When ‘open government’ becomes a joke

It was a pretty surreal experience driving down to Hamilton. I had Radio New Zealand on, as I always do, and Kathryn Ryan was breaking the news that Carol Hirschfeld had resigned. She made the announcement in cool, impartial tones despite the fact it was about her own management team.  

She continued to update the story and, just as I got to Hamilton, she informed listeners they’d tried to get someone from RNZ on the show to speak on the issue, but all interview requests had been declined. She did this in the same cool, impartial tones as before. It was odd to listen to, not because it was wrong, but because I couldn’t think of many other industries where you’d be called on to question your employer in public like that and then report that they weren’t fronting.  

For all that RNZ the institution might have been executing a public relations damage control plan, its editorial team wasn’t having a bar of it, pressing on throughout the day as if it was happening to some other company; remaining an impenetrable fortress of public service broadcasting despite the fact it was the one taking fire. 

In the following 48 hours we were treated to an ongoing master class in both journalistic integrity and impartiality and professional dignity from Guyon Espiner, Susie Ferguson, Chris Bramwell, Jane Patterson and all the RNZ staff involved in reporting a story that must have been sending shockwaves through the offices right outside their studio doors. Their handling of it only seemed to make it more ironic that they found themselves in this positon because of a lack of honesty and transparency from their minister, Clare Curran, who, as many have pointed out, is also the Minister for Open Government.  

Curran has come out of this appearing at best naïve and unfamiliar with ministerial protocols, and at worst, arrogant and unapologetic. She has maintained she will not step down as Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media. Aside from an apology to the Prime Minister "for the lack of transparency from the very beginning around the fact that the meeting occurred, and the fact that it was not included in that initial written question”, she seems impervious to the mess she has created. 

Curran may have handed RNZ’s critics a gift. Without wanting to give any credence to the Red Radio moniker unfairly bestowed on RNZ by right-wing critics, her fudging of answers to questions over the nature of the meeting will only add more fuel to that fire. Anything that makes the Labour-led government’s relationship with the state broadcaster appear cosy rather than above board isn’t good. 

She may have also cast a shadow over RNZ+. For what it’s worth, Curran’s continued insistence that this manifest itself as a linear, free-to-air TV channel seems at odds with the way media is moving and also with what RNZ Chair Richard Griffin and Chief Executive Paul Thompson have in mind. If RNZ+ is compromised because Curran wanted to shore-up support  for her TV channel, then that is a shame, especially at a time when RNZ is coming into its own as a broadcaster with a firm grip on what a media company needs to be in 2018 and beyond. 

Curran isn’t just the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media but the Minster of Government Digital Services and Associate Minister for ACC and Open Government (via a State Services portfolio).  

Open Government now becomes something of a joke under Curran at a time when we need it to be the very opposite. Digital Services is also a crucial portfolio. Curran has assembled a Digital Advisory panel that will be appointing a Chief Technology Officer. I want to be clear I am in no way questioning the integrity of that group, but those dealings must now also be handled with extra care and will be watched with a hawk eye by media and the Opposition.  

It was indeed a mistake for Hirschfeld to attempt to cover-up the meeting with Curran to her bosses for four months but as some have pointed out, it was Curran’s responsibility to ensure Thompson knew about the meeting before it took place. Whether it was just a ‘high level’ chat or an attempt to backchannel her RNZ+ agenda, the balance of power sat with the minister and Hirschfeld has paid a far bigger price than she. 

What’s important now is RNZ and the many other initiatives Curran is involved with don’t keep on paying the price for her mistake. Curran’s copybook may well be blotted but she presides over portfolios that are far too important for us to allow that stain to spread. If the Prime Minister can’t remove Curran, it’s incumbent on us not to allow the minister’s handling of this issue to take precedence over what is at stake. At the very least we can expect after RNZ’s handling of the issue this week any blot on its copybook should not last anywhere as long as it will on Curran’s.   

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