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Bullying report points the finger at reporters

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 26 May 2019
Colin Peacock - mediawatch@radionz.co.nz & @MediawatchNZ

It named no names, but the much-anticipated report into bullying in Parliament did lift the lid on people turning the place toxic. Journalists there are part of the problem, according to the report, but there wasn't a lot about that in the media.

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Photo: screenshot / The Project

“There are so many quotable quotes,” Newstalk ZB’s political editor exclaimed on the air on Monday, having leafed through the just-released independent review of bullying and harassment at Parliament.

There certainly were but - disappointingly for the media - they were all anonymous.

The report by reviewer Debbie Francis made it clear some respondents had alleged serious sexual assault had taken place at Parliament and “a small number of MPs widely known to be serial offenders . . . are protected by the system”.

On Wednesday afternoon the story took a new turn when speaker Trevor Mallard told reporters one parliamentary staffer had been stood down after an historic allegation of sexual assault.

One of the reasons all this is out in public now is the media’s pursuit of bullying stories in the past. Trevor Mallard launched the review last year prompted - at least partly - by revelations in the media.

The New Zealand Herald revealed North Shore MP Maggie Barry had been investigated after complaints of bullying from her staff. Meka Whaitiri stood down as a minister over alleged hands-on harassment of a staffer and MP Jami-Lee Ross was accused of bullying some of his staff too.

The inquiry into bullying at Parliament was
prompted by media revelations like this one in
the Weekend Herald last year. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

Stuff’s Andrea Vance reported almost 40 back-office staff have left Parliament since Christmas and some signed non-disclosure agreements on leaving Parliament.

Reporters, former politicians and pundits had plenty to say after the report's release.

"Early in my reporting career at Parliament I saw a senior male politician humiliate and reduce a female MP to tears during a select committee hearing. I was close to tears myself," Stuff's outgoing political editor Tracy Watkins recalled in her farewell column this weekend.

But like the Francis report, she named no names.

Neither did former MP Tau Henare on The Project last Tuesday which revisited his notorious parliamentary punch-up with Trevor Mallard years ago.

"There is a handful of, excuse me, cockwombles that walk around the place and own the place,” said Tau Henare.

But neither he or any of the four presenters on the show raised the role reporters might have played turning the place toxic.

But the Francis report did - explicitly and up front in its introduction.

“Some readers of this report may be expecting a story in which bullying and harassment are mostly undertaken by Members (of Parliament). But . . . bullying and harassment is also alleged by respondents from managers to staff, among staff, among MPs, from the public to staff and MPs, and from members of the Press Gallery.”

The report went on to say Press Gallery journalists are employees of media agencies, and as such “largely out of scope for this review.”

But they weren't 'out of scope' for the people who told the review what they’d seen in and around Parliament.

“A significant number of respondents – not all of them MPs – commented on what they perceived as inappropriate behaviour by members of the Press Gallery or media more generally,” said the Francis Report

What kind of behaviour?

One said journalists in Parliament sometimes “cross the line into disrespect in pursuit of clickbait. Their behaviour can further fuel the overall environment of gossip and intrigue.”

“Gallery behaviour is unacceptable. They come in there perfectly nice people and then adopt this persona of the classic bully. You can watch it happen,” said another quote which the report said was in tune with several others.

The report also noted press gallery reporters have “considerable physical access” to MPs and ministers in the corridors of power, meaning they can confront them in the hallways and outside meetings.

In 2012, Newshub’s Duncan Garner quit the press gallery and declared it had damaged him.

“I was 38, I'd worked in Parliament for 17 years, and I'd become like them: mean, combative, cynical and I drank too much. I had to get out,” he told AM show viewers last year.

This week on the same show Duncan Garner was one of many who claimed the lid-lifting Francis review’s testimonies were no surprise.

“It totally confirms the sham, the club, the bubble MPs work in where they take no blame, use their power to intimidate and control and when it goes belly up they use taxpayers' money to send staff on their way,” he said.

But is Parliament’s press gallery a bubble within that bubble?

Speaker Trevor Mallard at the release of the report
into bullying at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

While many reporters and pundits have said a lot about the Francis report, none addressed its assertion the media are a part of Parliament’s problem culture.

Mediawatch asked the current chair of the press gallery - Stuff senior political reporter Stacey Kirk - if the Press Gallery accepted the criticisms in the report by MPs and others working in Parliament, and if it will respond to the claims made in it.

Stacey Kirk and and deputy chair Sam Sachdeva, of Newsroom.co.nz, responded with a statement:

“It’s fair to say there are parts of the Francis report which come as no surprise - such as the high-intensity culture and long hours at Parliament.

“However, I don’t think any of us were quite aware of the scale of the problems, or the culture of silence that has developed over the years.

“It is heartening to see recognition of the good work done by a number of media outlets in bringing this appalling behaviour into the light. The press gallery works hard every day to ensure that those who work at Parliament are held to account - whether for their political decisions or personal behaviour - and this is a reflection of that.

“We are happy to respond to the allegations made against the press gallery and work with Speaker Trevor Mallard on the proposed code of conduct for the parliamentary workplace. We will help to ensure that it guards against inappropriate behaviour on the precinct, while safeguarding the independence of the media and the vital role that it plays in maintaining a healthy democracy.

“Without specific examples of the alleged behaviour, it is difficult to respond in detail. However, there are often robust exchanges between the media and politicians, press secretaries or other political staff which you would expect when we are trying to uncover the truth on behalf of New Zealanders and they disagree with our interpretation of a story.

“As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. One of the reasons why this behaviour has been allowed to go on for so long is the culture of silence and use of hush money and non-disclosure agreements. It's not helped by the fact that the Parliamentary Service which runs the place isn't subject to the Official Information Act.

“Responsible reporting on this from the media, that is respectful of complainants and the need for natural justice, is the best way to ensure that the recommendations of the Francis inquiry do not simply wither away over time.”


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