Crack out the cliches, it's the MP and the media boss

7:13 pm on 27 March 2018

Opinion - Outside of the National Party's caucus room, there are two sets of people who will be very glad to see Carol Hirschfeld and Clare Curran caught up in a political whirlwind of their own making.

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The first is New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft. Who is that, I hear you say? Exactly.

Until Ms Marcroft rather foolishly suggested to National Party MP Mark Mitchell that government funding for a project he is championing could depend on his dropping criticism of fellow NZ First MP and Minister Ron Mark, she toiled away in blissful obscurity.

Ms Marcroft may well be buying a Lotto ticket after today's events largely drove her deeply unacceptable behaviour from the news, allowing her to revert to the natural background role more suited to the 9th and last placed MP in NZ First's caucus.

The second set are the various paid-up members of New Zealand's commentariat, present company included. Ms Hirschfeld's shock resignation as RNZ's head of content and Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran's rather clumsy role in it give us a golden opportunity to dust off the clichés and let them run riot.

Holding an off-the-books meeting in a café at the same time as the government considers pumping an extra $38 million into the organisation is most definitely "Not a Good Look".

Misleading your employers about the circumstances of the meeting, thereby causing them to mislead a parliamentary select committee, demonstrates that "The Cover-Up Is Worse Than the Crime".

A Minister holding a press conference to try and sheet ultimate responsibility for the whole "Omnishambles" to a media organisation that now will be determined to prove its independence from you may yet prove that "Pride Comes Before a Fall". I could go on for ever, couldn't I?

In terms of the substance of what has happened, however, there does not seem all that much to say.

While opposition MPs are required to insist the matter be taken very seriously, I don't actually think any of them genuinely believe that a Minister and senior - very recognisable - RNZ figure would choose the most visible café in Wellington's political scene in which to hatch a plot to turn the organisation into an arm of the Labour-led government.

Of course, that may be because a good number of those MPs believe that RNZ already plays such a role. It is a common trope amongst some right-of-centre politicians and talking heads that the state-run "Radio Red" skews towards the left side of politics.

We may note that such claims of political bias have been mirrored by left-of-centre critics, who point to things like the background of RNZ chair Richard Griffin as evidence that the previous National Government sought to put its particular stamp on the organisation.

Given our natural predisposition to only notice evidence that fits our pre-existing ideological frameworks, it is unlikely either side can ever be convinced that they are wrong.

But what these allegations demonstrate is (to dust off another cliché) RNZ's need as a publicly funded media outlet to adhere to the "Caesar's Wife Principle": to not only try to act impartially in fact, but to be seen to be above suspicion of acting in a partial fashion.

That's where Ms Curran's action in proposing an apparently not-secret-but-still-informal-yet-substantive-meeting with Ms Hirschfeld demonstrated real naivete (to put it remarkably kindly). Even a new Minister coming into office ought to have realised that this simply was not a good idea.

And Ms Hirschfeld clearly recognised that going to the meeting was a very bad idea for her, as the apparent subsequent attempts to downgrade it to a coincidental post-gym happening demonstrate.

As a general rule, you don't mislead your bosses about your actions, and let them in turn mislead Parliament, unless you know you've made a pretty big slip-up.

Which now has produced a quite sad result for Ms Hirschfeld, who is by all accounts extremely good at what she does and a very nice person along with it.

It also does nothing for Ms Curran's reputation as an accident-prone Minister and potential weak link in the Labour Party's ranks. Certainly, her credibility as Associate Minister for State Services (Open Government) is not helped by performances such as this one.

So perhaps one last cliché is in order. "Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave", and all that.

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

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