The unclear Curran RNZ debacle

There was always some doubt about Clare Curran’s credential’s as a Government minister. She appears to be living down to expectations after an inappropriate meeting in December and a cover up has resulted in the resignation of respected journalist and RNZ manager Carol Hirschfeld (who dug a hole for herself by repeatedly lying about the meeting to her bosses).

And this has made Jacinda Ardern look barely in control of a messy looking coalition government – she has had to paper over the Curran cracks at the same time as avoiding dealing with another mess, the apparent NZ First attempt to bully National MP Mark Mitchell.

Curran is coming unstuck in two of her areas of responsibility, as Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, and as Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government). In the latter portfolio Curran is acting anything but open in Government, in part due to her inappropriate actions in the former role.

The debacle has some bizarre elements. A meeting that both Curran and Hirschfeld have tried to hide and play down was in a very public, a prominent cafe in Wellington.

Curran had originally not recorded the meeting, but was forced to after questioned about it in Parliament. Her diary entry

A screenshot from Curran's diary on the day. Emphasis added by Stuff.

Even that is vague, with just Hirschfeld’s initials and no subject. Curran concedes she was ‘naive’ but she should have known the basics of her responsibilities as Minister, and perhaps she would have got proper advice from staff if she had been more open about what she was doing.

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Problems keep arriving at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s door

Labour’s policy boosts public broadcasting coffers by $38 million, a staggering amount in today’s struggling media environment. It’s not hard to see why a senior executive from an underfunded RNZ might have considered it politic to keep Curran happy when the minister reached out.

Astoria Cafe is not the place  for a secret meeting – it is where the movers and shakers in Wellington go to be seen. Yet when asked by National about her meetings with RNZ, Curran initially omitted it, only correcting the record later.

Hirschfeld’s explanation was that they bumped into each other by accident – only that is not what happened either, according to Curran. She says it was in both their diaries.

But Hirschfeld didn’t change her story, according to Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson, even after he and RNZ chair Richard Griffin inadvertently misled a select committee by repeating her version of events.

She has paid the price for that. Yet Curran also knew they had misled the select committee, but failed to correct the public record.

Instead, a staffer contacted RNZ on March 1, the same day as the select committee, to query Hirschfeld’s story.

It followed up again with RNZ – this time bringing Griffin into the loop – on March 22. Only then was action taken.

Ardern has made it clear Curran is on notice – if more emerges, her head will be on the block.

RNZ is covering the story:

The effects of Carol Hirschfeld’s resignation from RNZ over an off-the-books meeting with the broadcasting minister go beyond the broadcaster itself. It comes as the minister was putting in place a system to fund broadcasting at arms’ length from politicians, says Mediawatch.

In a press conference this afternoon, Ms Curran said she regretted that Ms Hirschfeld had resigned because of “differing accounts” of their meeting.

She said she never described the meeting as coincidental, but she believed such a meeting could be “both informal and scheduled.”

She was unaware that RNZ had strict policies about meeting with ministers, and after the recent select committee her office contacted RNZ to alert them of the differences.

She should have known.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson said Ms Hirschfeld had repeatedly assured him that as head of news, her meeting with Ms Curran last December was coincidental and that she and the minister had talked after bumping into each other in a Wellington cafe.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she could not comment on whether Ms Hirschfeld had mislead RNZ, saying it was an operational matter.

She said Ms Curran had said she should have acknowledged the meeting occurred, when asked in Parliament.

“She didn’t consider it to be formal but within 24 hours made sure that it was known that she had had the meeting,” Ms Ardern said.

“She’s acknowledged that and also that when comments were made at select committee she should have corrected the record immediately that it was in conflict with what she knew to be the case.”

Ardern has looked weak on this.

Speaking to media in Parliament this afternoon, Ms Curran said it was a “huge shame” that Ms Hirschfeld had resigned.

Ms Curran said she did not believe it was an official meeting at the time, but an informal catch-up over breakfast to discuss the the state of the media in New Zealand and RNZ’s part in it.

“I got that wrong and I corrected that.”

She said her office contacted RNZ twice after the select committee was told the meeting was a coincidence.

“It then became a matter for RNZ to deal with.”

Ms Curran said she was not aware of RNZ policies regarding staff meeting with ministers, but she did not think the situation had damaged its reputation as an independent broadcaster.

A high profile resignation and a very embarrassing situation for RNZ are significant consequences for Curran’s ‘naivety’.

As a new minister, it would be legitimate for Ms Curran to speak to a wide range of people about what they saw as the issues in her portfolio. However, these meetings would normally occur with ministerial briefings and officials present.

Ms Curran has argued that other than the original mistake she made – in not declaring this as an ‘official’ meeting – that she did not provide any incorrect information.

This is true, as it appears at no time did she state that the meeting was not ‘scheduled’, but she failed to publicly correct what was being said by others about the meeting.

Generally, the public holds those in public office to a higher standard than the rest of the community. Many would expect to her to have corrected the public record regardless of the embarrassment or trouble it would have caused RNZ.

This issue is just another murky issue for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to deal with on top of a series of murky issues.

Hirschfeld has paid the price for her part in this mess with her resignation but the minister is yet to be held accountable, and it appears from the Prime Minister’s statements since the resignation announcement that no action will be forthcoming.

The Prime Minister has been put in a difficult position. The fact that she has been unable to so far discipline NZ First Ministers means it will be tricky for her to take any further action on Ms Curran. To do so would publicly display that there is one treatment for Labour Ministers and another for Coalition Ministers.

Ardern is finding out the hard way that being prime Minister involves a lot more than smiling on magazine covers.

Apart from a few loyal Labour apologists even The Standard is harsh on Curran: An Orwellian Minister for Open Government

ODT (NZME): Curran ‘not trying to push’ RNZ

How it unravelled

December 5: Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran meets  RNZ head of news Carol Hirschfeld  in Wellington and discusses, among other things, the future of RNZ.

December 5: Media commentator John Drinnan blogs about the meeting, saying any discussions about the future of RNZ should be with board chairman Richard Griffin or chief executive Paul Thompson.

December 7: National MP and broadcasting spokeswoman Melissa Lee asks Ms Curran for a list of meetings with RNZ staff since December 1. Ms Curran initially answers that she met Mr Thompson, Ms Hirschfeld and other senior RNZ staff on

February 20: Ms Lee uses parliamentary question time to ask Ms Curran about meeting Ms Hirschfeld. Ms Curran eventually says she did not list the meeting in her written answer because she did not consider it to be an official meeting.

February 21: Ms Curran corrects her answer to Ms Lee’s December 7 question, adding her December 5 meeting with Ms Hirschfeld.

March 1: At a select committee, Ms Lee questions Mr Thompson and Mr Griffin about the meeting and is told it was a chance encounter.

March 1: Ms Curran hears about the select committee hearing and her office tells RNZ  the meeting was pre-planned. Mr Thompson asks Ms Hirschfeld about the meeting again, and Ms Hirschfeld reassures him it was a chance encounter.

March 22: Ms Curran’s office contacts RNZ again to tell them the meeting was pre-planned.

March 25: Following a tip-off to Mr Griffin, Ms Hirschfeld is asked again and admits the meeting was pre-arranged.

March 27: Ms Hirschfeld resigns. Ms Curran says it was a mistake to say the meeting was informal and unofficial. Jacinda Ardern says Ms Curran should have corrected her answer to the written question sooner, but has full confidence in the minister.

Clare Trevett: Clare Curran clumsy, foolish but PM won’t sack her

Curran has hardly covered herself in glory, but her actions fall short of the sackable offence of misleading the Prime Minister.

Curran’s actions were clumsy, stupid, naïve and arrogant, yes.

She should never have invited Hirschfeld to meet with her on that fateful morning – a meeting that was taking place just two days before her first meeting with the RNZ board.

She should have been more forthcoming about that meeting once asked, rather than leave the impression of a cover-up by having information dragged out under questioning by National MP Melissa Lee.

But Curran cannot be blamed for Hirschfeld’s resignation. According to RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson, Hirschfeld told her bosses more than once the meeting with Curran happened by coincidence rather than design.

That continued even after Curran’s office advised RNZ it was a pre-planned meeting.

But Curran had put Hirschfeld in a very difficult position.

27 Comments

  1. sorethumb

     /  March 28, 2018

    So the former head of content is married to Findlay McDonald (Mr Left)?

    • So I don’t see what is relevant about that. There is no indication that any family members were involved, so should be left out of it.

    • Blazer

       /  March 28, 2018

      and Richard Griffin Mr Right heads up…RNZ.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  March 28, 2018

    It’s comforting the Left are so incompetent.

  3. artcroft

     /  March 28, 2018

    Scene: The bat cave. The minister for Open Govt and minion Carol H decide to conspire against the RNZ board.

    Carol: “Where shall we conspire Minister? Somewhere discreet?”
    Curran”Astoria serves great coffee.”
    Carol: “But won’t people notice. This is supposed to be an informal meeting”
    Curran: “I’m the brains of the operation and you’re making my brain hurt. Astoria it is. Remember I love you Carol and have great plans for you. I’ll never let you down.”

    Curran: “Perhaps I was naive…”

    • Perhaps Hirschfeld was naive if she thought that Curran wouldn’t throw her under a bus to protect her own job,

      • artcroft

         /  March 28, 2018

        Yes. And Curran is going to find it hard to get good help from now on I suspect.

  4. A meeeting with the RNZ board was scheduled for two days after the cafe meeting.

    • duperez

       /  March 28, 2018

      I understand Tim Murphy has something to do with the Newsroom website.

      It’s pretty clear that Curran must have wanted to get information from Hirschfeld?

      It’s more than pretty clear that that is pure conjecture. It is pretty clear that a news person saying that means the statement will be picked up and turned in to fact.

      I’m not sure if Newsroom was seeking to be a source of accuracy in presenting news or not.

  5. Maggy Wassilieff

     /  March 28, 2018

    Curran concedes she was ‘naive’

    Pull, the other leg.
    This Labour activist MP has been donkey deep in murky mud for years.
    Anyone remember why Hugh Logan resigned?
    https://www.nbr.co.nz/article/environment-head-hugh-logan-quits

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  March 28, 2018

      I stopped using the donkey expression once I found out what it meant.

  6. Alan Wilkinson

     /  March 28, 2018

    Curran was obviously trying to go below Griffen to get dirt on him from RNZ’s Lefties ready for her official meeting to throw money at a propaganda TV channel for the Left.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  March 28, 2018

      It may well have been quite innocent, but it shows how careful people have to be.I wouldn’t see anything sinister in the initials; who doesn’t use these ? I write medical appointments on the calendar with initials.

      My husband knew Mark and Richard Prebble, and said that they were never alone together, at least while Richard was in Parliament (it might be all right now, I don’t know)

  7. sorethumb

     /  March 28, 2018

    I think RNZ’s progressives are part of an informal coalition encompassing the Labour Party.
    Read Public Address.
    Since Brexit and Trump they have decided to go for broke hardly attempting a semblance of balance.
    The reason we now have Te Reo + News is that we have reached a “tipping point” (Spoonley) and the social engineers are attempting to create a new (superordinate) identity that gives prominence to Maori.

    • sorethumb

       /  March 28, 2018

      This work thus suggests that for multiculturalism to succeed identities need to be transformed. And, importantly, as Kymlicka suggests, this transformation applies not only to the minority but also to the majority. Indeed, perhaps the major identity transformation is required from members of the majority as their attributes are, as a rule, the same as the ones that define the national identity. Minorities need to be written into the self-definition of the national identity such as to imbue them with existential legitimacy as citizens in parity with the majority.
      Then there is discussion about biculturalism to multiculturalism

  8. Zedd

     /  March 28, 2018

    Trial by media.. all around !

    Obviously Ms H, did something wrong, regarding her ‘arrangements’ with RNZ.. but does it mean Clare has committed a ‘sackable offence’ ?

    BUT wait; we shall see :/

    • Callum

       /  March 28, 2018

      We will see about the sackable bit, but she did mislead the house and had to correct her statements. Now this is dragging out it is a bad look for the government. Why tell RNZ privately that CH was wrong on the unplanned bit but not tell CH directly (so she could tell her bosses herself) or correct the public record openly? The look of the cover up is the damaging bit when she could have decisively cleared this up weeks ago, worn a bit of egg on her face and moved on. Now everyone is asking why? What was worth trying to hide?

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  March 28, 2018

        Yes, Having coffee in a public place with a friend is all right, but she should have said that she had done this and didn’t think that there was anything wrong when it was a coffee bar where everyone could see them.

        Of course, if there had been anything wrong, ‘hiding in full sight’ would be the way to do it.

        • Callum

           /  March 28, 2018

          So poorly managed given the meeting was blogged about by john Drinnan before the initial parliamentary question back in December. Blows the conspiracy theory behind Melissa Lees question right out of the water. The meeting was well known about so it was plainly stupid to mislead about the circumstances.
          http://zagzigger.com/minister-rnz-news-boss-breakfast-astoria/

          • Kitty Catkin

             /  March 28, 2018

            Although, as I said, if one wanted to make it look totally innocent (which it probably was) the best way to do this would be to have it in the open. Who listens to conversations in cafes ?

            Someone escaped the Gestapo by diving into a cafe and sitting at the table of a woman who happened to be alone. He helped himself to her drink, and she, with savoir faire, lit a cigarette and gave it to him. The Germans gave the place a cursory glance and hastened on. He always regretted that he didn’t know her name, as she undoubtedly saved his life,

            • Gezza

               /  March 28, 2018

              Who listens to conversations in cafes ?
              Embassy cultural attachés & SIS & women mostly, I gather.
              Mind you you can’t help but overhear if someone’s having the conversation on their mobile. They tend to shout.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  March 28, 2018

              You know what I mean, Most of them aren’t that fascinating and one switches off; hearing but not listening. Remember when people with mobiles would have loud, inane conversations to make sure that everyone knew that THEY had one ?

  9. Gezza

     /  March 28, 2018

    The saga continues

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