Labour and RNZ exposed using ministerial staffer “as an independent commentator”

RNZ have admitted being duped by a Ministerial Staffer posing on their ‘The Panel’ without disclosing that they were a political staffer in a ministerial office.

This is embarrassing for RNZ, and it is not a good look for the Government.

RNZ have reported on themselves: National raises questions about RNZ commentator

The National Party has raised an allegation of conflict of interest in Parliament relating to a commentator who appeared on RNZ show The Panel.

In questions to the Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran, National MP Melissa Lee asked whether RNZ, as a publicly owned broadcaster, would be acting independently “if a ministerial staffer was featured as an independent commentator”.

Ms Lee was referring to an episode of ‘The Panel’ that aired on 12 February featuring Tracey Bridges, who is co-founder and former New Zealand managing partner at SenateSHJ, a public relations company.

She asked the minister about Ms Bridges being on the programme, “discussing government policy, if it wasn’t made clear that they were a political staffer in a ministerial office”.

Ms Curran said media organisations “make their own determinations” about who they had on their programmes.

Ms Lee tabled a transcript of the start of ‘The Panel’ episode, and a parliamentary document that identified Ms Bridges as a “contractor”, not a staffer, located on the ninth floor of the Beehive, in Jacinda Ardern’s office.

In a statement, Ms Bridges said RNZ knew she was an independent contractor but did not ask her to detail any of the individual contracts she holds, nor did she offer them.

RNZ National programme manager David Allan said his staff had talked to Ms Bridges today and she confirmed she worked as an independent contractor for a number of organisations, including Ministerial Services.

“It is a concern that Tracey appeared on The Panel without declaring this to us or to listeners,” Mr Allan said.

“It is a timely reminder for RNZ that we need to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.

“We are reviewing our processes around The Panel to make this sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Minister of Broadcasting Clare Curran has been under pressure from questioning in Parliament, and was under the gun again on Thursday:

7. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media: Does she believe it is important for State-owned broadcasters to be independent?

Hon CLARE CURRAN (Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media): Yes, Labour campaigned on a stronger public broadcasting service and believes in the importance of independent media.

Melissa Lee: Would the Minister consider a State-owned broadcaster to be acting independently if a ministerial staff member featured as an independent commentator on a Radio New Zealand programme discussing Government policy?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: Could the member repeat the question, please.

Melissa Lee: Would the Minister consider a State-owned broadcaster to be acting independently if a ministerial staff member featured as an independent commentator on a Radio New Zealand programme discussing Government policy?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: That’s an operational matter for the State-owned—

Mr SPEAKER: No, no, the member will ask the question again.

Melissa Lee: Would the Minister consider a State-owned broadcaster to be acting independently if a ministerial staff member featured as an independent commentator on a Radio New Zealand programme discussing Government policy?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: State-owned broadcasters, as do any other broadcasters, make their own decisions about who they have on their programmes.

Hon Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a very serious and important question, in fact, and I think that the Minister might want to think again about the answer that’s just been given—perhaps even the question asked again, so the Minister can be quite clear about what has happened here.

Mr SPEAKER: I think we’ve had two cracks at it and I think if we put the two answers together—that it’s an operational matter and that the organisations make their own decisions—the question, if not answered to the member’s satisfaction, has been addressed.

Greg O’Connor: What work is the Government currently doing that would strengthen the independence of State-owned broadcasters?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I recently announced work being done on the potential formation of a public media funding commission, which will be subject to Cabinet approval. The commission is intended to act as an independent, non-political voice for media organisations that are in the inevitable but difficult position of holding to account Governments on which they depend for funding. This policy is in contrast to the former Government’s policy of severely underfunding public media.

Melissa Lee: In light of a previous answer, does the Minister believe a State-owned broadcaster would be acting independently if a ministerial staffer was featured as an independent commentator on a Radio New Zealand programme discussing Government policy, if it wasn’t made clear that they were a political staffer in a ministerial office?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: Media organisations make their own determinations as to who they have on their programmes.

Melissa Lee: In light of the answer, will the Minister be asking the Prime Minister for an explanation as to why a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s office appeared on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel on 12 February, introduced as a representative of Senate Communications, when she has not actually worked there for several months?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: No.

Melissa Lee: What will she say about this questionable independence when she catches up with Radio New Zealand head of content, Carol Hirschfeld, at their next informal breakfast meeting?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: Apart from the fact that that’s a ridiculous question, having a meeting alone does not breach the independence of State-owned broadcasters. Editorial independence, which is outlined in section 13 of Radio New Zealand’s Act and section 28 of TVNZ’s, does not preclude responsible Ministers from meeting with the broadcasters informally or formally to stay informed of their progress.

Melissa Lee: As a Minister of broadcasting, she has an interest in what is actually happening at Radio New Zealand. Did she know that there was a staffer from the Prime Minister’s office masquerading as an independent commentator on a Radio New Zealand programme?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I have no responsibility for that.

Melissa Lee: I seek leave to table a transcript of the opening statements of Radio New Zealand’s The Panel from 12 February 2018.

Mr SPEAKER: Is there any objection to that document being tabled? There appears to be none. It may be tabled.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Melissa Lee: I seek leave to table evidence proving that the RNZ panellist introduced as a consultant from Senate PR is, in fact, a contract staffer at the office of the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern. [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Sorry? Is there—and was at the time in question? Was at the time in question?

Melissa Lee: Was?

Mr SPEAKER: I want it to be made clear—

Melissa Lee: She was, I believe.

Mr SPEAKER: On 12 February. Is there any objection to that evidence being tabled—and I want to make it very clear that’s a very high test. Is there any objection to that? There appears to be none.

Evidence, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

12 Comments

  1. David

     /  March 2, 2018

    Imagine if it was someone working for Key who got himself on ZB and tried to pass himself off as a PR person, the media world would implode. Thankfully Princess Jacinda saves us from having to endure 2 weeks of headlines and its all quietly just going to go away.

    • Blazer

       /  March 3, 2018

      Hosking did it. .everyday. .as did. .others.

      • Ray

         /  March 3, 2018

        So Blazer, got any proof that the loathsome Hoskins had a contract to the past PM office, or was employed in any other way?

        • Blazer

           /  March 3, 2018

          Reply to. ..David. .Ray. .the ‘hat’ fits Hosking rather. .well.

  2. Maggy Wassilieff

     /  March 2, 2018

    Good on you P.G.

    The RNZ article on this matter has very quickly disappeared off their front page.
    http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/351656/commentator-welcomes-conflict-of-interest-debate
    Had the outed commentator acted in a professional manner, there would have been no debate over conflicts of interest.

  3. artcroft

     /  March 2, 2018

    I think RNZ is going to become a political weapon in the hands of Labour. This is the problem with the BBC who see themselves as needing to hold only a Tory govt to account while cheerleading for Labour.

    Curan clearly has ambitions for RNZ to become a local branch of Labour.

    • David

       /  March 2, 2018

      I don’t think anyone doubts that at all.

  4. It would be interesting to know what Tracey Bridges comments in the discussion were. There is always a possibility that it was just about her music tastes, or what her cat does. However, it is very telling that it is only a few blogs who have picked up on the story. One cannot imagine that media would not be interested in the story if it was the other way, like David speculates. It is just one more nail in the coffin of an impartial fact reporting media. .

    • Gezza

       /  March 2, 2018

      Yes it is a bit of obvious. On 1ewes, Katie Bradford reported on Jacinda’s meeting with Malcolm & most of her report was about Malcom telling Jacinda there was to be no change to the Australian hardline position on not letting NZ take Manus Island refugees & their intention to continue sending NZ born crims home. Then she concluded her report by saying it all went very well. Mind you, that’s Katie for you. Not the bightest bulb in the box.

    • Blazer

       /  March 3, 2018

      I hope Tracey is neutral in future and not swayed by her connection to. .Simon.

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