What narrative emerged from Radio NZ's bosses revisiting the Economic Development select committee room? Nothing definitive ... but there's more to come yet, I think.

In terms of political theatre, not much beats a select committee hearing when there is the smell of scandal in the air. If that scandal involves potential political interference in a state-owned media organisation like Radio NZ, drama levels lift yet another notch.

In part, that is because the underlying issue is pretty serious. Even the suggestion of partisan meddling with the public’s own news source can sow doubts about its integrity. But it also is because not only the implicated media organisation itself has to give the matter full coverage (how can it avoid doing so?), other media organisations naturally are attracted to the story.

Hence the packed-out room at today’s meeting of Parliament’s Economic Development select committee, live streamed and blogged to the wider world. This hearing ostensibly was to allow the Chair of Radio NZ’s Board, Richard Griffin, and its Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, to correct their previous inaccurate statements about the now-infamous breakfast meeting between Radio NZ’s head of content, Carole Hirschfeld, and new Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran.

Back at the start of March, Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson informed the Committee that Ms Hirschfeld had assured them this meeting was an inconsequential coincidence; nothing more than a chance encounter following a gym workout. They subsequently found out that Ms Hirschfeld had mislead them and the meeting was a prearranged discussion about the state of New Zealand’s media.

Correcting the record then becomes necessary because misleading a select committee is potentially a contempt of Parliament, in theory punishable by a fine or even imprisonment. And even if Parliament chose not to pursue the matter as a contempt, public bodies simply should not lie to their political overseers, intentionally or otherwise.

However, the actual meaning of the hearing was hotly contested by the committee’s various government and opposition members. Two potential narratives were in play, with the questions of each side of the political divide aimed at making one or the other dominant.

The National members—Melissa Lee, in particular—wanted the hearing to tell the story of a Minister secretly working with a senior figure at RNZ to push forward Labour’s “RNZ+” plan to further expand the organisation into digital and TV content. Then, when the meeting became publicly known, the Minister sought to smother the story by dissuading Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson from appearing before the Committee in person to discuss it.

Not only did the Minister commit the equivalent of a political crime, but she then tried to cover it up from scrutiny. Even worse, she has been caught out doing so.

In contrast, Labour committee members—Paul Eagle, in particular—sought to portray Mr Griffin as effectively working with the National Party to turn a minor breach of public service etiquette into a major political event. Why else would a former press secretary to a National Prime Minister be communicating with National members of the select committee?

Whose account of events then won out from the hearing? Well, Mr Griffin reacted to Labour’s allegations he had behaved in a pro-National fashion with the sort of angry retorts that you’d expect from an innocent man who has only a month left in his current role and thus nothing to lose. And let’s face it—the only real “evidence” of any alleged “collusion” with the National Party amounts to his giving one of its MPs a three-minute heads-up that a public press release was being issued.

That’s not a smoking gun. It’s not even a gently steaming water-pistol.

What, then, of National’s insinuations that Minister Curran and Hirschfeld were somehow plotting together at their breakfast meeting? Well, before the Committee Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson claimed no knowledge of what the pair discussed. However, Mr Griffin strongly denied there was any difference between Radio NZ’s board, its CEO or the Minister’s views on the Government’s RNZ+ policy.

That undercuts any perceived need for the Minister to try and “backdoor” the Radio NZ board on this issue, lending creedance to her claim the meeting was just a general discussion about the future shape of media in NZ. After all, at the time of the meeting, Minister Curran had only been in her role for a couple of months and quite understandably might have been seeking a range of views on her portfolio.

What then catapulted the story to where it is now was Ms Hirschfeld’s foolish decision to mislead her bosses at Radio NZ about the circumstances of the meeting. That may have been nothing more than a moment of panic upon realising she had unwisely acted against Radio NZ’s policies on interacting with political figures. And once the initial lie was told, it took on a life of its own.

However, National did possibly draw some blood with its questions regarding Minister Curran’s subsequent communications with Mr Griffin. She left him a voicemail last week which he characterised as containing a “strong suggestion” that rather than turn up before the Committee in person to answer questions, he just provide it with a written statement.

This is important, because Minister Curran has told both the public and the Prime Minister that her message to Mr Griffin simply advised him that providing a written statement for the Committee’s meeting last week would be a quicker way of correcting the record. If she in fact went beyond this and actually counselled him not to attend in person, then she will be in real trouble.

National MP Melissa Lee’s last action at the Committee meeting was to request a copy of the relevant voicemail. Minister Curran’s political future may well rest upon what it says.

 

Comments (14)

by Raymond A Francis on April 05, 2018
Raymond A Francis

I am sure Labour will be able to skate over this if Miss Curran implied or even told the RNZ Chairman not to turn up in person with either the weasel word "misspoke" or the prebuilt in excuse "my recollection ".

by Kat on April 05, 2018
Kat

And convieniently no paper or audio trail between Griffin and Lee available for scrutiny. the whole episode is a beat up and will ultimately fizz out. The opposition will hope a few cuts remain though.

"Who do you think you are kidding Mr H............."

That old Dads Army song is getting a good airing lately.

by Ian MacKay on April 05, 2018
Ian MacKay

My wife asked me what had Clare Curran done wrong.  I said that she should have fronted up that she had had a meeting in a public place early on. Chris Hipkins said today that he had suggested that Curran's office could contact Griffin and suggest that a letter would suffice if he was unable to attend in person at last week's meeting of the Select Committee. But Griffen has implied that her call told him to not attend so that "she could avoid further scrutiny." (paraphrased.)

Well dear wife, after all the endless turmoil the only problem for Clare is that when Griffin eventually releases the voice message as he will no doubt do so very reluctantly when Miss Lee decides the moment is right, it will either condemn her or  exempt her from further strife.

And as Raymond points out think of the number of times Key just shrugged off tricky questions. Have a shrug training session Clare.

by Dennis Frank on April 06, 2018
Dennis Frank

So what are the current rules around parliamentary voice mail?  Public or private?

Most people consider their voice mail private.  Are Griffin & Curran deprived of privacy due to being public officials?

If the rules say they are private messages and Griffin publicises his without obtaining Curran's agreement to do so, is that not only unethical, but also illegal?  If he gives it to Melissa Lee to publicise instead, can she do so without punishment?  Are parliamentarians so above the law that they can get away with breaching the privacy of public servants?

Gosh, so many questions. I wonder if Q+A would deem them an appropriate programme script.

by Ian MacKay on April 06, 2018
Ian MacKay

Dennis, Mr Griffin said today that the call was on his own private phone so perhaps not available to the public. Remember Slater and Key getting questioned about whether it was private or not?

by Dennis Frank on April 06, 2018
Dennis Frank

Thanks Ian.  If he refuses Melissa Lee's request on the basis of privacy it will make him seem non-partisan.  If he accedes to it, those accusing him of acting on behalf of the Nats will feel vindicated.  But it still leaves the interesting issue of whether the Minister's right to privacy also applies.  Common sense suggests it does, since she sent him the message!

by Chris Morris on April 07, 2018
Chris Morris

Dennis

If Ms Curran sent a communication to Mr Griffin as Minister to CEO, then it isn't private, no matter what the transmission path was. 

by Charlie on April 07, 2018
Charlie

In the fullness of time I think Jacinda will regret not using this as an opportunity to dump Curran - who clearly isn't the sharpest knife in the box.

 

by Dennis Frank on April 07, 2018
Dennis Frank

Hmm.  If you're right, Chris, I'm guessing that there's a rule in the cabinet manual that makes it so.  If that's the case, why isn't anyone citing that rule?

Anyway, Curran seems to have given her CEO advice that contentious parties want to see.  The fact that they can't yet see it seems to prove that the advice is currently private - your personal opinion notwithstanding.  To prove you're right, someone will have to cite legislation that specifies the fact - or else a parliamentary convention that those in parliament agree ought to bind behaviour into conformity.

by Chris Morris on April 07, 2018
Chris Morris

Dennis

You could actually try reading the Cabinet Manual  - It says this:

Official information” is defined in section 2 of the Act as any information held by a department or organisation (as defined, “organisation” includes most agencies in the wider state sector) or a Minister of the Crown (including a Parliamentary Under-Secretary) in his or her official capacity. 

and this:

The definition of information is not confined to information on paper. Official information can include sound recordings, film, computer records, emails, text messages, and information known to a department, Minister, or organisation but not recorded in writing. Although an official or Minister could be required, under the Act, to write down information not yet in a written form, this is simply a means of making that existing information accessible to others. There is no obligation to form an opinion or create information in order to respond to a request.

 

by Dennis Frank on April 07, 2018
Dennis Frank

Okay, thanks for that Chris.  I suppose a further technical quibble is viable, to explore whether an opinion or a suggestion falls into the category of information. 

If she just expressed her opinion that if her CEO responded in writing to the committee, that would be quicker, as Andrew described it, that opinion is informative when expressed via email.  An opinion, unexpressed, isn't informative.  Griffin's description of the email (a strong suggestion) seems to imply coercion.  So I concur with Andrew:  if the email becomes public, the actual text will inform us whether one or the other of the two interpretations was intended.

If the text of the email seems to be an instruction as to what he ought to do, then the protocol around how ministers ought to instruct their department comes into play, doesn't it?  Is it normal for departmental heads to accept ministerial instructions?

by Chris Morris on April 07, 2018
Chris Morris

Dennis

It was not an email - it was a voicemail. And please read the Cabinet manual. Ministers can direct policy, but their directions are information that can be discovered under the OIA.  

You are dancing on the head of a pin. She rang him, Minister to CEO, to tell him he didn't have to appear in person. That is a communication - not outside the OIA . 

by Dennis Frank on April 07, 2018
Dennis Frank

Thanks for that clarification, Chris.  The perception of wrong-doing by the minister that has made the voicemail controversial ought to be balanced by reality in our news media.  Claim & counter-claim make good news stories, so the reporters get disinclined to focus on what's real.  That's why I've been trying to discern the reality of the situation.  Otherwise perception creates social reality by default and fake news becomes the norm.

So until the voice-mail gets published we won't know if the minister actually did do something wrong...

by Dennis Frank on April 11, 2018
Dennis Frank

Well, according to a report in the Herald today, the voicemail is unlikely ever to be published.  My apologies to readers for referring to Griffin as the CEO when he's actually chairman.  I presume the chair of a crown entity cannot be deemed a public servant.  So the outcome is defacto recognition by key players in the situation that the voice mail is private.  Interpreting those cabinet manual sections as deeming it public seems non-viable.

Melissa Lee, or anyone else, can still do an OIA request to flush it out into the public arena.  But until that happens we are obliged to conclude that the discretion of the chair and minister prevails over the cabinet manual.  Griffin's rationale for refusing to inform the select committee of the content of the minister's message to him was as follows:  "I would be breaching my own ethical boundaries and, I believe, further damage relations between RNZ, the Minister and the wider Government, which is an integral part of the framework within which we work, if I complied with the request."

The PM then refrained from identifying the voicemail as public information.  She merely commented that the matter had come to an end.  National's leader then said it's about "a minister's and the state broadcaster's accountability to Parliament. We've got so many unanswered questions here about what's gone on. It would be right to get to the bottom of that."

But like the PM he too refrained from specifying that the voicemail is public information.  So there's a hefty consensus that the cabinet manual is irrelevant.

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