Part Three of the guest post by David Garrett:
In parts one and two I compared and contrasted the media treatment of a disgraced MP from the supposedly far right – myself – and one from the fuzzy centre left, one Darren Hughes. Let’s now consider the most recent disgraced MP under the same criteria – seriousness of crime/misconduct, and the treatment of that person by the media. My thesis is that the degree of intensive and hostile media scrutiny has little to do with the seriousness of the crime, and when it was committed, but on the PARTY that person comes from, or at least their position on the political spectrum.
On Sunday 16 July, at the Green Party’s 2017 AGM, Metiria Turei made a revelation about her past which was to lead to her resignation – eventually – as Green Party co-leader. In solemn tones, she told the audience that when she was on the DPB in the early 1990’s she was “forced to lie” to the then Social Welfare Department about income she was receiving but not declaring “because I did not dare”. The “meme” was that beneficiaries are kept in penury, barely able – or if Turei was to be believed UNABLE – to put food on the table for themselves and their children. Her revelation went down well with the hard left faction of her party, and led to a brief lift in the polls.
As others have noted, it wasn’t so much the admitted fraud – although as the story developed and the sum defrauded grew that changed somewhat – it was the fact that far from being in any way ashamed or remorseful for what she had done, Turei was “loud and proud” about it. For her, her actions were those of a brave social justice warrior ignoring the constraints of a draconian and wholly unjust law, rather like a conscientious objector willing to suffer imprisonment rather than be subjected to conscription.
While the media reported her speech, and her revelation, it was not a major story; a mention half way through the News at best. There was some half hearted questioning of her by a largely uninterested media; there was no chasing after her when she royally decided she had answered sufficient questions. The clips available online make that quite clear.
I was puzzled and frankly pissed off that there had been little or no media attention on a person who: 1) while a law student had committed fraud on the taxpayer, and was wholly unremorseful about it; and 2) who continued to run a narrative that far from having committed a crime, she was in fact a victim; a noble mother doing whatever had to be done to feed her poor baby; and 3) actively encouraging others who were currently in her supposedly benighted position, to continue ripping off the taxpayer if that’s what they were doing.
On 21 July I sent a text to Jane Patterson of Radio New Zealand, who I had hitherto regarded as one of the best and fairest political journos in New Zealand. Readers of this series will recall that it was Jane I entrusted with my one and only interview after the shit hit the fan in September 2010. My text reads:
“…I was wondering when I was going to hear you rip into Ms Turei for historical dishonesty involving 50 grand of taxpayers’ money…or did I miss it?”
There was no reply, then or since. Shortly thereafter, the story began to grow very tentative legs when Turei revealed that during the period in question, not only had she ripped off the taxpayer, but she had committed electoral fraud, by registering to vote in the 1993 election at an address she didn’t live at. It soon became known that the person who DID live there was – surprise surprise – the father of her child, the poor underfed Piupiu, for whom the brave Ms Turei had lied.
It is important to remember that at the time, Turei was a law student. When I became one in 1988 I was acutely aware that I had a terrible and shameful secret that could do me great harm – a false passport obtained four years earlier, but never used. I took legal advice on what to do – my preference was to confess, but the advice was that to do so was unnecessary, and would almost certainly lead to my being prosecuted. I was advised to destroy the damn thing and hope for the best, which I duly did.
Turei took a very different path. Not only did she fail to “put right” her dodgy benefit claims after beginning law studies, but she committed an entirely new offence, that of electoral fraud. As a law student, one of the compulsory papers – Public Law – covers our constitutional arrangements. One is made very aware that the Electoral Act is one of the few statutory foundations of our largely unwritten constitution.
The Electoral Act is so important that it contains a number of important provisions which can only be repealed or amended by a super majority of parliament – 75% of members must vote to change those sections. So Ms Turei had, not years before while living an entirely different life, but while a law student, knowingly breached one of the cornerstones of our electoral law.
Still there was little media interest. As Mr Google will attest, the media allowed any questioning of her on this fundamental breach to be spun into a “conversation” about the plight of the poor, and the supposed unavoidable need for solo parents to lie in order to feed their children.
The media also allowed her to spin what later came to be accepted as a lie – that she and only she had supported her daughter financially. Still there was little media interest, and a media conference Turei held was restrained and respectful – no yelling of questions; no shoving of microphones up her nose, no preventing her getting on a plane to fly back to her castle in Dunedin, leaving the hapless and clearly out of his depth James Shaw to deal with the growing mess.
The media only really became interested in the story when Kennedy Graham and David Clendon announced, on 7 August, that they could no longer remain on the Green list while Turei was leader. This was in effect an entirely different story; a purely political story rather than one involving not one but two crimes, one against the Electoral Act. It was all about “betrayal”, not by Turei, but by Messrs Graham and Clendon
From that that point, the wheels quickly began to fall off the “Saintly Metiria” wagon, and on 9 August, after having written questions put to her by John Campbell regarding the substantial financial contributions her child’s grandmother had made during the time Turei was on the benefit, she resigned rather than answer those questions. Have a look at the unctuous Campbell “interview” with her on Checkpoint: Campbell adopted a mournful tone, at one point saying “O God this is such a difficult question to ask”…somewhat reminiscent of his respectful and fawning “So, how are you coping?” put to former mayor Len Brown after his sexual misconduct was revealed.
Can one possibly imagine Campbell would have adopted such a tone with me, with Aaron Gilmore, or Todd Barclay? No, it would have been increasingly insistent and aggressive demands to “answer the question!”. But Radio New Zealand wasn’t finished there.
The next day, Lyn Freeman, subbing for Kathryn Ryan, undertook the softest of interviews with James Shaw on the events of the previous few weeks. Rather than refer to Ms Turei, it was all “Metiria” this and “Metiria” that. Freeman allowed Shaw to continue the spin, and keep portraying the story as one of a poor desperate solo mum, forced to lie to feed her child – and about the “traitors” Graham and Clendon who had abandoned their lying and deceitful leader in her time of need.
Regular readers will know of my former respect for RNZ. I never subscribed to the “red radio” label; as I have said many times I always got a very fair shake from them during and especially at the explosive end of my career. But I am supportive of taxpayers’ money funding this radio station no more. We have come to almost expect Katie Bradford breathlessly telling us that “whatever we say and whatever we do the polls just won’t shift”. We have come to roll our eyes when we see bug eyed pieces to camera by Gower, or once over lightly pieces in the former Journal of Record. And that’s exactly what we got with this story. I expected much better from Radio New Zealand. The voting public were very poorly served by ALL our media – but most especially the state funded one.
UPDATE: A response from Guyon Espiner:
David Garrett suggests I am compromised in my coverage of MPs.
If there are people who are interested in testing his views then they can go back and listen to, watch and read my interviews, analysis and reporting of politics over the last two decades and make up their own minds.
He’s also critical of RNZ coverage of the recent woes afflicting the Green Party.
Interestingly though just last week it was David Garrett who admitted his bias while congratulating me on a Morning Report interview with the Green Party co-leader James Shaw!
His unsolicited email, which I haven’t responded to, is released here:
From: David Garrett
Sent: Tuesday, 8 August 2017 8:57 p.m.
To: Guyon Espiner
Subject: Shaw interview
Bugger me, I never thought I ‘d see the day when I would be coming to YOUR defence Espiner!
If Shaw thought that interview was worthy of complaint, he should get a new job…and yes, of course I am biased, but I thought you pressing him for a yes or no answer was perfectly legitimate…and the bullshit about the choice being “to lie or to put food in a child’s mouth” was utter crap! Is the Frog seriously suggesting that the father, and the grandmother, were both letting poor little Piupiu go hungry? I hope you give her the same sort of grilling if she ventures onto Morning Report.
If anything you were too lenient on Shaw…Well done.