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Has National muzzled the press?

March 6, 2008

Has National muzzled the press?

APN's correction regarding John Key's comment in the APN-owned Bay Report that "we would love to see wages drop" raises some serious questions about media freedom and the possibility of political interference says the journalists' union, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union.

The correction directly contradicts previous statements by the journalist, his editor and his publisher and comes two and a half months after the story was first published and more than two weeks after the comment was raised in Parliament.

EPMU national secretary Andrew Little says the fact the correction comes so late and that John Key is on the record as communicating directly with APN chief executive Martin Simons over the matter makes the issue suspiciously murky.

"At best this looks like political mismanagement and at worst like serious pressure has been exerted on the editors and the journalist involved by senior APN management at the behest of the National Party.

"Kiwi wages are shaping up to be major election issue and given Key has made at least five different excuses for his comment and may now have pressured the media to bury the controversy there are some serious questions that need answering:

"Why has APN taken so long to make its 'correction' given the article was published two and a half months ago and was raised in Parliament more than two weeks ago?

"Why is news of the 'correction' being printed in the New Zealand Herald before the Bay Report has even been published?

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"On what basis is APN issuing this 'correction' given the journalist, his editor, and the publisher Northern Publishing have all stood by the story and issued a transcript of the conversation to prove its accuracy?

"How much contact did Mr Key and his office have with APN senior management prior to this retraction and what was the nature of that communication?

"And why was news of APN's correction announced by National's deputy leader Bill English yesterday rather than through the proper channels?

"Freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. If National and APN have colluded to obstruct this freedom they have obstructed democracy and need to be held to account for it."

The EPMU represents nearly 2000 New Zealand journalists and is currently undertaking a review of the country's media.


Timeline of events:

December 20, 2007 - Bay Report publishes Key's statement that "we would love to see wages drop."

February 19, 2008 - Michael Cullen first raises quote in Parliament.

February 22, 2008 - Northern Publishing issues statement backing the quote: "We are happy that the quotes printed in the story are an accurate record of what Mr Key said."

February 23, 2008 - Northern Advocate releases transcript of conversation between John Key and Kerikeri District Business Association President Carolyne Brooks-Quan.

March 5, 2008 - Bill English claims in Parliament that the paper plans to make a "retraction".

March 6, 2008 (5am) - NZ Herald issues 'correction' citing Bay Report. Bay Report is yet to be published.

March 6, 2008 - Dominion Post reports that Key has communicated with APN chief executive Martin Simons.

Northern Publishing's statement, 22/02/08

Northern Publishing stands by the story published in the Bay Report on December 20, 2007 in which National Leader John Key was quoted as saying "We would love to see wages drop."

Our reporter was at the meeting with the Kerikeri District Business Association President Carolyne Brooks-Quan and recorded the conversation.

We have a transcript of the meeting and we are happy that the quotes printed in the story are an accurate record of what Mr Key said.

Northern Advocate's transcript, released 23/02/08

Carolyne Brooks-Quan: There's been a lot surrounding the exodus of people to Australia that are lured by higher wages. There's some calls here for employers to pay more. What's your take on that?

John Key: We would love to see wages drop.

The way we want to see wages increase is because productivity is greater. So people can afford more.

Not just inflationary reasons, otherwise it's a bit of a vicious circle as it comes back to you in higher interest rates. We really want to drive that out.

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