3 Dec 2023

Mayor under pressure after rumour-based reports

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 3 December 2023


Wellington’s mayor is under pressure after acknowledging an alcohol problem. Her admission was prompted by media questions about drunken ‘antics’  based in part on a reported recording which no media outlet has yet confirmed - and which was contradicted by the only eye-witness on the record. 

Who wields the power?’ asks the front page of this weekend's edition of the Wellington paper The Post above its ranking of the 50 most powerful people in and around the capital. 

Coming in at number seven was the city's mayor Tory Whanau - though The Post said that her status was “in jeopardy” because she admitted to a drinking problem this week following what The Post described as “weeks of torrid rumours” about her behavior.

Just two days earlier, her behaviour one recent night out led the paper’s front page. 

That story said Whanau was “again forced to defend allegations of drunken behavior in public” after what The Post understood was an incident that took place at a central Wellington bar two weekends ago - and was “rumored to have been recorded by a third party.” 

And rumour was a key part of the story. 

Those who read to the end of it were left wondering what had happened that day at the bar - and who knew about it and who might have recorded or even seen the evidence of it. 

In her statement, Whanau said it was to “her great embarrassment and shame” that an “incident  ...  seemed to have been recorded.” 

But The Post said that the co-owner of Havana bar was "perplexed" because he was there, and the mayor and her friends “weren't intoxicated.” 

The Post’s story may not have been a surprise to those who heard RNZ National’s Checkpoint the day before

“Whanau has admitted to more drunken antics in a central city Bar. She has confirmed to RNZ she has a drinking problem after multiple council sources, including supporters of the mayor, told RNZ about footage showing her in an intoxicated state,” host Lisa Owen told listeners. 

Whanau’s full statement doesn't acknowledge any drunken ‘antics.’ 

Checkpoint said several sources confirmed the mayor was at the Havana bar on that day with friends “having a rowdy time ...   and this has apparently been captured on video.” 

Checkpoint said it had spoken to several councilors and “most had had heard the story and knew about the video in circulation, although they all denied having seen the footage themselves".

A subsequent RNZ online news story said it had put the allegations to Whanau’s office after it "learned of footage circulating." 

But RNZ and other media have yet to confirm the existence of that footage, let alone what it might show and whether it is newsworthy. 

On Newstalk ZB’s Wellington Mornings show the next day, host Nick Mills made heavy use of the word ‘apparently.’

“Apparently, there's a video floating around   - or about to float around  - with Wellington’s mayor at a bar. Apparently, it's not good viewing. It happened apparently two weeks ago. So let's not beat around the bush,” he said.  

“One of the bar’s owners there that night says the mayor was just having a good night,” TVNZ 1 News told viewers that night. 

 “Lies are being told that (they) were absolutely out of control in a bar. We were all here - and we did not witness that at all,” Havana co-owner Roger Young said. 

The Spinoff’s Wellington editor Joel MacManus called every Wellington City councilor about it - and other sources - and said he found “absolutely no evidence that any footage exists".

He said many social media accounts also claimed a video was out there, and some said it showed something much more scandalous than just drinking late in a bar. 

MacManus has said most social media accounts “seemed to have heard it was circulating on a different platform.” 

On his online platform The Platform on Thursday host Sean Plunket aired a lurid account of what he had heard had happened at the Havana bar - but hadn't seen the video either.

That was in a run up to an interview with the Wellington City Councilor Nicola Young, who urged the mayor to resign. 

“I haven't seen this video. God, I've heard so many people last night who have,” Plunket said. 

“I have spoken to people or people have written to me about it, but I haven't seen it,” Nicola Young told him - agreeing that his lurid account tallied with what she had heard.   

Young subsequently told The Spinoff she believed the video footage did exist because “one who has seen it is a very respectable Wellingtonian".

Mayors' misbehaviour in the headlines 

In Whanau’s only public comment on this so far, she's only said that she “seemed to have been recorded” that night. She has declined several opportunities to answer questions about what happened.

But she is far from the first mayor whose after hours behavior has hit the headlines. 

Back in 2010, Sunday Star Times revelations led to calls for the resignation of North Shore mayor Andrew Williams. 

Ten years ago, Auckland mayor Len Brown’s affair became long-running headline fodder when political opponents used it to discredit him during a re-election campaign. 

But Brown’s affair was confirmed by the other party to it at the time, and Williams admitted to his behavior in 2010. 

Whanau has said she was drunk in public on the 18th of November, but no-one has yet put on the record anything other than the rumours about alleged ‘antics’ - more than two weeks after they are alleged to have happened. 

No video has surfaced yet and the bar co-owner  - the only witness who's on the record - has said he saw nothing like what's been reported so far. 

Risks of reporting rumours 

Nicole Moreham, professor of law at Victoria University of Wellington.

Nicole Moreham, professor of law at Victoria University of Wellington. Photo: supplied

For years several scurrilous rumors about Jacinda Ardern’s partner Clarke Gayford circulated online and in gossip. When TVNZ made inquiries to police about them in 2018 the police commissioner said they were untrue. Several newsrooms got a lawyer's letter reminding them the rumours were highly defamatory. 

In August last year Gayford received a payment and an apology from NZME when a podcast aired “damaging and untrue comments based on rumors ... that were baseless lies.”

Whanau’s case is different. 

A Friday night with a friend became national news four months ago after said admitted she was “tipsy” would change the way that she socialised in public in the future. 

This week she admitted an alcohol problem, prompting stories and commentary in the media about whether she's fit for the job of mayor. 

A public figure’s performance in a public role and behaviour in a public place are legitimate matters of public interest. 

But can what The Post called “torrid rumors” be safely reported without evidence they are true? 

“In a public place, your reasonable expectation of privacy is likely to be diminished. When it comes to the public interest, that incident raised questions about someone's fitness for public office. The courts have recognised that lots of times,” said Nicole Moreham, law professor at Victoria University in Wellington and co-editor of Oxford University Press book The Law of Privacy and the Media

“The question of her drinking was put into the public domain after the last set of negative publicity. She said that she was moving on from that so I think she put that into the public domain herself by claiming that she's changed her ways.”

Unless a recording surfaces which illustrates the claims about lurid conduct by the mayor, are those repeating the rumours at risk of a defamation action? 

“If you repeat an allegation, the fact that you are not the first one to make the allegation is not a defence. If I repeat some outrageous allegation about a person which is all over Twitter and it turns out it's not true . . . I can be sued just like every other person.

“Media have two defences that they can use. One would be that whatever they're saying is true - the other one would be that it was responsible journalism in the public interest.

 “Some of the other early stories don't actually say exactly what it is that they're alleging. They're so unspecific about the nature of the allegation that I think that proving that they have been responsible is probably going to be relatively easy.

“They will say they gave the mayor an opportunity to comment to refute any allegation - and rather than refute it, she actually confirmed the fact that there was some discreditable conduct. The story has played out in a slightly odd way.

 “If you leave a vacuum, as they have in this instance, people will go to fill it. Some are saying stories have been published without enough to back them up. There's another set of assumptions saying the media are sitting on information to protect her reputation.”