Casualty list for week of Feb. 10

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Ÿ * Sources and surveillance Ÿ * RNZ and issues of trust  * Tall Poppies

Free Society’s loss

It was a chilling admission by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters that “we took the photographs”.

The images were of two journalists and the party’s ex-president. They were involved in investigating the shadowy New Zealand First Foundation, which is now the subject of inquiries by the Serious Fraud Office.

Photographs of their meeting in a Tauranga retail precinct were published on the BFD (Brash, Focused and Dedicated) website. It has been critical of both journalists – RNZ investigative journalist Guyon Espiner and Stuff senior journalist Matt Shand – and their investigations into the relationship between the foundation and the party. The website called their investigations a ‘hit job’ and referred to former party president Lester Gray as ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘a snitch’.

Peters made the picture-taking claim on Magic Talk Radio but later maintained the photographs had been snapped by ‘a supporter’. He was silent on the question of how they found their way to a website that has openly supported his position in relation to the foundation. He said in a tweet that “NZF has no interest in following Mr Espiner or any other journalists”.

That was small comfort to the major journalists’ union E tū. It demanded assurances that no such action would occur again and drew parallels with examples of attacks on journalists in other countries.

Whatever his motives, the New Zealand First leader has done the country a disservice by implying that meeting a reporter in a public place may risk ‘exposure’. The damage in “we took the photographs” was not undone by his subsequent tweets which were tacit acknowledgement that his party passed the images to the website with the clear intention that the site published them. BFD has undisclosed but obvious links to Cameron Slater’s now defunct Whale Oil blog. Slater’s tactics were exposed in two books – Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and Margie Thomson’s Whale Oil.

Winston Peters may now make soothing noises or attempt to minimise the impact of publication, but that will not diminish the chilling effect of the underlying message implied by the photographs: We are watching you.

Journalists place themselves under solemn obligations when they use confidential sources. While editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, I was prepared to face possible imprisonment to protect a source during a criminal trial because an assurance had been given that identity would be protected. I know a journalist who uses ‘burner phones’ (cheap prepay throw-away cell phones) to protect sources from possible state surveillance. I know another who, fearful of surveillance by a foreign power, resorted to emailing through the Dark Web during a trans-national investigation.

When formal undertakings have been given, journalists will avoid being seen in public with their confidential contacts. That is why Bob Woodward and Deep Throat, FBI deputy director Mark Felt, went to extraordinary lengths to arrange meetings over Watergate. John O’Connor explained their method in the 2005 Vanity Fair article in which Felt ‘outed’ himself.

If Woodward needed to initiate a meeting, he would position an empty flowerpot (which contained a red construction flag) to the rear of his apartment balcony. If Deep Throat was the instigator, the hands of a clock would mysteriously appear on page 20 of Woodward’s copy of The New York Times, which was delivered before seven each morning. Then they would connect at the appointed hour in an underground parking garage. (Woodward would always take two cabs and then walk a short distance to their meetings.) The garage afforded Deep Throat a darkened venue for hushed conversation, a clear view of any potential intruders, and a quick escape route.

 No doubt New Zealand journalists have their own (perhaps less cloak-and-dagger) means to arranging unobserved contact with secret sources and they are, presumably, safe from the prying eyes of NZ First ‘supporters’ and the like. Journalists are obliged to take such steps and are acutely aware that this is a small country in which urban encounters need to be discreet.

The prospect of being photographed and the image published on a website or social media – perhaps for no other reason than to harass the reporter – must have a detrimental effect on the relationship between journalists and their sources.

Reporters will not be intimidated by this sort of surveillance. Guyon Espiner spoke for Matt Shand and all of their colleagues when he told Checkpoint’s Lisa Owen “we will keep reporting this story”. And no doubt they will protect confidential sources.

However, those contacts are unusual. The vast majority of encounters between journalists and their sources are in plain sight. They are part of the news-gathering process in which the journalistic hunter/gatherers forage for stories and the facts to support them. They are routine. Or they were.

 The chilling effect of the deputy Prime Minister’s initial admission will be on contacts that are a notch or two below a confidential source. These are contacts who may want to point a reporter in the direction of a story but don’t want to be quoted or have their fingerprints on it. Clandestine photographs of such meetings destroy their off-the-record status, and images of the most innocent encounter can carry whatever implications their disseminators might wish to read into them. The result: A reduced willingness to engage with reporters.

Even the contacts with whom journalists have an occasional beer or cup of coffee simply to stay in touch may now feel that the threat rating in such meetings has just been escalated a level or two.

The ability to engage with journalists should be a given in a free society. As a result of Winston Peter’s rather smug disclosure on Magic Talk Radio, and the absence of an unequivocal denunciation of NZ First’s tactic by the Prime Minister, that ability may be compromised. Journalists, who already work hard to identify and maintain credible sources, will now need to give their contacts added assurances that they are safe to talk to.

Garden centres and hardware stores may experience a run on flowerpots and red construction flags.

RNZ’s casualties

The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand should sponsor a case study of the attempted implementation of Radio New Zealand’s ‘youth’ platform and consequential downgrading of RNZ Concert. As an exercise in internal and external communication it was a disaster.

Concert was going to the AM band as an automated feed and its 18 staff would be made redundant. Then it was to return to the FM band but there was no word about staff. Then staff were told the status quo would prevail. Finally, the status quo became subject to a “new strategy for growth” to be delivered in three weeks. Throughout all this the form, structure and resourcing of the ‘youth’ platform remained unstated. At the time of writing, that is where matters stood but, given events so far, I might be forgiven if there has been a further gyration.

The reason for back flips that would earn a place in Cirque du Soleil, we were told, was fundamentally a miscommunication. By whom? No, it wasn’t the board or chief executive, so who? First, the finger was pointed at the Minister of Communications Kris Faafoi then hurriedly pointed away. Then the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Ministry of Business Industry and Enterprise were fingered for not properly communicating the status of available FM frequencies for a new ‘youth’ network (but they hadn’t been asked). Finally, it was really nobody’s fault but a series of misunderstandings.

None of this can take place without casualties, and there remains an unfortunate possibility that some may yet die of their wounds. However, most will eventually recover from their injuries.

The casualty that will take longest to recover is trust.

Internally, the board and chief executive have lost the confidence of some staff. Externally, the relationship between RNZ and the Government plus its ministries has taken a hit – not least with Kris Faafoi, whose wish for a delay in the project pending further investigation was ignored (apparently through ‘miscommunication’).

However, the greatest loss is with RNZ’s audience and that extends beyond the 170,00 Concert listeners. This sort of high-handed action, followed by confusion and faltering regression, will lead RNZ’s entire audience to question the security of services they value. Their question: If Concert can be subject to sudden and unilateral ‘destruction’, how safe is RNZ National as we know it?

The public broadcaster’s board and executive will need to go into accelerated damage control but, to put it kindly, their performance so far has been maladroit.

The same cannot be said, however, for RNZ’s reporters and current affairs journalists. They have covered this story with the same independence as they would any other topic. Clearly, chief executive Paul Thompson – who is also editor-in-chief [a role that personally I do not think should be held by a chief executive] – has recused himself. More than that, he allowed himself to be subjected to a withering line of questioning by Lisa Owen on Checkpoint. Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan was similarly penetrating in questioning board chair Dr Jim Mather, even if his answers were guarded to say the least. RNZ’s journalists put commendable degrees of separation between themselves and the board and executive. Had they done otherwise, the public broadcaster may have had an even harder job restoring public trust.

Heroes

Medals to Phil Gifford (Weekend Herald) and Kevin Norquay (Stuff newspapers) – two of the country’s most widely respected sports journalists – for getting behind Sportsman of the Year Israel Adesanya in condemning the all-too-prevalent-in-sport Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Discussed these topics today on RNZ Nine to Noon. Here is the link: Media commentary

Gavin Ellis

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Casualty list for week of Feb. 10

  1. Again, Gavin has delivered an eloquent and concise analysis of two of the current stories “in the news”, which have ethical and practical obstacles to surmount. I think this discussion of the techniques and strategies of journalism go far to counter the perceptions scribes cannot be trusted and their sole aim is to promote scandal and malicious comment.. Or even the notion we are simply the recyclers of “communications” spin doctoring.

    1. It’s staggering that here we are, 2020, after some decades of writings & discussion on modern management, human relations in the workplace, effective CEOs & board chairs etc…and still there are fiascos like the RNZ Concert one involving highly- paid individuals who should know better..a LOT better. All it should’ve taken was one of these people to say ‘steady on Paul, that’s never gonna fly’. Staggering.

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