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Scoop Delves Into "Dangerous Territory" With TVNZ

Scoop News Analysis

Just who did break the confidence of the Prime Minister's post Crossfire interview remarks?

Following a tip-off last week the Scoop has been inquiring into the background to the release of the "I made it up" story concerning the Prime Minister's comments on the size of John Hawkesby's payout in a TVNZ Crossfire interview two weeks ago.

To recap, around midday on Thursday the week before last - June 24 - IRN's political editor Barry Soper reported that "reliable sources" said the PM had remarked following the Crossfire interview that she had "made up" the $1 million figure. (See. IRN - "PM Made It Up")

Shortly after this a question was asked by John Wright of the Alliance in Parliament during questions of the day concerning the alleged Prime Ministerial remark. (See.. Questions: PM On Payments Row) Later that evening TVNZ Political Editor Linda Clark went public saying she heard the PM say exactly those words. (See.. TV1 6pm News and Prime Minister Responds To One Network News Report)

Since then a lively debate has ensued on whether the whole matter is a "storm in a teacup" - comments attributed to Helen Clark by the Nats - and whether it is appropriate in broadcasting to break the Chatham House style Rule concerning the off-the-record nature of post-interview comments by politicians. (See. Opinion: The Rules Of Engagement Are Changing and SOAPBOX: Unwanted Privacy, Unwanted Publicity and Opinion Piece: "TV1 Did The Right Thing")

The PM has since made a personal explanation to Parliament saying she "could not recall" having made the " I made it up" remark, and that in any event she believed the comments on Hawkesby's payout to be true (albeit mistakenly) when she made them. (See.. PM Says 'No Intention To Mislead' and Shameful Abuse Of Parliament)

A battle royale is now underway between the PM's office and the state broadcaster and the extent of hostilities is easy to discern.

Last week rumours were being spread, allegedly by Beehive staff, that Linda Clark had been away in Auckland being disciplined. These, Clark says, are completely untrue. Meanwhile on Wednesday night last week no one from TVNZ turned up to the National Party caucus's meet the Press Gallery drinks.

Off-the-record some in the PM's office are fuming. Some apparently believe the PM was set-up.

The question Scoop is now attempting to answer is if she was set up, then by whom?

Political Editor Linda Clark had just launched her new Monday night political interview show Crossfire so there appears to be a clear ratings motive there.

The more cynical are inclined to wonder whether someone further up the TVNZ feeding chain had an interest in using the story to draw attention away from the apparent discount sale of the TVNZ stake in Sky Television to Rupert Murdoch.

So how did this story really get out? Who told IRN's Barry Soper about the PM's post interview comments?

Barry himself isn't saying. Put a scenario on what had occurred told Scoop that it "wasn't what happened, and I am not prepared to go into how it happened. You know the story, you cannot reveal your sources."

Scoop does understand this, but is nevertheless reluctant to leave the story alone. After all this is a story about hearsay, founded in hearsay in fact. In the circumstances it seems reasonable to inquire further.

Scoop's inquiries have uncovered the following.

Firstly Scoop understands Linda Clark was by all reports far from circumspect with the information. The subject was - according to some - the matter of widespread discussion around the gallery as early as Tuesday, the day following the PM's Hawkesby comments on Crossfire, and a day before IRN ran its story.

Clark is recalled by one gallery member as saying she was, "uncomfortable about doing anything off her own bat", on the story however..

Clark told Scoop that the subject was certainly being widely discussed on the Tuesday. She pointed to the fact that the PM's remarks had been made to a relatively wide audience after the Crossfire interview. She said it was certainly not a remark which was as clearly off-the-record as the PM had claimed. It had been the talk of the TVNZ Auckland office from first thing Tuesday morning.

Scoop understands that from Soper's perspective in the light of the widespread speculation in the gallery, and the fact that the Labour Party too seemed to be well aware of the remark, it came down to a pure matter of news judgement. The logic followed by IRN's political editor was simply that sooner or later the story would be run, and that therefore IRN might as well be first in the circumstances.

Nevertheless, according to Scoop's sources, Soper was still anxious to confirm the story as widely as possible. Among those Scoop understands he inquired of in particular was TVNZ's corporate public relations officer Liam Jeory.

Which is where the matter starts getting murky. When asked about the matter Jeory observed that Scoop was inquiring into, "really dangerous territory," in asking this question.

Jeory emphatically denied that Soper had received any confirmation of the story in any form from TVNZ. "Who is saying that. It sounds like dirty tricks", he said.

Jeory did however confirm another story the Scoop had heard, namely that he had words with Soper on Wednesday morning concerning an alleged "false allegation" Soper had made about the Prime Minister being in close conference with TVNZ Chairwoman Rosanna Meo at the APEC women's forum earlier in the week.

"That is correct," he said. (For his part Soper would not even confirm this much.)

Pushed further on what he had said to Soper, Jeory would only say that, "TVNZ categorically did not confirm to Mr Soper what he broadcast."

To be fair if the story was as widespread as it appears to have been Soper did not need specific confirmation from Jeory to run it - nevertheless his apparent involvement adds an interesting aspect to the controversy.

Scoop also understands that shortly after Soper ran his story the TVNZ chairwoman herself rang Soper concerned that IRN had implied that the board of TVNZ was out to get the PM.

No doubt Soper was pleased to hear this. He had in his story implied nothing of the sort. But the fact the TVNZ chair was concerned about this does appear to beg a few questions.

Following the IRN story the state broadcaster had at least six hours on Wednesday to decide on whether to run with the "I made it up" storyline.

Firstly one wonders how high up the TVNZ chain of command the consultation on the editorial decision to run the story was taken? Certainly the decision was taken in consultation with Head of News Paul Cutler and overall news boss Rick Ellis. But was Meo consulted?

Secondly if Meo was aware of the risk that TVNZ would be seen to be setting the PM up, what did she have to say on the issue if or when she was consulted.

Jeory says - and this is apparently the official TVNZ line - that once Alliance MP John Wright had raised the matter in the house it then became a, "matter of editorial integrity", for TVNZ to then report the matter in detail.

Since then TVNZ Cutler has backed Linda Clark all the way. However while great play is made of the, "we had a duty to cover", the issue - and while the PM is accused of being Muldoon like in daring to criticise Linda Clark's integrity - perspective is rapidly being lost over just what is the subject matter here.

Namely, that the PM may or may not have made an apparently glib remark in a post interview context in which she could reasonably have expected not to be reported.

In the final analysis it is not clear that the PM was set up. Her remark, if she made it, was definitely unwise. On the other hand it is also far from clear that she wasn't set up.

In the meantime it is also reasonable to conclude that the relationship between the state broadcaster and the Government has now hit an all time low.

© Scoop Media

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