Minister still under a cloud
By Richard Harman (author)
The Ministerial career of Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was still under a cloud last night with the possibility that Radio New Zealand's chair and CEO may be recalled by Parliament's Economic Development Select Committee.
Labour could yet stop the recall but Committee Chair, Jonathan Young, told POLITIK last night he thought that would be "incredibly inappropriate" for Labour to block the appearance.
The recall follows more revelations about a cafe meeting last December between Curran and RNZ's head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld, which Curran initially denied had even taken place.
Hirschfeld resigned from the broadcaster yesterday after she was found to have misled its CEO about the meeting.
POLITIK understands that the meeting, at Wellington's Astoria cafe, may have been an attempt by Hirschfeld to warn Curran that RNZ was trying to water down plans for RNZ+ --- a television channel which the Minister wanted RNZ to establish and run.
The fact that the meeting took place broke RNZ protocols about how its staff should interact with the Broadcasting Minister which are seen by the broadcaster as an important part of ensuring its independence.
After Curran iniitally denied the meeting had taken place in a written reply to a question from National MP, Melissa Lee, she then changed the reply to read that an informal meeting had taken place on December 5.
Hirschfeld told her RNZ managers a similar story as evidenced by a reply from its Chair, Richard Griffin, to a question at the Economic Development and Innovation Select Committee on March 1.
"Carol had been to the gym; she was getting a coffee, they bumped into each other, in a cafe and had a conversation so it was hardly a secret meeting, “he said.
But it later transpired the meeting had been deliberately planned beforehand – it was in the Minister's diary which has now been released --- and that the reason for all the secrecy around it was that it seems it was a meeting intended to try and counter RNZ from moving away from a full broadcast TV channel to instead providing video on a number of platforms.
POLITIK understands that the planning for the meeting may well have acknowledged that it would be better if both parties acted discretely.
Labour said in its election manifesto that it would transform RNZ into a "truly multi-platform provider “that would include a "free-to-air non-commercial television service".
Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran said in November that meant RNZ would provide "at least one free-to-air linear, non-commercial television station".
But Griffin told the Select Committee that RNZ would not immediately launch a full-blown standalone television service.
He said that it was not its vision that the newly dubbed RNZ+ would look like a television channel.
RNZ+ was "not about a new television station per se", he said.
In fact, RNZ had decided that it would stand back from a linear TV service and instead look more towards video on demand as a way of distributing what would be stepped up video production.
That model could then eventually be scaled up into a full TV service.
But that view conflicted directly with what the Labour manifesto had promised and what the Minister which POLITIK understands was also supported by Hirschfeld.
That was the background against which the meeting took place and also the reasons why both the Minister and Hirschfeld appear to have gone to some lengths to try and keep it at best low key – at worst, secret.
But once RNZ learned that the meeting had been diaried by Curran's office, they attempted to find out what had happened from Hirschfeld.
Meetings with her took place over the weekend.
And then yesterday RNZ CEO, Paul Thompson and Griffin issued a terse statement: “Today RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson accepted Carol Hirschfeld’s resignation from RNZ, effective immediately.
"This follows Ms Hirschfeld informing Mr Thompson on Sunday, March 25, that a meeting she had with Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran on December 5 last year was a pre-arranged meeting.
"Ms Hirschfeld had earlier repeatedly assured Mr Thompson that the meeting was coincidental and that she and the Minister had talked after bumping into each other in a Wellington cafe."
Young told POLITIK that he thought it would be appropriate for Griffin and Thomspon to re-appear before the Committee this Thursday to bring some clarity to events and statements that they had earlier made to the Committee.
"My intention is to bring this to the Committee on Thursday and ask the Committee for its support in the invitation, “he said.
“Then we’ve got some questions we can ask.
"I think that is quite important because I have always respected Radio New Zealand as a very straight up organisation who have done some great things and I'm concerned that they feel that they can ensure their integrity is upheld."
The committee has ten members; five from National; three from Labour and one each from the Greens and NZ First so it is possible that the Government members could block the RNZ appearance.
That, however, though it might prevent any more embarrassing revelations from coming out, might look like even more of a Government cover-up than Curran's initial denial.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was forced to answer questions about the meeting yesterday in Parliament and offered a modest defence of Curran.
“I did speak to Ms Curran on a number of occasions about this particular issue, “she said.
“She's assured me that the nature of the conversation was high-level and very much about issues that she has canvassed in the public domain, as well.”
What Ardern didn't address was the propriety of an RNZ staff member having a meeting to discuss policy with the Broadcasting Minister without the approval – or knowledge – of RNZ's management.
And what Griffin and Thompson may be asked this Thursday is how much they have now found out about how the meeting was set up and why it has taken three months for the full story to come out.
Those questions could produce more information about contacts the broadcaster has had with Curran and her office in recent weeks as the full story about the cafe meeting has unfolded.
As long as questions continue to be asked inside the Parliamentary process, Curran will have to worry about her future.