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Gordon Campbell on the Fonterra milk powder scandal

Gordon Campbell on the Fonterra milk powder scandal, and the ongoing Dunne email saga

by Gordon Campbell

The Fonterra tainted milk powder scandal is at risk of becoming the export equivalent of foot and mouth disease, and needs expert management now to staunch the damage. In that respect it is probably just as well that political operators such as Steven Joyce and Tim Groser are now handling the fallout. Because unfortunately, the stark details of the timeline involved don’t instill a lot of confidence in Fonterra’s own managerial nous. Incredibly, the contamination occurred in May 2012 but was not detected and suspected until March 2013 - and was then not confirmed to anyone outside the company until last Friday. (No wonder farmers lectured by Fonterra about their sanitary standards in the milk shed are feeling annoyed. But that’s the least of the problem.)

There are two glaring gaps in the timeline (a) the gap between the botulism-inducing incident and its detection and (b) the delay in notifying the government and most importantly, the New Zealand public who are/were left at risk during that time. Was this delay in notifying anyone else being influenced by Fonterra’s desire not to compound the controversy and delays in getting $100 million in export shipments off the wharves in China – an incident that also came to the boil in May? This scandal looks like getting far worse before it gets any better.

Interesting column by Michael Laws on the weekend about the Dunne/Vance emails/phone logs scandal that is now lapping around the knees of the PM’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson. In his SST column, Laws raised questions about the media’s alleged attempts to obtain the same data, which in turn invites speculation about what the media would have done if it could have got its own hands on the email content in question. As Laws indicates, the privacy issues now being treated as being sacrosanct by the Press Gallery might well have gone out the window. In the public interest, of course.

No doubt, there is a degree of hypocrisy about the media’s sudden discovery that privacy should be scrupulously respected. There’s nothing like things happening to yourself – or to the like-situated – to foster a sense of moral outrage about an issue. (It would be nice if the media were treating the prospect of mass surveillance with as much horror as they are the intrusions on the privacy of one Fairfax reporter.)

Arguably, the rules that govern the publication of this kind of material would be likely to produce an outcome that’s less dangerous than the use of such data for God knows what purposes by the PM’s office, or within something like the Henry inquiry. The really interesting question would be how the media might have reacted if the authorities had obtained some sensational stuff from a successful fishing expedition in Dunne’s outbox/inbox, and had then offered it for laundering through the media. To some, such an offer might well have tested the boundaries of media collegiality – which, again, is Laws’ basic point.

Even so, this kind of speculation about “what the media might have done” doesn't invalidate the disquiet about the evidently more successful attempts at access initiated by the PM's office and the Henry inquiry - if only because allowing access by state agencies to this kind of material is of greater concern, because of the power they wield. Still, it does make for an interesting moot point for some journalism class in future. How should the media respond when the public interest in such an issue – i.e., did or didn’t a senior MP leak a confidential report into our security services, and why – runs up against the privacy rights of the parliamentarian and journalist in question? Journalists are usually willing to waive the privacy rights of others, when wrongdoing may be afoot. In protecting its rights to privacy (even when its own scoop-related activities become entangled with the story) it can reasonably expect that it will not only be the Michael Laws of this world who query the double standard that’s in play, and the reasons why it exists.

Revealingly, the main reason why the media can't access the Dunne/Vance electronic traffic is because Parliamentary Services isn't accessible via the OIA, a distinction that was supposed to signal that the things that Parliamentary Services do are too important to the running of Parliament to be open to outside - or inside - scrutiny. Hindsight is cheap. But across the public service, officials should be taking due warning from this incident. It should have been agreed on by the requestors and by those they were pressuring that of course, private electronic communications (and the meta-data based on them) could never be material considered to be ‘relevant” for forwarding to the Henry inquiry, without the explicit consent of the participants in those communications. If Parliamentary Services, the Henry inquiry and the PM’s office had agreed beforehand on those ground rules, Geoff Thorn would still have his job. His former colleagues and peers should now take note, and should be taking the necessary self-defensive precautions when the politicians and their staff come calling.

Footnote: On reflection, my attempt above to find some kind of synchronicity between Fonterra’s discovery that it had a contamination problem with its milk powder (March) and the earlier export problem with China (in May) is strained, and wrong. In reality there was probably no good time for Fonterra to ‘fess up about a disaster with its milk exports, and that’s regardless of any other problems with our China trade. The long delay between discovery and notification probably just reflects a culpable reluctance by Fonterra to tell the government – and the public – the bad news.

ENDS

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