29 Jul 2018

Grandstanding on the big gig stadium stoush

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 29 July 2018

Big personalities clashed over a proposed charity concert in Auckland and both claimed other agendas were in play. The media reported the row with relish and some took sides. But there were bigger issues in the background.

Sir Ray Avery on Newshub Nation earlier this month, accusing Helen Clark of grandstanding.

Sir Ray Avery on Newshub Nation earlier this month, accusing Helen Clark of grandstanding. Photo: screenshot / Newshub Nation

There hasn't been a public scrap of this calibre for ages” declared columnist Alison Mau In the Sunday Star Times earlier this month.

“It's Battle of the Titans, people! Grab the popcorn,” she wrote.

When medical innovator and former New Zealander of the year Sir Ray Avery unveiled a plan in early June for a big gig at Eden Park, it sounded like a done deal.

He said an un-named artist from Band Aid was lined up to be the centrepiece of nationwide fundraising effort to raise $4 million for portable incubators to send to nations in need.

But the plan hit a snag with some residents round Eden Park way - one in particular:

Sir Ray hit back bluntly on Radio Live.

"[Helen] has probably seen as many dead babies as I have in the way she has gone across the world. It is extraordinary that someone's that is on the world stage promoting women's rights would actually get down to this petty local borough politics," he said.

Helen Clark told RNZ National Sir Ray was "bullying." Sir Ray went on Newshub Nation and said she was "morally wrong".

Having claimed the moral high ground, Sir Ray said opponents of the plan had another agenda - getting rid of Eden Park altogether.

Helen Clark certainly didn't pass up the media opportunity to back the building of a stadium in downtown Auckland  - which would be nowhere near her back yard.

But those on her side of the fence on the Eden Park issue said their opponents had another agenda too. The Eden Park Trust has been trying to get permission for lucrative concerts for years. Its last annual report said that was a key goal. 

Sir Ray was adamant only Eden Park would do for the "big as Elvis" star he had lined up. There was no plan B - and he said it would "go down to the wire" this past week at the the Environment Court.

Sir Ray Avery

Sir Ray Avery Photo: supplied

So was it all quiet on the Eden front as both sides waited for a verdict?

No chance. The media activity and PR moves only intensified.

Sir Ray's main partner for the big gig at Eden Park was the recently-appointed Eden Park boss Nick Sautner who brought his own newborn to the launch event in June.

It turned out he had been dismissed by Melbourne's Etihad stadium four years ago for misconduct. That was reported in detail in Australia at the time, but only the blog site Sportsfreak seemed to notice here after his Eden Park appointment back in February.

No one in the news media here reported it until Newsroom.co.nz published the details late last week. On Radio Live last weekend Sir Ray Avery said he believed the Eden Park residents were trying to "get rid" of Mr Sautner. 

But Helen Clark claimed the Trust was using persuasion by PR in the neighbourhood.   

"I've been concerned for some time about the tactics in the neighbourhood where they throw their PR outreach, barbecues and who knows whatever inducements,” Helen Clark told Newsroom.

Helen Clark explains her 'uncharitable' stance on Eden Park's concert in a Stuff video interview.

Helen Clark explains her 'uncharitable' stance on Eden Park's concert in a Stuff video interview. Photo: screenshot / Stuff

The Trust held a free get-together for residents last last week the same day it released results of a UMR poll it commissioned which showed both Eden park residents and people elsewhere in Auckland alike overwhelmingly supported Sir Ray’s concert.

But those surveyed by phone were also asked whether they would welcome other concerts throughout the year too -- part of the Trust’s commercial plan for the future.

Even though Sir Ray had insisted he was focused solely on getting the fundraising charity concert off the ground, he also went in to bat for Eden Park’s bid for a wider remit on Radio LIve’s Weekend Life show last Sunday. 

Bigger issues about the project and the track record of his company Medicine Mondiale emerged in a four-part Newsroom investigation last Wednesday. Science reporter Eloise Gibson and site co-editor Tim Murphy examined the LifePod project and Sir Ray’s track record with other innovations. 

This involved detailed interviews with Sir Ray himself and many current and former colleagues.

While media reports about the proposed concert indicated the life pods were all but ready to roll out overseas once enough money was raised, Newsroom reported that the pods, and two other innovations promoted on the Medicine Mondiale website, were not actually in production.

The widely-publicised target numbers of 2000 incubators to save one million babies were - in Sir Ray's own words - “picked out of the air."

Some current collaborators backed the man and his methods, but several former associates told Newsroom about their concerns. Some were not prepared to be named for fear they would be pursued and criticised, according to Newsroom.  

Newsroom’s Tim Murphy also pointed out Sir Ray Avery has had almost universally positive press coverage for more than a decade in New Zealand. News reports and feature stories had routinely inflated the extent of his work and benefits of his inventions.

Some of the coverage, he noted, had even made claims about him that even if Ray Avery and Medicine Mondiale had not made.

Tim Murphy also noted Sir Ray had a major media company behind him. NZME, which owns the New Zealand Herald, NewstalkZB and many papers and radio stations is listed as a supporter which "helps promote" the Avery cause.

From 2015 onwards, several Herald article gave the impression his incubators had reached the manufacturing stage and would soon be on the market.

“The first countries likely to benefit would be in the Pacific, but he also expected the LifePods to be shipped around the world. His factory is capable of building 184 every week once the funding is in place,” the Herald reported in early June when the Eden Park fundraising concert was launched. 

Matt Heath, DJ at NZME-owned Radio Hauraki was at the Eden Park launch event.

“If the Eden Park event raises $4 million dollars he can build and ship enough of these to save a million little babies. That’s if the event gets consent . . ,” he wrote in his weekly Herald column headlined:“The babies of Eden Park need our support.”

But by the middle of last week, the concert was looking doubtful.

The Eden Park Trust was telling media the cost and hassle of planning approval under the RMA was “snowballing”
and the concert was looking doubtful. 

On the AM show last Wednesday, the hosts still wanted to know who was the “big as Elvis” Live Aid star Sir Ray had lined up for the Eden Park event. 

A tired-looking Sir Ray refused to confirm or deny as they fired names at him - including Prince, Freddie Mercury and John Lennon, who are all dead.   

24 hours later it was a moot point. The Eden Park Trust pulled its application for consent for the concert.  

Helen Clark appeared on Checkpoint again that evening and said she thought the concert backers and the Eden Park Trust had “used each other” and it hadn’t worked out as the row played out in the media.

By the same token, Helen Clark was able to leverage the media's interest in her to air the concerns of like-minded neighbours.  

While coverage of the fortnight-long stoush rolled on, the focus was firmly on the personalities involved. 

But Newsroom’s special investigation showed the media were part of that problem, seizing on claims that couldn't be supported and hadn't been investigated. 

Sir Ray and his backers insist the LifePods will still save one million lives.

He told TVNZ the numbers weren't "rubbish" but "rubbery."

An important distinction that  only become clear once the media spotlight finally found the right focus.