Invercargill's united front, media scepticism, and aversion to negativity

10:17 pm on 10 September 2021

Analysis: Invercargill City Council has rallied to achieve outcomes set by the Department of Internal Affairs, but there's a strong sense of scepticism in the south toward the media and coverage of their mayor.

Sir Tim Shadbolt

Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt has a well-followed Facebook presence, which he uses to defend himself, and at times, attack the media. Photo: Supplied/LDR - ODT/Stephen Jaquiery

On the topic of media, elected officials love nothing more than driving home an old cliche: it's either your best friend or your worst enemy.

But in the southern reaches of New Zealand, a common view now prevails that media more closely resemble the enemy.

At an under-fire Invercargill City Council, frustration has boiled over at Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt's ineptitude at fulfilling his role.

Sir Tim - the household name, the man who put Invercargill on the map - has been visibly struggling in his position.

The well-documented crumbling of a celebrity mayor's empire has turned heads in the southern region, with members of the council, including Sir Tim himself, taking aim at the press over the ensuing coverage.

"This type of reporting is crossing a line," Sir Tim proclaimed in a June Facebook post, where he simultaneously shared and critiqued an article he featured in.

"This reporter is new and desperate to churn out tabloid fodder to establish himself. Invercargill citizens please rise above this."

Last month, a call to councillor Rebecca Amundsen to gather facts about an intercepted email sent from the mayor's account was met with confusion over why the issue was newsworthy.

The fallout from the email saga resulted in a $10,000 independent review being announced four days later.

Another councillor has labelled recent coverage "sensationalist". Deputy Mayor Nobby Clark tried desperately to censor the contents of an intercepted email sent to media where the mayor labelled the council a "regime".

What's going on in Invercargill?

Invercargill Deputy Mayor Nobby Clark

Deputy Mayor Nobby Clark is wary about Sir Tim's domination of headlines. Photo: Supplied/LDR - ODT/Luisa Girao

A celebrity mayor

Outspoken about his perceived deficits in the council and ever-keen to hit back at criticism, Sir Tim Shadbolt is an easy story.

And the scope of interest for the man who is arguably New Zealand's best-known mayor extends far beyond the community he serves.

But some councillors and staff are frustrated at the attention he's absorbed.

Following the dig on Facebook, Sir Tim was virtually uncontactable for close to two months, during which time coverage of his movements slowed to a trickle.

Then on 10 August he resurfaced, apparently reborn.

After hitting back at council over the revelation he was storing personal items in their buildings, he dominated headlines once again.

'''Traumatised' Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt claims workplace bullying." "Sir Tim claims to be target of vote of no confidence'." "Sir Tim's bullying claim absolute nonsense'- deputy mayor'." "Sir Tim 'unnerved' and waiting for apology over email leak."

The coverage was extraordinary, but so were the claims being made by the man in power.

Then came the television cameras - a TVNZ current affairs story filmed over three days in Sir Tim's week from hell, which aired on 29 August.

Council weren't so enthused, and from their perspective, the timing couldn't have been much worse.

Richard Thomson, author of a damning October 2020 independent review which highlighted conflict at the council, was set to release a follow-up report based off interviews conducted prior to the latest media storm.

That report arrived on 6 September, with Thomson painting a glowing picture of improved relationships within the council.

One issue remained: Sir Tim Shadbolt.

"It's inevitable but unfair that much of the media focus goes on his worship," Thomson said at a council meeting the following day.

"But it would be unfortunate and unfair if the media continued that focus at the expense of the very real change that has occurred in this council since my original report."

Was Thomson suggesting the assertions of a household name, and leader of a city, go ignored because they detracted from positive news stories? It seemed so.

"If the focus will remain on him at the expense of the very real improvement, then it will ignore what this council has shown it can achieve. And frankly if that is the case, then the media should line up too for their share of the blame."

The man whose review had cost the council close to $100,000 (not all of which went to him) seemed to have adopted the frustration of elected members.

Sir Tim was unavoidable. A problem to be worked around.

The expert

University of Otago media, communications and film department lecturer Dr Brett Nicholls has some concerns based on his understanding of the situation.

Nicholls makes the point that the relationship between media and power has always been tenuous, but is concerned with direction being given to media by those in positions of influence.

"How are you supposed to respond to this? 'Oh, we'll do a few positive stories about building footpaths or something?'," Nicholls joked.

"Powerful people are entitled to their views on things of course. But one of the things we have to be sure of is that the press maintains an independence from power.

"This is the only way it can actually critique power."

Invercargill City Council chief executive Clare Hadley.

Chief executive Clare Hadley believes how Sir Tim comes across in the public lies in part with the media. Photo: Supplied/LDR - ODT/Luisa Girao

Thomson, Shadbolt, and Amundsen aren't alone in taking issue with the media. Behind them, a line of other council-adjacent individuals have also had a swing.

Asked during a press conference this week how the council could best go about not making Sir Tim "the victim" - a key finding of Thomson's report, which itself leaves more questions than answers, considering the mayor's claims of bullying remain unresolved - chief executive Clare Hadley had an interesting response.

"That's in the hands of the media. You as the media take the material, and you interpret it and present it to the public," she replied.

Her point: that Thomson had made it clear Invercargill city as a whole was delivering to its community. The mayor was a distraction.

That view of deliverability, while true according to Thomson's review, doesn't detract from the news values which the mayor's ongoing behaviour aligns with so seamlessly.

When elite persons give voice, or step out of line, it is newsworthy by nature.

But elected members remain frustrated, and can't seem to separate their irritation with the mayor from those whose job it is to report on him.

Second term councillor Alex Crackett was sick of the mayor continuing to dominate headlines, despite the work that was going on around him.

"It's just so frustrating, this whole term. It's one thing after the next that is just sensationalist media that doesn't have any bearing on the function and the issues."

And deputy Nobby Clark has expressed similar views, at times playing the role of censor.

When the mayor labelled the council a "regime" in an email to media last month, Clark was eager to stop the comment going to print because he felt it was untrue.

"We have a constant noise from the mayor about things that are totally unappropriate, and that's what gets to the national media," he said.

"This is not a positive article that should be in the media. We've got a lot of good things. The media seem to focus on Tim and Tim's behaviour. That's OK, we can't govern that."

Is there a solution? Dr Nicholls said the elite were entitled to criticise, but press independence was paramount.

"I don't think it's ever healthy for the press to pander to power. Power can't govern the press."

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