RNZ lawyers up ready for Select Committee showdown
By Richard Harman (author)
Radio New Zealand’s chair and CEO will be accompanied by one of the country’s top media lawyers when they appear before a Parliamentary Select Committee this Thursday.
High Rennie QC will be at the hearing with RNZ.
That is a measure of the seriousness of what is at stake at the meeting both for Radio New Zealand and Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran.
Her political future will be on the line as the RNZ duo answer questions about the chain of events that led them to provide a wildly misleading account to the same Committee of how the former RNZ head of content, Carol Hirschfeld, had a café meeting with Curran.
Curran initially denied the meeting had taken place, (Updated: Curran says she didn't deny the meeting took place; she simply omitted to include it in a list of meetings she was asked for by Melissa Lee.) and then did declare it but said it was an “informal” meeting, a perception that was enhanced by Hirschfeld appearing in her gym gear.
That was the story the RNZ Chair, Richard Griffin, and CEO, Paul Thompson, told the Select Committee.
But since then they learned that the meeting had been pre-arranged two weeks before it took place.
Griffin and Thompson confirmed this with Curran on March 22, 16 weeks after the meeting had taken place.
As a consequence of what they learned, they asked Economic Development Committee chair, Jonathan Young, if they could return to his Committee last Thursday to correct the record.
It appears that by this stage RNZ had retained Rennie for legal advice and with the Easter break about to happen it was decided to defer the meeting till this coming Thursday.
When Curran learned of this, she left a message last Thursday morning on Griffin's phone suggesting NZ not actually appear at the Committee again, but simply send a written correction to their earlier statements to the Committee.
And the Prime Minister has confirmed that when Curran could not reach Griffin, directly, she asked the CEO of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Paul James, to contact him to urge him to provide only a written statement.
Had Griffin agreed it would have meant that he and Thompson would not have been able to answer questions from the Committee.
Ardern said that Curran had briefed her on this.
“She advised me that when she found out that Radio New Zealand was no longer able to appear at the Committee, her concern was that the record be corrected as soon as possible, “ said Ardern.
But, of course, Curran had known since the original Committee appearance on March 1 that the story provided by RNZ to the Committee was incorrect.
It appears that following the March 1 Committee meeting a staffer from her office did contact someone in RNZ but the contents of that call appear not to have reached either the Chair or the CEO.
It was not till March 22, that the Minister’s office confirmed to RNZ that the Astoria meeting had been pre-arranged.
(Updated: The Minister contests this and says she did not confirm that the meeting had been pre-arranged till March 24. RNZ, on the other hand, claim they were advised by her office on the 22nd which is why they began their investigations into Hirschfeld the next day.)
That led to Griffin and Thompson and their employment lawyer requesting Hirschfeld's resignation because she had persistently assured them it was simply a casual encounter..
But by seeking to have Griffin and Thompson not appear before the Committee in person, the Minister risked directly challenging the Committee, whose chair, Jonathan Young, texted POLITIK on Thursday to say the Committee had "resolved to recall RNZ".
Ardern said that when Curran learned that, she dropped her attempts to contact Griffin.
It was important that she did. Had she not she might have been exposed to a charge of contempt of parliament.
Nevertheless, the impression has been left that Curran did not want Griffin and Thompson to be questioned by the Committee.
Those questions might include:
- Was the Minister aware they were appearing before the Economic Development Committee on March 1, and if so, did she know they were going to repeat the falsehoods about her meeting with Hirschfeld?
- Did RNZ have any discussions with the Minister’s office on how the different stories about the original meeting be presented in public?
- What was the content of the message left on the Chair’s phone by the Minister last Thursday?
The Auckland media commentator, John Drinnan, whose Zigzagger blog, broke the original news of the Astoria meeting has asked whether Radio New Zealand can continue to trust their Minister, Curran.
“The incident has damaged the state broadcaster, which has long tried to overcome the overblown claims that it was biased in favour of the Left," he wrote.
“But RNZ staff I spoke to said Curran was getting off scot-free.”
Drinnan speculates that the reason for the meeting between Curran and Hirschfeld was for Hirschfeld to report on opposition from within RNZ to Labour’s proposal to have the radio broadcaster establish a separate TV channel and that was the reason for the subterfuge..
Ardern has been careful not to accept this possibility that the meeting was, in effect, an attempt to subvert RNZ management.
Instead, she told Parliament (again) yesterday that “I've been advised by Minister Curran that it was a high-level meeting, discussing issues that are already in the public domain.”
What no one knows is how much Hirschfeld told her RNZ chair and CEO about what was actually said at the meeting.
That may be another question for the Committee. And a potentially damning one.