Fiery hearing fails to put RNZ bungle to bed

Questions of party bias were aimed at RNZ's board chair as executives were grilled in select committee over a scandal that still has legs. Thomas Coughlan had tickets to the action. 

Tempers flared in the Economic Development, Science and Innovation select committee on Thursday as RNZ executives again faced questions about the organisation’s independence.

They came to apologise for inadvertently misleading the committee, but there was no air of forgiveness in the room.  And they left with a demand for a voicemail that may string out the pain for Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran. 

RNZ Chair Richard Griffin and CEO Paul Thompson were appearing before the committee to correct the record following their previous appearance in March, when they had defended Head of Content Carol Hirschfeld over what they believed was an unplanned and incidental meeting with Curran.

It has since emerged the meeting was scheduled in advance and Hirschfeld had misled her employers.

Griffin and Thompson made their embarrassment clear when National MP Melissa Lee - who had pursued the meeting during the first select committee - noted how her questions had been repeatedly rebuffed by the pair.

“We both feel very foolish,” said Griffin.

National's Melissa Lee demands a supplementary question. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

It soon became clear MPs had more on their minds than simply correcting the record. Lee asked pointed questions of Griffin and Thompson about the number of meetings RNZ staff had with Curran, implying that there could be more scandals waiting in the wings. 

But Lee’s questioning came to nothing. Thompson answered that he knew of one staff member who had been contacted by the minister about a career opportunity. The offer was turned down and the staff member alerted the company. 

Labour members of the committee got in on the action too. Paul Eagle questioned Griffin as to why he had informed Lee of Hirschfeld’s resignation before a press release was circulated around RNZ staff and the public. 

Eagle asked when Griffin first contacted Lee. Seeing Eagle’s questions were going to lead to a suggestion of impropriety, Griffin’s response was terse. 

He said that he first contacted Lee “three minutes prior to the time we put out a press release, as a matter of courtesy, which may be foreign to some of those in politics”.

He then checked himself.

“I’m sorry that’s unnecessary,” he said. 

Eagle then asked if the phone call to Lee was courtesy or "collusion". 

“That’s a ridiculous question with due respect,” said Griffin. “It's a matter of obvious courtesy, the suggestion that it is somehow…” Griffin paused, apparently frustrated, “let’s not go any further, it gets out of control”.

But Labour continued to push, bringing up Griffin’s background as a former press secretary to National Prime Minister Jim Bolger and suggesting that this might be evidence of a party bias. Griffin said the suggestion was “nonsense”.

Labour’s Deborah Russell responded to Griffin’s increasingly frustrated answers, “Mr. Griffin, we’ve asked for courtesy, can we have some from you too please”. 

There was no reprieve. Lee then brought up the matter of Curran’s voice message to Thompson last Thursday. There had been a suggestion that Curran had encouraged Griffin and Thompson to avoid appearing before the committee in person to avoid further embarrassment. 

Griffin was asked how he interpreted the message.

“The implication was that it would be far more satisfactory to all concerned if we just put a letter on the table and left it at that,” he said. 

This appears to differ slightly from Curran’s version of events. She made it clear the call included no advice, but suggested if Griffin could not appear before the committee last Thursday, it might be better to send a letter. 

Griffin refused to play the voice message to the committee, but accepted a request form to deliver it to them. Depending on what the message contains, the Curran-Hirschfeld saga could have more time to run.

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