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Media Cop Flak For Airing Data Misuse Allegations

Colin Peacock, Mediawatch Presenter

Everyone seemed to agree the allegations of census information misused for political purposes were serious - and serious enough for the prime minister to launch an independent inquiry on top of official investigations already underway. So why have media copped criticism for reporting a story where details were important - and answers were hard to get?

At the weekly post-Cabinet media conference last Monday, the prime minister announced a Public Service Commission inquiry into allegations the Te Pāti Māori misused data collected at Manurewa marae for its election campaign.

Several state agencies were already investigating along with allegations about vaccination data misused for political purposes, and how they reacted to whistleblowers' claims made to them last year.

The claims were strongly denied by Te Pāti Māori and president John Tamihere.

  • Hear Mediawatch's report on the issue in this week's show here

But before the prime minister's inquiry announcement last Monday, the media were also accused of turning a blind eye to it - or even being reluctant to criticise Te Pāti Māori.

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"The media have to drop the double standards and start holding Te Pāti Māori accountable… in the way they do parties from the opposite side of the political spectrum," Newstalk ZB's Heather du Plessis-Allan said in the New Zealand Herald before the current controversy.

One she had in mind was ACT, whose leader David Seymour echoed her words - almost word for word - this week.

But many media did report the controversy when the whistle-blowing and the police complaints came to light.

Two weekends ago it was on the Sunday Star-Times front page. Senior reporter Andrea Vance reported allegations that census data collected by the Whanau Ora Commissioning Agency ended up with Te Pāti Māori to aid their political campaigns.

The paper also reported claims Manurewa marae staff delivered enrolment forms for the Māori electoral roll with census forms - and some were offered treats to switch rolls.

The marae's chief executive at the time - Takutai Tarsh Kemp - went on to win Tamaki Makaurau for Te Pāti Māori by just 42 votes.

Vance also reported attempts were made to alert Stats NZ and the Ministry of Social Development, but neither acted.

Last week Newshub spoke to whistleblowers (granted anonymity) who said they were told to distribute party literature with census forms.

This week, Stuff's chief political correspondent Tova O'Brien urged Te Pāti Māori to stand their MP down.

There was other reporting, comment and analysis elsewhere in the media too.

Radio Waatea - the urban Māori station in Tamaki Makaurau - aired John Tamihere's denials of the allegations - and his criticism of the media scrutiny..

"This is racism 101. We have to prove ourselves innocent of allegations made by people who tried to take over the marae and got bounced out of it," he told Radio Waatea.

For a while he had his own Radio Waatea show - Tamihere Talks - in which he wasn't shy of airing his views of the media.

A year ago, after criticism of "racist white media" Tamihere gave Radio Waatea listeners some electoral advice.

"You join the dots, you'll get exactly to where we're all heading, which is liberation territory. So make sure you're on the Māori roll. Make sure you make your vote count so Māori can have a say in this country's evolution by making history on October the 14th and delivering a government that Māori determined."

This week, Tamihere responded to Andrea Vance's Sunday Star-Times scoop by saying there's "one law for some and one law for others" in the way that media deal with political parties.

"That is why there can be no reliance on media," he said in a statement which was also a kind of open letter to Stuff - including a challenge to provide proof of the claims census data had been misused.

So the news media were accused of victimising Te Pāti Māori and its supporters, and at the same time favouring Te Pāti Māori, while others critics condemned them for not bothering to properly air the story early enough. That's the messenger getting shot at from two different directions - and also for not even delivering the message.

Shooting the messenger?

"I recognise that reflects the lack of public trust by some people in the media… but a lot of this is down to timing. The story broke on a holiday weekend when newsrooms have fewer staff - and it was more difficult to get answers quickly over that period from agencies involved in the story. The prime minister was also out of the country and (in recess) there just wasn't the usual access to politicians," Vance said.

"Also it was a really complicated story with lots of strands and legally fraught, so I wouldn't expect other outlets to just pick it up and run with it."

  • Hear Andrea Vance explain how the claims came to light and triggered the inquiries on The Detail.

"But over the course of the last fortnight, it's been… headline after headline. I've written maybe 10,000 words on it," Vance told Mediawatch.

Some headlines and reports identified the current controversy as a Te Pāti Māori controversy or scandal. But is it just as important to find out what the state agencies did with this data - or failed to do?

"Yes, There are really serious questions that still have to be answered. There were red flags being raised all over last year. People were trying to get attention for this. I had heard about what was going on, and it took me a while to track them down and to earn their trust to talk to me, but they'd kind of given up at that point, because they didn't think anyone was going to take them seriously," Vance said.

"They'd had numerous complaints about it… in the wake of the election campaign, and they'd also had complaints about it during the election campaign and even in February. Ultimately, why did it take these whistleblowers to draw attention to this? Were there no checks and balances in place?"

Questions and answers

Tim Murphy's predecessor as editor at the New Zealand Herald Gavin Ellis gave Vance praise this week for "telling the public about the antics being employed to keep them in the dark".

Vance had returned to the tale in the Sunday Star-Times last weekend, detailing how difficult it had been to find out who-was-doing-what (if anything) about the alleged wrongdoing.

Initially questions posed on a Wednesday were answered a day later by the Stats NZ, she said.

So far so good. But once the story was out, things got much harder.

Stats NZ said it had appointed a consultant to lead the inquiry, and "the findings would be shared with NZ Police".

Vance said it took two full days for police to tell her they were "not in a position to provide any further detail during their inquiry".

But attempts to raise the allegations with Stats NZ and the Ministry of Social Development last year had not been followed up - and that needed explanation, Vance countered.

In the absence of meaningful response to questions, it may take Official Information Act (OIA) requests to get the answers - in time.

Ten years ago there was huge concern about the 'gaming' of the OIA from the prime minister's office right down to small district health boards.

The prime minister back then even candidly admitted his ministers sometimes chose to release information when it suited them. Some of that was exposed by Nicky Hager in Dirty Politics.

Official information obstruction ongoing?

The chief ombudsman ordered a review of compliance, but when she found no clear evidence of manipulation by ministers or public servants - and then retired.

The next one - former judge Peter Boshier - said he was "putting government agencies on notice" and promised to publish tables ranking the time it takes ministries to respond to requests.

But five years later, Vance and Stuff's Nikki McDonald ran a lid-lifting series on the ongoing problem: 'Redcated - how information the public should know about disappears from view'.

The obfuscation goes on today, according to Vance.

Back in August last year, she reported on a secret 'red book' of judges' perks.

The cost of those also remained under wraps until Vance revealed the judges' secret book of perks in the Sunday Star-Times last month - but only after challenging both the initial denial of her OIA request and then overturning an Ombudsman's ruling with help of former attorney-general Chris Finlayson.

Even then, the minister of justice had to meet the chief justice for the entitlements to be revealed.

"This is exhausting and frustrating as ever. When asking public service agencies questions, I'm doing it on behalf of the public. You're entitled to the documents and you're entitled to the answers to these questions.

"But every single day we as journalists come up against these gatekeepers - communications or media advisors or press secretaries. Once upon a time we could pick up the phone and speak to someone in the bureaucracy and ask a question or clarify something that you didn't understand."

"That's now been completely replaced by written statements and there's no clarity in them. They rarely answer the question and… just create a greater distance between the public service and the people that it's supposed to serve. Nine times out of 10 when you get through to a media advisor, you're told to submit [questions] by email. Some agencies don't even disclose their phone numbers, so you have to do everything by email.

"This all takes so much longer. It can take a full day, sometimes two or three, to get answers to your questions. [A reply] either doesn't say anything, or it doesn't answer the questions you ask - or it raises more questions than it answers."

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