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Opinion: The Rules Of Engagement Are Changing

The rules of engagement between the media and politicians are changing.

Yesterday, a comment reportedly made at a social function became news and that news was illustrated with shots into the office of Jenny Shipley and her office staff and showing them talking into the evening.

I could write screeds of speculation about the body language and relationships I saw in those shots and could even recall a few things said at informal times, but I won't because it would be an abuse of trust. Confidences given on trust, shouldn't be used for personal gain. Other journalists are arguing that they are simply telling what happened and the public can judge.

Journalists are changing the rules and the consequences are going to be interesting.

To recap the story, earlier this week the Prime Minister during an entertaining and informative no-holds barred interview tried to turn the tables on her interviewers about tax-payer funded payoffs.

The TV1 interviewers were challenged by the PM to apply the same rules to everyone about disclosure of employment details and said what about TVNZ and a million dollar payoff to John Hawkesby. The argument was an interesting one, but the interviewers were clearly stunned by the figure.

Later Jenny Shipley told Parliament that the payoff comment was just an understanding and admitted the detail was wrong, but stuck to the principle of her argument.

A Tom Scott cartoon depicted Jenny Shipley with a toy bow and a bemused John Hawkesby with a toy arrow stuck to the forehead as Mrs Shipley said "right tactic, wrong target".

Yesterday, gossip amongst journalists made its way to Barry Soper at IRN, he decided that he was not covered by the Chatham House rules, as he wasn't there and was simply reporting what he was told was the truth. That after the show, at a function Mrs Shipley told several people "I made it up".

At this point the story gained its own momentum and was unstoppable. Questions were asked in the House about whether the Prime Minister had misled Parliament. TV1 then picked up the story they had seemingly unwittingly started and ran and ran and ran with it. (See TV1 News Monitor from last night).

Linda Clark reported that she and others had questioned the PM about the comments and the PM replied "I made it up, you people do it all the time". Ms Clark said the PM had been in a "flippant" mood. In the late night bulletin, the "flippant context was removed. Also to further illustrate the story, TVNZ took shots into the PM's office from an adjacent building to show staff and Minister's talking into the night.

The PM was forced to comment and issued a statement (SeePrime Minister responds to the One Network News report in the Parliament wire. Later still Tony Ryall, the Minister for SOEs said he had been the one who mentioned the Hawkesby deal to her.)

Once again in shades of the Kevin Robert's dinner, what Mrs Shipley said and what she meant have become the issue, not the issue itself.

I personally have no doubt that Mrs Shipley was trying to illustrate an argument and was recalling a conversation over the coffee cups with a Minister. Later she was most probably unwinding and made a flippant comment.

Now a privilege complaint has been laid about whether, Mrs Shipley misled the House. The story has "legs" again because of that and while it would be a simple matter to chop the legs from under it, going on past performance that is not going to happen, once again the questions of political management will keep the Government on the back foot again.

But another issue is now how journalists and politicians treat each other. No doubt the gloves will be off between TV1 and National. But another line has been crossed and there will be a growing inclination to nothing being off the record.

Maybe that won't be such a bad thing, but it sure heralds a change in relationship for all politicians and all the Press Gallery.

© Scoop Media

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