Curran survives Select Committee
By Richard Harman (author)
If National MPs were hoping for a Ministerial head after the Select Committee appearance of RNZ's chair and CEO yesterday, they would have been sorely disappointed.
The chair, Richard Griffin, and CEO, Paul Thompson, appeared before Parliament's Economic Development Committee yesterday to set the record straight after they inadvertently misled the Committee on March 1 about the actions of an RNZ employee, Carol Hirschfeld, who had met with Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran in a now infamous encounter in Wellington’s Astoria Café last December.
A measure of the political stakes pinned on the Select Committee hearing was evident with the presence in the audience seats of the Shadow Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee.
That is highly unusual, and Brownlee was clearly there to see whether there was any more in this whole affair.
On the evidence presented yesterday, there isn’t.
Nevertheless, it was clear from Question Time that the Opposition is now clinging to only what may have been said in a voice message left a week ago on Griffin's phone by Curran if it is to get Curran’s scalp.
The Select Committee wound up with a request that Griffin produces a recording of that message.
By Thursday, March 29 it had become clear that what Griffin had told the Committee on March 1 about the Astoria meeting --- that it was an informal, casual encounter; was incorrect --- and that in fact it was a pre-arranged meeting and that broadcasting policy had been discussed.
On March 27, Griffin approached the Committee chair, Jonathan Young, about going back to the Committee to correct the record.
On March 29, Curran left a message on Griffin's phone suggesting he simply provide the Committee with a letter.
That would have meant he could not be questioned.
Naitonal MP Paul Goldsmith asked Griffin to detail the contents of the message.
“She (Curran) made it very clear that she wanted me to write a letter to the Chair of the Select Committee to be on his desk before one o’clock that day which would then ensure there wasn’t a public hearing,” said Griffin.
Griffin's reply was also a message, which he left on Curran's phone.
“My response to the Minister was that apart from anything else the meeting was next Thursday, not this Thursday, and I don't think it's appropriate for either Paul (Thompson) or I to simply offer a letter to the Committee.
“I didn’t think that was an appropriate action under the circumstances.
“The only action we had available to us was to appear before that Committee.”
Goldsmith: “So do you have a copy of the voice message and can you play it to us now?”
Griffin: “No, I won’t. but I do.”
Goldsmith: “So did you receive an implication that you shouldn’t attend the Select Committee?”
Griffin: “The implication, as far as I was concerned, was that it would be far more satisfactory to all concerned if we just put a letter on the table and left it at that.
“I know your reaction would have been – well , we'll receive the letter, but we expect you to turn up."
So the question left hovering in the background was whether the Minister had included in the message a directive not to appear at the Committee.
Griffin left the Committee room without handing his phone over, but National MP Melissa Lee asked that he provide the Committee with the message.
POLITIK understands steps are now being taken to comply with that request.
However, the Committee has powers only to request the message.
Speaker, Trevor Mallard, says any demand that it would have to be handed over would have to come from him and he is aware of only one precedent.
If Curran did issue a directive to Griffin asking him not to appear in front of the Committee, then she could potentially face a charge of contempt of Parliament
Even then, that does not require that she be sacked.
In 2008, Parliament's privileges committee found Winston Peters knowingly misled Parliament by failing to declare $100,000 that billionaire Owen Glenn paid toward his legal bills.
It found Peters in contempt for not disclosing the 2005 gift and recommended that Parliament censure him.
But he survived as a Minister in the Clark Government.
So it would appear the worst that could happen to Curran is a charge of contempt which would be likely to leave her in office.
And anyway, so far, there is no evidence to sustain a charge and there is only likely to be if first the phone message is produced and then if it contains the smoking gun of a directive.
It could have been far worse for Curran.
Committee members did not explore the circumstances surrounding the arrangement of the café meeting between Curran and RNZ’s Head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld, which kicked this whole saga off.
RNZ CEO Paul Thompson, confirmed that he had spoken to Hirschfeld four times about the meeting and she had lied to him each time about it.
The question has always been whether this was a one-off encounter between Hirschfeld and Curran or part of a pattern of meetings.
The Committee also did not question Griffin any further on his statement that Hirschfeld regularly attended RNZ board meetings.
What Curran will be pleased with was the confirmation from Thompson that an RNZ staff member had received a call from a staffer in her office on March 1 advising them that the information given to the Committee at their March 1 in appearance was incorrect when they had described the café meeting as a casual encounter.
“The information was passed on to me by my staff member,” said Thompson.
“I talked to Carol (Hirschfeld) about it again, and she again assured me that the meeting had been coincidental and we had a long conversation around it.
“The point I would make is that the information was second hand, it wasn’t formally raised through the appropriate channels which would have been through the Chair.
"I trusted Carol's word, and for me, that was the end of the matter."
And that meant that understandably the information never reached Griffin.
It was not until March 24 that he had Curran confirm that the Astoria meeting had been pre-arranged.
The fact is that we are no closer to finding out why Curran and Hirschfeld met; why it was necessary to obscure the fact the meeting took place; what they discussed and why Curran took till March to tell RNZ that the meeting had occurred.
And unless the voice message is the smoking gun, that is likely to be the end of the matter.