19 Aug 2018

Spending scoop highlights the pros and cons of leaks

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 19 August 2018

Newshub’s early reveal of Simon Bridges’ big bill for travel created a political drama for the rest of the media this week. But the handling of the leak also sparked a pushback from some pundits and others in the media.

Simon Bridges looks at Newshub;s leaked list of his travel expenses during Monday's exclusive report  - with his crown car in the background.

Simon Bridges looks at Newshub;s leaked list of his travel expenses during Monday's exclusive report - with his crown car in the background. Photo: screenshot / Newshub at 6

“Simon Bridges is spending up large - using taxpayer funding to pay for his limousine,” Newshub at 6 newsreader Samantha Hayes told viewers on Three last Monday. 

Travel expenses leaked to Newshub showed Simon Bridges spent a six-figure sum in the previous quarter in which he went on a national tour to introduce himself as National’s new leader.

Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien - who previously criticised Simon Bridges for going on the road - said the spending was not only unjustified but also contradicted National Party pre-election ads claiming Labour fleeced hard-working Kiwis. And in his own promotional video, Simon Bridges talked about being brought up by parents who knew “how to stretch a dollar a long way.”

Tova O’Brien also reckoned he'd wasted the money.

“Simon Bridges hasn't announced a single policy based on the feedback he heard from voters yet. It was supposed to be a profile-raising exercise but  . . he hasn't had a bump in the polls,” she said.

Since when have leaders’ travel expenses been linked to the output of fresh policies or positive opinion poll results? And using the public purse purely for personal poll rating bumps really would be out of order.

On Wednesday Tova O’Brien said Simon Bridges should apologise to taxpayers for what she called ‘Limo-gate’. His refusal “reeked of arrogance,” she wrote.  

But not every journalist reckoned Bridges' big bill was such a big deal.

"Once you factor in that Bridges' costs  include some invoices carried over from the previous quarter, and the fact that Crown limo's for the Opposition leader are charged out at a higher rate than is charged to government ministers, the figure still seems high, though not outlandish," Stuff's political editor Tracy Watkins wrote.

An editorial published in the Dominion Post, Taranaki Daily News and The Press called the Newshub scoop "a bit of a beat-up"

"If the objective was to get a story loaded with clickbaity phrases like "spending up large", "splashing cash" and "travelling the country by road and in style" into circulation – the leak succeeded admirably," said the editorial.

On Newstalk ZB and in the New Zealand Herald broadcaster Mike Hosking called it "a hit job" and even government minister Stuart Nash said he "didn't have problem with Simon's expenses".

“We don't expect the Leader of the Opposition to have to travel round on a Newman’s bus,” he said on Newstalk ZB.

Veteran political journalist John Armstrong wouldn't have been surprised by that though.

"When it comes to sniping at each other, there is an unspoken pact between the parties in Parliament that this territory is out of bounds. There is a big danger of the pot calling the kettle black, he wrote at TVNZ's One News Now.

This editorial in several Stuff papers criticised Newshub's reporting of the National leader's big blll for travel.

This editorial in several Stuff papers criticised Newshub's reporting of the National leader's big blll for travel. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

The big picture, he said, was that this amounts to "state funding of party politics in drag".

"That was why this week’s fuss about Bridges’ expenses very quickly shifted from focusing on what was leaked to the question of who leaked it," he said.

That certainly became the media's focus when an inquiry into the leak was announced. 

Stuff's Tracey Watkins called it “a big whodunnit that could keep us occupied for days”.

(By "us" she means herself and other political reporters, not readers who are not so interested...)

 "The various theories have become so incredibly machiavellian, the effort of just keeping up was enough to make our heads spin," she wrote.

Heads of those found out for leaking will be rolling rather than merely spinning if the inquiry finds a culprit or two, reporters all agreed. 

Before the last election, NZ First leader Winston Peters was the victim of a leak when two media outlets - including Newshub - reported  that he’d been overpaid his national superannuation.

That was private financial information, whereas Simon Bridges six-figure spending on travel would have come out anyway this Thursday - along with the records of other MPs.   

But in both cases it’s highly likely the leakers sought to damage those party leaders politically at a particularly tricky time for them.

If that was the motivation, the leaker would have been pleased to hear Tova O'Brien say this after her scoop on Newshub at Six on Monday:

 "Simon Bridges' leadership needs a lifeline or drastic change of approach because it does seem like it's on shaky ground"

It remains to be seen if Parliament’s inquiry will unmask a culprit.

But as with Winston Peters pre-election Super story, the story that is really in the public interest is why the information was leaked to the media - and whether media are being used to undermine party leaders.

Journalists are duty-bound to protect sources of sensitive information so Newshub certainly won’t be making the source public.

While Simon Bridges was burned in this story, reporters will not want to burn their bridges with the sources of such scoops in the future - whether the public interest is being served or not.