Politicians seek different narratives at RNZ hearing

1:04 pm on 5 April 2018

Opinion - Both sides of Parliament were looking for a smoking gun in RNZ's comments at today's select committee hearing, but only found a steaming water-pistol, writes Andrew Geddis.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson (left) and chair Richard Griffin are grilled at the select committee hearing by National MP Melissa Lee.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson (left) and chair Richard Griffin are grilled at the select committee hearing by National MP Melissa Lee. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

In terms of political theatre, not much beats a select committee hearing when there is the smell of scandal in the air. When that scandal involves potential political interference in a state-owned media organisation like Radio NZ, drama levels lift yet another notch.

In part, that is because the underlying issue is pretty serious. Even the suggestion that there may be partisan meddling with the public's own news source can sow doubts about its integrity.

But it is also because not only the implicated media organisation itself has to give the matter full coverage, other media organisations naturally are attracted to the story.

Hence the packed-out room at today's meeting of Parliament's Economic Development select committee, live-streamed and blogged to the wider world. This hearing ostensibly was to allow the chair of Radio NZ's board, Richard Griffin, and chief executive Paul Thompson to correct their previous inaccurate statements about the now-infamous breakfast meeting between Radio NZ's head of content Carol Hirschfeld and new Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran.

Back at the start of March, Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson informed the committee that Ms Hirschfeld had assured them this meeting was an inconsequential coincidence; nothing more than a chance encounter following a gym workout. They subsequently found out that Ms Hirschfeld had misled them and the meeting was a prearranged discussion about the state of New Zealand's media.

Correcting the record then becomes necessary because misleading a select committee is potentially a contempt of Parliament, in theory punishable by a fine or imprisonment. And even if Parliament chose not to pursue the matter as contempt, public bodies simply should not lie to their political overseers, intentionally or otherwise.

However, the actual meaning of the hearing was hotly contested by the committee's various government and opposition members. Two potential narratives were in play, with the questions of each side of the political divide aimed at making one or the other dominant.

The National members - Melissa Lee, in particular - wanted the hearing to tell the story of a Minister secretly working with a senior figure at RNZ to push forward Labour's "RNZ+" plan to further expand the organisation into digital and TV content. Then, when the meeting became publicly known, the Minister sought to smother the story by dissuading Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson from appearing before the Committee in person to discuss it.

In this version of events, not only did the Minister commit the equivalent of a political crime, but she then tried to cover it up from scrutiny. Even worse, she has been caught out doing so.

In contrast, Labour committee members - Paul Eagle, in particular - sought to portray Mr Griffin as effectively working with the National Party to turn a minor breach of public service etiquette into a major political event. Why else would a former press secretary to a National Prime Minister be communicating with National members of the select committee?

Whose account of events then won out from the hearing?

Well, Mr Griffin reacted to Labour's allegations he had behaved in a pro-National fashion with the sort of angry retorts that you'd expect from an innocent man who has only a month left in his current role and thus nothing to lose. And let's face it - the only real "evidence" of any alleged "collusion" with the National Party amounts to his giving one of its MPs a three-minute heads-up that a public press release was being issued.

That's not a smoking gun. It's not even a gently steaming water-pistol.

What, then, of National's insinuations that Minister Curran and Ms Hirschfeld were somehow plotting together at their breakfast meeting? Well, before the committee Mr Griffin and Mr Thompson claimed no knowledge of what the pair discussed. However, Mr Griffin strongly denied there was any difference between Radio NZ's board, its CEO or the Minister's views on the government's RNZ+ policy.

That undercut any perceived need for the Minister to try and "backdoor" the Radio NZ board on this issue, lending credence to her claim the meeting was just a general discussion about the future shape of media in NZ. After all, at the time of the meeting, Minister Curran had only been in her role for a couple of months and quite understandably might have been seeking a range of views on her portfolio.

What then catapulted the story to where it is now was Ms Hirschfeld's foolish decision to mislead her bosses at Radio NZ about the circumstances of the meeting. That may have been nothing more than a moment of panic upon realising she had unwisely acted against Radio NZ's policies on interacting with political figures. And once the initial lie was told, it took on a life of its own.

However, National did possibly draw some blood with its questions regarding Minister Curran's subsequent communications with Mr Griffin. She left him a voicemail last week which he characterised as containing a "strong suggestion" that rather than turn up before the Committee in person to answer questions, he just provide it with a written statement.

This is important, because Minister Curran has told both the public and the Prime Minister that her message to Mr Griffin simply advised him that providing a written statement for the Committee's meeting last week would be a quicker way of correcting the record. If she in fact went beyond this and actually counselled him not to attend in person, then she will be in real trouble.

National MP Melissa Lee's last action at the Committee meeting was to request a copy of the relevant voicemail. Minister Curran's political future may well rest upon what it says.

* Andrew Geddis is a professor of law at University of Otago

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