28 Jan 2024

Media cop flak over MP’s startling downfall 

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 28 January 2024
Allegations of a third instance of shoplifting fill the front page of The Post shortly before the Green MP announced her resignation.

Allegations of a third instance of shoplifting fill the front page of The Post shortly before the Green MP announced her resignation. Photo: The Post

The summer holidays are usually a dead zone for domestic political news - but the unseasonal and unexpected downfall of Golriz Ghahraman bucked the trend this month.

Media copped criticism from some for reporting the allegations that led to her resignation - while others railed at media for failing to condemn her alleged crimes and playing the ‘mental health card'.

When Golriz Ghahraman resigned from Parliament on 16 January, her statement said work-related stress has damaged her mental health and led her to act in “out-of-character” ways. 

It was six days since the allegations of theft had first hit the headlines, followed by reports of a second and later a third instance for which the ex-MP was charged this week. That latest charge related to an incident back in October. 

What was clearly a closely kept secret broke on NZME’s subscriber-only online service ZB Plus, which also reported the Greens had for some time had CCTV recording of alleged shoplifting. 

The allegations also appeared on the blog and social media accounts of Marc Spring, a blogger clearly hostile to the former government and the Green Party judging by the topics and tone of his posts. 

But there were no charges at that time and no on the record statement from police or any of the shops from which she'd been accused of stealing. 

Some questioned whether allegations that were initially unconfirmed  - and unacknowledged by the MP - should have been reported in the news at all while police investigations were ongoing. 

But no news editor could easily ignore a lawmaker accused of breaking the law - and who also happened to be a party spokesperson on justice. 

The fact that the Greens stood her down from those roles even before making a proper statement about the allegations was taken as a sign by the media that there was at least some fire to go with all the smoke. 

The vacuum created by the lack of comment was filled by political commentators the media have on speed-dial, speculating on what might happen next and how the public felt about it all. The vacuum was further filled by political pundits criticising the Greens for failing to fill the vacuum themselves. 

“The longer her silence is, the worse it's going to get for her. That is an absolute reality," TV executive turned spin doctor Janet Wilson told RNZ

“I've never heard of a political party following the wishes of a high-end frock shop because they didn't want it to come out,” she added. 

In her weekly column for The Post, Wilson also reckoned the summer break was not actually a great time for political bad news, because people had “more time on their hands to breathlessly follow each daily development in this sad saga”. 

It also left room for sidebar stuff about the cost of modern retail crime and the psychology of ‘middle class shoplifting'

When Stuff revealed a third shoplifting allegation last week - for which Ghahraman was eventually charged last Tuesday - her resignation felt inevitable. 

“It is clear to us that Ms Ghahraman is in a state of extreme distress. She has taken responsibility and she has apologised,” party co-leader James Shaw told reporters.  

Soon after, Newshub aired unenlightening footage of two police officers knocking fruitlessly at the front door of Ghahraman’s Auckland home. Putting her house on screen was unwise, given Ghahraman has been afforded police protection in the past because of threats of violence and even death. 

But the question really preoccupying the media was: why would an MP jeopardise a job she had appeared to relish by stealing stuff she could probably easily afford to buy?  

Ghahraman's statement said the stress of her job was an explanation but “not an excuse”.  

Former Green colleague Gareth Hughes told Nine to Noon last Monday that he'd seen some of the abuse and threats that Ghahraman had received. 

“It's a sad reality of our politics in New Zealand that the types of messages that she and other female politicians get is disgusting.”  

“But the argument is: do you have to shoplift?” host Kathryn Ryan replied. 

“And this is when we get into the intricate details of a particular psychological behaviour that none of us are qualified to talk about,” she said. 

But others in the media - no more expert than her - were happy to talk about it. 

“It's a spectacular failure. The mental health excuse? I remain suspicious about this,” said Duncan Garner on his Mediaworks podcast Editor in Chief

In The Listener he said MPs backed into a corner play “the mental health card”.

“Stressed sick, death threats. We've heard it before from some of our MPs so I start to question whether these declarations are more about softening public sentiment, peppered with a helping of self pity,” wrote the former TV3 political editor - who quit that role in 2016, citing the pressures of the job. 

“I don't know what Golriz Ghahraman’s life has been like over the last six years but I can tell you in comparison to the average ordinary middle income, lower income, New Zealand family member, it has been bloody good. She's got a huge salary - and she has status,” former MP turned talkback host Michael Laws said on The Platform. 

But while a good salary does remove one source of stress from life, status might well make the strain worse for anyone struggling. 

“There's been a bit of a tendency in recent years for the mental health card to be played too flippantly. It's an easy excuse, isn't it?” former political veteran Peter Dunne said on Newstalk ZB last Sunday. 

“I'm being very careful when I say that. I don't know her circumstances but I think there's got to be a time people face up to their responsibilities and face the consequences for their actions,” he added. 

There certainly have been consequences. Ghahraman has lost her job, her political future and the so-called ‘mental health card’ won't keep her out of court next week. 

In the Herald on Sunday last weekend, a former political foe - Paula Bennett - said that she too had been affected by toxic online feedback when she was an MP. 

“Golriz wasn't looking to excuse her behavior, but to explain it. I believe her,” she said, noting that putting that in print could bring on another deluge of online abuse.  

Perspectives like that in the media lately did spark a response from those who thought the media were letting the Greens ex-MP off the hook - or at least trying to. 

On 17 January former newspaper editor Karl du Fresne said “a striking outpouring of media empathy for Ghahraman had followed her resignation” and the media were “eager to justify her conduct”. 

“You have to look very hard to find any mention of the irony that a woman whose parliamentary salary puts her in the top one per cent of income earners resorted to theft - not of everyday essentials, but of high-end fashion items.”  

But since then, it hasn't been hard at all to find that point made in the media. 

Economist Michael Reddell went online the morning after Ghahraman quit to say that reading The Post that day and listening to Morning Report “you'd barely realise the MP had resigned” after the reported thefts.

In fact, the story had led RNZ’s Morning Report and it was the only story on the front page of The Post under the headline ‘Golriz Gone - from political scraper to scrapheap’. 

To those pointing this out, Reddell said it was “the tone and the thrust” of coverage that was too sympathetic and skated over non-trivial offences. 

Those quoted in The Post story were mostly expressing regrets about her fall from grace and not condemning her alleged crimes. But neither they nor The Post minimised or excused the alleged offending - or sought to defend, let alone exonerate, the ex-MP. 

In the Weekend Herald, satirist Steve Braunias spent most of his first Secret Diary column of the year explaining why he didn't do a ‘Secret Diary’ on Ghahraman. 

“I suppose it would be a satire-too-far given that the Green co-leaders described her this week as being in a state of ‘extreme distress’. Nothing funny about extreme distress. I guess?” he wrote. 

In a similar vein, Press columnist Donna Miles penned a plea to “remember the human within a political storm”.

Coincidentally, Golriz Ghahraman is not the only former MP due in court soon whose mental health ended up as national news. 

In May, Kiritapu Allan faces a judge-only trial to consider the charges that followed the car crash in Wellington, which ended her career as a minister in the previous government. 

This week, she told TVNZ’s Breakfast about that night and went into detail about the personal turmoil she was suffering at the time. 

In a long and sympathetic interview, Breakfast host Jenny-May Clarkson told viewers it was good Allan “can now forgive herself”. 

That wouldn't have pleased those who want more accountability from politicians who fall down on the job. 

Among those who reckoned that ordinary citizens have been let down by Golriz Ghahraman was The Post national affairs editor Andrea Vance. 

“Your problems are not ours,” was her message for politicians in the Sunday Star-Times last weekend. 

“MPs opening up about their experiences with mental health used to be courageous and noble. Now, it's just a cheap excuse for those with a casual attitude to rules that most people abide by,” she wrote. 

“It undermines genuine victims - those who will go through distress at some time in their life and are met with a less-forgiving reaction and an unresponsive mental health system.” 

But on the day Ghahraman resigned, sportscaster Jason Pine - filling in as an afternoon host on Newstalk ZB - found his talkback callers mostly curious  - and interested in explanation, rather than condemnation.  

Former ZB host Chris Lynch - who now runs his own online platform in Christchurch - reckoned sympathetic coverage of the revelations confirmed a left-leaning bias in the news media. 

“It will be intriguing to observe whether, in the aftermath of judicial proceedings, the media consistently labels Ghahraman as 'disgraced'," he wrote.

If she is convicted, that seems almost certain - as it was for MPs Donna Awatere Huata and Taito Philip Field in the past.