Comment

MediaRoom: Journalism for the public good

Don't let anyone tell you New Zealand journalism ignores its duty of disclosure and to hold the powerful to account. There have been three prominent issues this week which would not have been known to the public - let alone acted upon - had it not been for journalistic inquiry and no little professional and legal courage.

First was the revelation by the New Zealand Herald's Jared Savage and Phil Kitchin that the country's new deputy police commissioner, Wally Haumaha, was a peer of the group of policemen who raped one woman and were tried but acquitted of raping Louise Nicholas - and that when her allegations became public Haumaha downplayed what they did to her. He sailed through a State Services Commission appointment process, which included the police commissioner Mike Bush and was then recommended for his new job by Police Minister Stuart Nash and, pro forma, by the Prime Minister.

Nicholas was rightly horrified that a man who expressed support for the men found guilty of rape, and who downplayed her allegations against those same men, has been promoted within a police force that claims to have spent a decade reforming its attitudes towards women and its internal culture.

The Herald subsequently revealed Haumaha had been, for a time and in a manner only that party could manage, a New Zealand First candidate in Rotorua in the early 2000s. His elevation under a Labour-NZ First government carried its own comment. It certainly spoke of a deeply deficient process of background checks by the SSC and Commissioner, and by Stuart Nash himself.

An inquiry is now under way, overseen by a New Zealand First minister.

But none of this would have been known, debated or acted upon without the Herald's fine investigative reporting.

Second, the release of the Bazley inquiry report into law firm Russell McVeagh: The assaults and sexual misconduct - and the mistreatment of five young legal summer clerks and poorly mismanaged follow-up by a leading law practice - had been known by some and rumoured around Wellington for up to 18 months before this news site, Newsroom, published the allegations in February.

This was the result of detailed investigative work on a case with multi-dimensional sensitivities and with high degrees of legal risk from both those accused and by the law firm which had been muzzling other attempts to make the story public.

It was important for the interns, for former and current staff, for the law profession and for workplace gender issues and sexual harassment and misconduct. It is fair to say the Russell McVeagh case is the first major example here of the global #metoo phenomenon and movement for change.

Without the Newsroom story by Melanie Reid and Sasha Borissenko, and the courage of a small number of people who knew what had occurred -  it is unlikely this important case and all its ramifications and profession-wide changes would have come to light.

The third example this week came on the same day as the Bazley report came out. It was the court appearance in Auckland of a 20-year-old man on charges of indecent assault arising from the Labour Party's summer youth camp near Waihi in February. Four young people were allegedly assaulted at an alcohol-fuelled party, the Labour officials did not assist them to go the police, did not advise their parents, did not provide early counselling, did not advise the Prime Minister who had spoken at the event. Essentially nothing substantive was done about it.

Newsroom revealed the allegations in March. An independent review is now being conducted into the party's culture and practices. The police acted. The alleged molester is now before the court. None of this, however, would have occurred, for the victims, party or the broader public had it not been for Newsroom's story - and the courage of informants - which thrust it into the spotlight. 

There have been other good examples of investigative journalism this year - For Newshub, Patrick Gower's exposure of the Crown agency Southern Response using private investigators Thompson & Clark to spy on people in dispute over earthquake claims has led to a broad inquiry into how government departments including the Security Intelligence Service may have colluded with that investigation firm.

Stuff has committed senior journalists and resources to advancing the #metoo cause in following up reader experiences and exposing those harming others. RNZ's Morning Report has repeatedly uncovered issues such as Middlemore Hospital building decay and steel import concerns that had been kept secret.

It is true that in some news media, good high-protein work like this gets lost under a waterfall of high-sugar news of latest press release announcements, politicking, hot-take commentary, celebrity and entertainment news, spot news, crashes, crime, court, weather and anything that 'goes viral' on the internet.

But in the still waters beyond that waterfall, organisations like the Herald, Stuff, Radio New Zealand, the Hui, the Sunday current affairs show, Newsroom and specialist reporters like Gower and sites like Richard Harman's Politik.co.nz are doing powerful and at times courageous work for the public good.

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Spare a thought for Janet Wilson, the former television presenter and media trainer for National Party leaders, who was a PR advisor for Russell McVeagh throughout its sexual misconduct and culture crisis.

There were a few hiccups: in early statements and interviews the firm's leaders said things that turned out not to be so, and at times they painted their lack of candour as protecting the interests of the summer clerks. And after the news broke in March, Wilson's partner and former TV chief Bill Ralston retweeted others' views that might be construed as downplaying the value of the media coverage of the allegations or deflecting the behaviour onto other firms, other professions.

But Wilson was there until the end and whether at her urging or the steadfast integrity of Dame Margaret Bazley or both, the law firm agreed to one version of the report (not a public redacted version and a full, private report) - and for that report to be made public. Politicians and others were given a direct heads-up by Russell McVeagh figures, in broad terms, on the report's findings in advance of its release.

A media 'lock-up' in which journalists were given 90 minutes with the report at the firm's Wellington offices under embargo before it went public was a useful, if perhaps Budget-esque, initiative.

At the press conference with the Russell McVeagh chair Malcolm Crotty and partner Pip Greenwood "apologies flowed as the alcohol had", to quote John Campbell, "and two years later the buck stopped everywhere".  

In the end, with its behaviour and management and governance and leadership and reputation exposed for all to see, the Russell McVeagh people kept to their (Wilson's?) key messages and they seemed chagrined and contrite. It must have been a hell of a crisis communications and reputational management challenge for Wilson. And probably worth her fee.

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