Feature Items on Fiji TV  

A Day at the Races

With just a busy half-hour each night for Fiji One’s News, there was little room for slightly longer items. “Magazine” items were supposed to be devised and produced by the Government’s National Video Unit. This was part of the arrangement when Fiji TV took over the production of daily news: an hour was reserved on Sunday evenings for these programmes – the titles plainly showing that the content was produced by the Government’s agency, not Fiji One.

I had a few ideas for longer magazine items and although the Manual for News that I had written did not include this type of material in the news half-hour, I was not going to deny informative and entertaining content.  If we came across a real good idea for a magazine item, say up to 10 minutes, it could perhaps be scheduled on a quieter night. The busy newsroom could ease up a bit on news gathering and allow staff to catch up on some of the time-off owed to them.

The first of these was light-hearted treatment of the annual horse race-day in Lautoka. I had a day at the races to direct the cameraman while the reporter gathered the facts, shared in the colour of the day and helped keep the cameraman busy getting the atmosphere on tape.

A big crowd had been attracted to “the race course”, a sugar cane field on the outskirts of Lautoka town. The sugar cane plants had been chopped to form the circuit creating a circular track. The only fencing comprised a few barriers to keep the horses away from the crowd and the main grandstand for spectators was a steep dirt bank rising sharply, trackside.

“Volcano” wins in an explosive late sprint among the crops at revived race meetings Aviva Farms, Sabeto.  Photo: Waisea Nasokiam Fiji SunTimes

On the flat were a few food stalls and the “equalisator” being operated by the ANZ bank which had programmed one of its computers to calculate the dividends and print the tote tickets.  Punters could not choose the horse they wished to bet on, it was the luck of the draw at the tote window – punters had to accept whatever number was printed on the ticket. I think there were also some other forms of gambling elsewhere on the race-course, probably in the privacy of the towering cane plants just beyond the track! We taped a couple of preliminary races: jockeys wore the clothes they had come to the track in, it was all bareback riding and some of the mounts looked as if they could do with a good feed. Then we shot the feature race which, as I recall, had the distinction of saddled horses. There was a major upset when one of the entrants, the favourite as it happened, got out of control in the birdcage area, pulled free from its attendant, burst through the frail barriers and headed for the public enclosure. Fortunately, the horse was calmed before it did any damage, but probably for the punters-cum-bookmakers at the back of the course, the damage was well and truly done! The red-hot favourite was scratched! We taped the race, the photo finish (ours was the only camera!), the presentation of the trophies and the queues waiting to collect their winnings. We interviewed the hapless jockey, denied any fame on the day when his horse had to be scratched, and the winning connections who revealed it was the first time the victor had been to the races. It was usually a hack on the cane farm but they thought it showed quite good speed when it put its mind to it. So, a maiden had won the premiere event!

Back in the newsroom we cut the item. We re-cut it to get it somewhere near 10 minutes. I helped write the script – over the opening sequence, a wide shot of the track hewn from sugar cane it read “You can forget your Ascot, your Ellerslie and Parawai… this is a day at the races, Fiji-style”. Parawai, by the way, refers to the annual race meeting at Thames, New Zealand, on the track at Parawai. It’s one of the dying country meetings in New Zealand but with facilities much superlative to those found at Lautoka for its once-a-year racing.

Racing is still popular at Sabeto. Sailblog

As our first feature shown in the news “slot”, the item went down a treat. So much positive comment that I decided to look for other topics that might lend themselves to ‘magazine-style’ treatment, but it was not always going to be possible because of pressure on facilities, staff and time within the new daily news programme: longer items are difficult to accommodate without dropping just as worthy current news stories.

I understand annual race meetings in Lautoka have since been done way with, so Fiji TV has archive footage of what they were like in their hey-day. Racing has been successfully held at several other venues.

50 years since Victory

1995 was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2, and of course wartime hostilities affected Fiji, just as they did many other South Pacific islands. I decided a feature could be built around reminders that were still visible in Fiji fifty years after the war ended. We started a list and, happily, it grew with some very ‘telegenic’ items which we researched. I contacted long-time journalist and publisher Len Ussher: he added one or two to our list and filled in the details on some of the others which, he was impressed, we had winkled out for mention. I can’t remember the whole list but Nadi airport was one (origins as a stepping-stone military airport through the islands), together with several train lines specially built to move construction materials and troops out to the site.

Nadi Air Base under construction early 1940s. Fiji Museum

In Suva there were air-raid tunnels in the hill behind the commercial area, the fence in suburban Suva built of the metal duck-boards used to get military vehicles up the beach from landing craft. Then in the West there were pill-boxes, concrete observation and gun emplacement bunkers, built as part of coast-line defences.

Coastal defences at Momi: part of our special item. Fijiguide.

We traced one or two buildings still in use at Suva’s Nausori Airport that had been built for wartime purposes and then there was the Air Force flying boat base at Lauthala (Laucala) Bay, its break-water and terminal buildings still intact 50 years after the war.

Flying boat at Lauthala Bay. Paul Sheehan Collection

The base had been used after hostilities by New Zealand airline, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) for its flying-boat services.

TEAL poster. Te Ara Tongarewa

Lauthala Bay was an integral port of call for TEAL’s giant seaplanes flying its ‘Coral Route’ services throughout South Pacific Islands.

Continuing our hunt of reminders of the war we identified some old military barracks built for wartime use and we discovered at least one old Ford four-wheel-drive truck, left behind by the Americans after the war and now still in use on a farm.

This feature item, played on the Sunday night nearest the actual anniversary, also proved popular, reminding older viewers of wartime expediency, while younger members of the audience were introduced to everyday things that they had not formerly connected with a world war on their doorstep.

The item was later followed by an hour-long 50th Anniversary Concert specially recorded by Fiji TV at the Sheraton Hotel near Nadi which featured vocalists singing the better-known songs of World War 2.

Nuclear Testing Resumes in the Pacific

“No Comment!”

On June 13, 1995, the French Government announced that it was breaking a 3 year moratorium on nuclear testing on the South Pacific atoll, Mururoa, and would be resuming underground experiments. Since 1966 France had been testing in the atmosphere above the atoll but in 1974, in the face of international protests, explosions were carried out in shafts drilled deep in the atoll’s coral.

Atmospheric test by the French above Mururoa Island

President Francois Mitterand ceased testing altogether in 1992, again after international condemnation. Now, June 1995, new President Jacques Chirac, was announcing resumption of a series of underground tests. They would not only continue damage to the atoll’s structure and ecology, but again threaten the health of South Pacific peoples.

I heard first news of this resumed testing on Radio New Zealand’s breakfast bulletins and, though still long before offices opened in Fiji, I was determined to get comment from major players for that night’s news: most, I thought, would be against the new programme. Even before breakfast, I was on the phone, tasking a reporter to find Prime Minister, Sitivena Rabuka, and get his comment.

This chore took on a life of its own. The reporter quickly established that the PM was “at an outstation”, at Labasa. Following up on my enthusiasm for the story, she immediately commissioned our free-lance cameraman in Labasa to find Mr Rabuka and get comment. The cameraman, who was always eager to help Fiji TV in his role, got himself into gear and found the Prime Minister at the accommodation he traditionally used when visiting Labasa.

The story we got back in Suva was that the cameraman had actually got Mr Rabuka out of bed. Either our man was very quickly on the job, or the PM was a later-riser, but anyway, our man broke the news to the PM about the resumption of testing. It was obvious Mr Rabuka did not know about France’s plans. He showed surprise, our man later told us, but declined to comment. No, there would be no comment now, or in the future, from the Prime Minister of the most populous island in the Pacific, often self-trumpeted as the regions’ hub and headquarters.

There were, of course, plenty of other politicians, officials and representatives of non-government organisations who wanted to comment, all of them against more nuclear testing. New Zealand and Australia protested, along with most other Pacific states. We made it a major item on the night; from memory the theme occupied the whole of the programme’s first segment. We left the Prime Minister until last: we used the Government-issue ‘official’ photograph of him as the background and, in contrast to all the other vocal contributions on the subject, we told the nation that the Prime Minister, “when, early today, Fiji One News informed the Prime Minister of the resumed testing, Mr Rabuka had no comment”.

We used the official photo of Mr Rabuka because to my mind it best showed the French Legion d’Honneur medal, prominent among others. This was my unspoken, subtle message to viewers:  this medal was probably one of the reasons for his “No comment”.

(It turns out that earlier in June, a week before France’s announcement, there was suggestion at a meeting of the South Pacific Commission that testing may resume. Fiji sent a diplomatic note at that stage, protesting any resumption. This was not mentioned at the time)

But there were plenty of others who were commenting. Including, next day, a representative of an NGO (Non Government Organisation) who picked up on the Legion d’Honneur and in an interview we recorded and broadcast said… “the medal’s a gift from the French that Rabuka has not forgotten, even though France is testing nuclear devices again in our backyard”.  We had to clarify this in our bulletin next evening after justified complaints from the Government. The medal, we subsequently explained, was not a gift per se: Sitiveni Rabuka had been on peace-keeping duties and was awarded the honour by the French Government for bravery. Rabuka saved one of their officers during an attack on the UN Headquarters in Lebanon in 1980.

There was another reason, as it turned out for Rabuka’s reluctance to comment. I did not know about this at the time. Veteran local journalist, Sir Leonard (Len) Usher, mentioned it to me as a kind of aside when he phoned wanting to clarify the Legion d’Honneur part of our story. He said that financial assistance from Australia and New Zealand dried up as a result of the two 1987 coups but the French assisted with $14 million in grants and soft loans. Rabuka, through his “no comment” statements had obviously not forgotten who his friends had been in tougher times! (Sir Leonard also mentions this French aid in his book “Letters from Fiji 1987 – 1990”. He died in 2003, aged 96).

 “Rust Tub” to Mururoa

And another continuing saga arose out of the French decision to resume tests: a group of NGOs in Fiji and protestors from further afield decided to copy New Zealand’s earlier protest efforts by taking a ship into the no-go zone around Mururoa. Whereas New Zealand had sent its naval frigates Otago and Canterbury, supported by a fuel tanker, Supply, from Australia, Fiji interests chartered Kaunitoni a small 400 ton ship which had been owned by the Fiji Government and used for inter-island services.  One newspaper described it as a “rust tub”. Nevertheless it was hastily prepared for despatch to the lonely and distant Mururoa Atoll.

MV Kaunatoni. Pacific Islands Monthly, 1977

It was ready to sail in September but for a few days organisers could not get the required crew/protestors from Fiji, though 40 or more officials, elected representatives and community leaders were expected to join the ship at various ports as it progressed east. Some 54 protestors, coming from more than a dozen countries, were aboard on September 3, when a protest letter was sent from the ship to the French Government via Greenpeace, as Kaunitoni proceeded “on its way to Mururoa to join the international peace flotilla”.

There was a grand send-off from Suva wharves, though neither support nor encouragement from Fiji Government Ministers, MPs or officials. But a senator or two were, out of sight, behind the protest journey: one, Adi Tabakaucora was one of the ship’s listed private charterers.

But the mission was thwarted when the ship’s engines repeatedly broke down. Repairs were made each time. The ship proceeded at half speed, or worse. Then there was further engine failure which could not be fixed at sea. The ship drifted around the middle of the Pacific Ocean for several days awaiting rescue. It was lucky the ship, without power and steerage, was in calm conditions. The Royal New Zealand Air Force kept tabs on the ship in case the weather deteriorated. The Kaunitoni had to be towed to port… Rarotonga… I think, where she was repaired. Meantime, many of the protestors and crew, discomforted, flew back to Fiji. The ship later returned to Suva: mission unfulfilled.

There was a subsequent court case regarding the costs of repairs to the engine – the ship’s owners claimed these must be paid by the charterers. The case went to appeal with the High Court Judge finding in favour of the charterers… “the vessel was unseaworthy at the time she sailed to encounter the perils of the voyage and the damage that was caused was as a consequence of her being unfit – hence there was a breach of the implied warranty of seaworthiness. The appeal therefore fails and is dismissed with costs”.

 A Healthy Friction

There was always going to be healthy friction from time to time between the broadcaster and officialdom: there always is when you’re presenting news programmes, and if there wasn’t you’d be asking if you, as Editor, were doing your job properly. Before Fiji TV News began I had compiled several documents covering philosophy of our news operations, rules for journalists and a style guide spelling out the “look and feel” of the programme. These papers had been adopted by management and approved by the Board of Directors. So whenever we were accused of wrong-doing we resorted to “the book” which most times gave us the answers and got us out of trouble. Since it provided for apology and correction of any matter we got factually wrong in our broadcasts, this was the fall-back which we always resorted to.

I soon found I had some opposition in the Government Department which oversaw broadcasting and associated topics, I think it was the Ministry of Communications. One of the senior officers in the Ministry had the title “Head of Standards” which really meant he was in charge of, and oversaw, the physical links, radio frequencies and transmission. But he had apparently taken it upon himself to include in his brief the standard of on-air content (as opposed to the technical quality of transmissions) and in this additional role he frequently had an opinion about what we had shown in our news programmes. I realise that independent Fiji One taking over news from the Government-owned and operated Video Centre must have been an enormous change for him and the Ministry.

Previously, if the official had concern about a news item my guess is that he would have called up the supervisor at the Centre and, in the Public Service way, chastised the perpetrator.  There may have been a suggestion of a warning letter, appended to a Personal File. And perhaps the advice that if there was a repeat of this behaviour there would be a change in staff.  Now, under his assumed role, he found it was quite different when he had to deal with me on matters of content. My colleagues in Fiji TV management would, quite rightly, refer him to me if he was addressing anything to do with News. Rather than the instant acquiescence that he received from staff at the Centre, he found himself debating points with me, sometimes on matters of style, sometimes legal questions, while at other times he alleged one-sided treatment… always biased against the Government’s interests.

He rang one morning complaining that the Minister who had been seen in an interview the night before appeared to come off second-best in the item we had broadcast. I argued that we had interviewed the Minister by appointment, he had 4 hours’ notice in which to prepare and it was hardly our fault if it seemed that during the interview he was not on top of his portfolio. Then the official summed it up like this: “I suppose the bottom line, Ric, is that we don’t want you coming here with your Western ways!” I was flabbergasted for a split-second. “But, look,” I replied, “you’re talking on the telephone, it’s a western invention. If I am not mistaken, it’s one of our western ways… you’ll have to hang up”. And he did!

On another occasion I was no sooner back in my office after a visit to Government Buildings when the phone rang.  It was the official who immediatley launched into a compalint. “The Minister is very, very, unhappy with that item about Government enterprises you ran last night in the news, and I am ringing to advise you of that… and to ask what you’re planning in tonight’s programme to redress the imbalance in the coverage. The Minister wants to know.”

Mixed messages from Government officials

“Well this is most interesting,” I replied, “I’ve just come from the Minister’s office – I had morning tea with him and despite every opportunity during our friendly conversation, he didn’t mention a word about any shortcomings in last night’s news. And I’m sure he would have”. The official went quiet. He’d been sprung… it was not the Minister’s concern but, in fact, his own.

Success

Notwithstanding interruptions like this, Fiji One News was a success. We had a competent and close-knit team to gather, process and present each evening’s programme. We were never wanting for material: as far as I can remember we went to air every night at 7pm, never missed, and filled the half-hour. It was in sharp comparison with our unreliable predecessor, the Government’s Film and Video Unit. We had few complaints and not one that could not be ameliorated with a correction or apology: not one escalated to the Company’s procedure for Formal Complaints or to the Court.

We tried to bring same-day news. It was rare to show items that had occurred the “day before” or “recently”, the exception being early-on before the fibre-optic link was established with the West and we had to fly-in content.

I believe that, by far, in most cases we won the battle to present new material, to be first, ahead of local radio and newspaper. Some people still refer to these as “scoops”. And while perhaps we were not a “journal of record” (in accordance with our mission statement) we presented storylines that were important or of interest to the vast majority of viewers.

Fiji One engaged an Australian survey company to gather ratings. It followed international best practice to sample the audience. As we guessed the 7 o’clock news slot grew and grew in popularity, quarter on quarter. From memory I think it peaked at 79 per cent growth on pre-Fiji One News figures. The ratings were unbelievable but they had grown successively, quarter on quarter, subject to audit in Australia. The remarkable up-take of Fiji One’s nightly news was not lost on the media market in Fiji, nor the TV industry abroad when the ratings were published in trade journals. Friends in New Zealand teased that I had been on the wrong contract… there should have been a clause rewarding me with a $ bonus for every percentage increase sustained over 12 months!

Not only did this enormous leap in audience numbers make the News team very happy, it gave members the best reasons to continue. News was seen a highly-valued integral, if not essential, part of the business. This success, in turn, reflected on the commercial worth of News. With consistently large audiences, it was not long before the Head of Advertising Sales, Hank Arts, was increasing the price for commercials shown in and around the news programme. I found him, and the Programme Manager, cooperative when, given an exceptionally busy news agenda, we sought to extend the programme from time to time by a few minutes. Then, come Christmas, it was News’ turn to assist. Hank had so many companies wanting to advertise festive fare that he asked if he could place an additional commercial break in the half hour. News would lose a couple of minutes: I clawed back with an arrangement that we could go over time by one minute. It was agreed!

Special events also lent themselves to additional revenue – Hank was alert to sales of naming rights and “by association” and while News itself could not be sponsored, elements within the half hour such as weather and business news were saleable. This awareness of the need for revenue did not bother me: having set budgets, etc, for news operations, I know that it’s an expensive part of the business.

Taking My Leave

Fiji One, realising my time in Suva was fast running out, appointed Richard Broadbridge to head the newsroom. His solid background in radio news at Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and his rapid acquisition of TV skills showed he was the right person for the job. I felt I could leave it to him to continue, and develop, news operations.

Just to complete my programme of work at Fiji One I ran a series of workshops for the more advanced journalists, cameramen and videotape editors. “Master Classes” someone described them. One or two staffers from other departments joined in, anxious to better understand the daily processes of finding, gathering, editing and presenting news items. The sessions seemed beneficial and I suggested further exposure and training at TVNZ in Auckland, which some members of those workshops later took up.

For me, the farewell function was very emotional, attended by members of the Board, staffers and associates. It was a sad prospect to be leaving them all. Speeches over, all those assembled sang “Isa Lei”. I will never, ever, forget it. The Fijian words for “Oh, forget not, when you’re far away, precious moments at Suva” were especially appropriate, tugging at the heart-strings. Among the gifts, a fine mat, which I still have.

Next day, Sales Manager, Hank Arts, made the very last statement of appreciation. When I went to the airport to check in for my flight home, I found he had arranged for first class travel! A nice gesture.

The mission to Fiji ended for me without another job, or project, in sight. I planned to take a break and then report to my employers, TVNZ, to see what was next. In the event, it was only a matter of days after I arrived back in Auckland when, unexpectedly, a project came up which was to occupy me for the next 3 years, this time in Malaysia.

© Ric Carlyon 2022

 

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