26 Mar 2023

Lifting the lid on lobbying, ministers - and the media

From Mediawatch, 1:10 pm on 26 March 2023

An RNZ investigation lifted the lid this week on lobbyists and how they communicate with politicians outside the public gaze or official oversight. But it also raised questions for the media about how the lobbyists lobby them - and appear in the media while the public have no idea who their clients are.    

Guyon Espiner with screenshots of emails and text messages.

Photo: RNZ

“When a big corporate is alarmed about possible law changes, it asks its well-connected lobbyist to intervene. A text message exchange between a Cabinet Minister and his lobbyist "mate" follows,” Guyon Espiner wrote in one of several articles in the In Depth series on the unseen, unchecked industry in lobbying the powerful in New Zealand.   

The “mate” could have been sitting around the Cabinet table not long before, he revealed, and calling for more  transparency and more rules.  

 Under the headline The lobbyist, the liquor industry and the beehive revolving door, the Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and his chief of staff were depicted against a backdrop of big booze bottles. 

The story said Andrew Kirton worked for a trans-Tasman lobbying firm Anacta - which acted on behalf of liquor industry giants Asahi and Lion - and pushed back against the proposed container return scheme. 

The first part of the series on Monday detailed the hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money being spent on lobbying firms by universities, government agencies and State Owned Enterprises. 

Sometimes that was to avoid or minimise awkward encounters with the media.  

On Monday’s Morning Report, Guyon Espiner made the point several of these lobbyists are happy to appear in the media themselves - in spite of the potential conflicts of interest. 

“You've got no idea as a member of the public  - zero - who they're actually working for. It took 70-plus OIA requests to find out who these (lobbyists’) clients are. There's a pretty strong argument the public is poorly served by that because a lot of these people also giving media commentary and the public at large have no idea who these clients are,” he said. 

This is an issue that’s come up before, prompting RNZ to tighten up its rules on potential conflicts of interest in 2018 and insist on greater disclosure from lobbyists appearing as political panelists. 

In 2020, prominent pundit Mattew Hooton - a regular on Nine to Noon’s weekly political panel withdrew from commentary after failing to declare he was working for National Party leadership hopeful Todd Muller.   

But the co-owner of the agency Capital - Neale Jones (a former chief of staff for Labour Party leaders) - has also been a regular Nine to Noon commentator.  

This week Guyon Espiner reported that documents released to him revealed Jones lobbied for Countdown on alcohol sales issues and tech titan Google. 

“These documents show that he texted an advisor in the Internal Affairs Minister's office saying: ‘Just wondering on behalf of Google if there's any indication when this particular paper on online content regulation is going to Cabinet." said Espiner. 

"The adviser says; 'It's going to Cabinet this month.' It's interesting to see how much how much that they play ball with these guys, “ Espiner told Morning Report.  

(It certainly is for Mediawatch. We’ve had less luck getting heads-up about the progress of the Government’s ongoing - but seeming stalled - review of media content regulation)

Guyon Espiner’s face was was also on the cover of The New Zealand Listener magazine last week, alongside a teasing banner: “What really happened with Duncan Garner and John Key” 

Inside the magazine was an extract from Guyon Espiner’s new book The Drinking Game, all about the business of booze and its place in social and political life 

In this there was an anecdote from 2008, when John Key took TV3 political editor Duncan Garner and Guyon - his TVNZ counterpart at the time - for a night out on the booze , with Key picking up the tab. 

One of the off-the-record yarns John Key told them that night - about the chances of Bill English taking John Key's job - ended up in a Sunday paper six years later.  

The reason Espiner recounts this in the book is that liquor is little more regulated these days than it was back then. And- according to Espiner “that is the way the industry likes it.”

He’s now wondering what impact the booze habit might have had on alcohol regulation and media reporting of the issue over the years. 

And that was still on his mind last Monday when he told Tova O’Brien on Today FM this week it wasn’t just just Key buying beers for the likes of him in the media back then. 

“There'll be lobbyists listen to this saying: 'Oh, yeah - I got Guyon over to some event, some cricket game' . And I did do all that. I've been to many corporate box events,” he told Today FM

“If I look back, I probably could have been more rigorous with that stuff. And I do think there's a bit of cone of silence thing that goes on here - and the public's got no idea about how this stuff works,” he said. 

MPs accepting hospitality has occasionally been turned into news down the years. 

For example, in 2012 the Herald reported Clayton Cosgrove and Kris Faafoi - both of whom are now lobbyists - took taxpayer-funded flights to watch the All Blacks as a guest of Sky City. 

But junkets for journalists rarely made the headlines, so politicians and lobbyists alike might indeed be spluttering into their drinks hearing journalists declaring all these years later that hospitality they handed out back then could have comprised a compromise. 

Those claiming to be the public’s ‘eyes and ears’ must also have known it’s harder to speak truth to power with your mouth full when a politician or lobbyist is picking up the tab - even if the hospitality is hidden in a corporate box in a stadium. 

Documents Espiner obtained using the Official Information Act showed booze is still being used as a lubricant today.

He revealed Andrew Kirton emailed officials a year ago setting up meetings asking: “Wondering if you had time this Wednesday for a quick beer” 

A lobbyist for Thompson Lewis was texting advisors in the office of senior Cabinet Minister Megan Woods to invite them to the Beervana festival last August.

But the series raised questions for the media beyond the blandishments of a few beers.