Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

18th May 2001 - Disquiet on the Westie Front

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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if I've said it once, I've said it, well, more than once. This is a government destined to meet grief less for what it does than what it says. And that principle reached its peak this week with the messy business over the hitherto secret settlement over the Prime Minister's unfortunate labeling of a manslaughterer as a murderer.

This peculiar West Auckland psychodrama - involving the past president of the Labour Party, a minister who fell from grace, the MP allegedly tasked with digging dirt on him and the man who claimed he was asked to do the digging - would make a decent sort of TV drama under the TVNZ charter. It has also prompted some dubious behaviour - not least from the New Zealand Herald.

A Herald editorial column demanded this week that the Prime Minister or her party must pay the bill for the defamation suit. It concludes with the pleasant fantasy that decent politicians only ever speak in the public interest.

But it is hard not to wonder in whose interest the editor of the Herald allows the his paper's flagship prose - and this often seems to be the case with the Thursday leader - play so fast and loose with the truth. The writer of the editorial claims that Dover Samuels "stepped down [from his post] at the Prime Minister's request".

If only he had, we might not be enduring the whole farrago. In fact, he did anything but, as a story by the Herald Political Staff on June 28 last year made quite clear. Unless the headline 'Defiant Samuels refuses to walk' means something other than it says, the Herald is accusing itself of lying.

The massaging of reality didn't stop there. The editorial noted that National MP Nick Smith is now seeking reimbursement for costs he incurred in settling a defamation case against him. He is welcome to try.

But Nick Smith did not, as the editorial claims, face a defamation suit, "over a remark he made as a minister".

He committed the alleged defamation in his weekly column for the Sunday News, back when National was in government. I presume he is independently paid for that, but regardless, it is very, very difficult to view the writing of a newspaper column - especially one as petty and silly as Smith's - as a ministerial duty. Is anybody claiming that George Hawkins' equally daft column, which appears opposite Smith's, has anything to do with his role as Minister of Police?

On the other hand, it is the Prime Minister's job to answer the questions of journalists in the course of her working day, and that is the context in which she uttered that careless word.

It was also as Prime Minister the she asked the Governor General to remove Samuels' ministerial warrant. Indeed, only the Prime Minister may do so. This is how she came to be answering the question - was a member of her caucus lying? - in the first place.

It is the Prime Minister who is ultimately responsible for the integrity of Cabinet. She had a Cabinetminister who proved to have lied in his candidate form and who could not promise her there were no more surprises lurking. Whatever the mud stirred up around it, it appears quite clear to me that the question was asked of a Prime Minister and the answer was given by a Prime Minister.

Now, just as John Yelash and Chris Carter had diametrically opposite stories on whether further information on Samuels' criminal past was either offered or sought, so the QCs retained by either side have wildly divergent views on who suggested that the their settlement be confidential.

It is not true that only the defendant ever requests secrecy. I have been sued for defamation once in my career and the reason I can't tell you the details is because the plaintiff requested that as part of the settlement. I find it highly probable here that both sides went into negotiation with the assumption that a settlement would be confidential.

This doesn't mean that that was right. If the public is to pay, the public must at least know what has happened and preferably how much it is paying. Trying to quietly slip this through is an abuse of public trust. Even in purely political terms, a little press release might have saved a lot of trouble down the line.

And what of the man in the middle of it all? John Yelash is a colourful and charismatic actor and raconteur, a pretty fair writer and a contemporary of James K. Baxter - he is also, according to people who know him, unpredictable, demanding and a little bit scary.

Clark's inadvertent description of him as a "murderer" is indeed inaccurate and unfair. In 1979 he was convicted of the manslaughter of a woman who seems to have been his de facto wife, in circumstances that today would probably not have secured a manslaughter conviction.

Somebody administered a nasty chemical - either as an aphrodisiac or to help with the comedown from heroin; Yelash has offered both explanations to journalists - that poisoned the woman. Yelash insists he was set up by his mate. At any rate, it was sordid and someone died but it was not murder.

Clark might have been on safer ground had she questioned his word as a man convicted of and imprisoned for numerous dishonesty offences. Or even as a man who does not always keep his word, on the basis that he once stood up a paying audience for his one-man play because he got the pip with the theatre company. But - let down again by her jugular instinct - she didn't.

Yelash also appears to be someone who enjoys attention. For all that he has peddled the line that he is "an old-age pensioner" subject to vile attack from the corridors of power, he has enthusiastically played host to camera crews ever since a draft of the settlement was mysteriously leaked to TV One News. Once again, it must be pointed out that the leak would have counted for nothing if there had been no secrecy in the first place.

The governing parties could certainly have done without the drama, given how antsy everyone is already in the run-up to Michael Cullen's second Budget. Cullen is finding his spending cap so tight he has moved to apply a law change on GST paid by foreign companies retrospectively - all the way back to 1986 - and the basis that that was how Parliament always meant the law to be applied. Bingo! An extra $200 million to make ministers' dreams come true!

Having handed the Opposition a big stick for want of $14 million to fill the hole in the Community Services Card, the government this week got in a weird muddle over paid parental leave.

A Sunday Star Times Mothers' Day lead story appeared to indicate that the full-sized 12 week version of PPL would be introduced next June. No it wouldn't, advised the Prime Minister from Korea, leaving the Alliance's Laila Harre a bit stranded.

Harre dutifully bit her lip, but the Alliance - which scored a freakish two per cent poll rating last week - will need to get some points on the board, especially with the Greens, free of the cares of actually being in government, prancing around objecting to everything that looks like it needs objecting to.

Certain National MPs, on the other hand, have just gone troppo. Their press releases appear to have been written for the Holmes show, which, come to think of it, they probably are. Nobody in the National Party can comment on anything at the moment without laying on as many cheap slogans as possible. I presume this is strategic, and it may well work, but Lord it makes them sound like morons.

Anyway, it's not been a bad week for the media, with quite the boldest and potentially the most explosive action that taken by Scoop - that's - which currently has an extraordinary story about the killing of Stephen Wallace.

In an entirely different vein, Steve Braunias's idea of having guests write his Listener column while he finishes off his book is looking quite inspired. Both his stand-ins so far have been men over 70 and this week's tale of life in a retirement village was quite exquisite. We hear very little of the lives of old people in our slam-bang ad-driven culture.

The Listener's cover story is, however, focused on more youthful pursuits - the taking and taking and taking of recreational drugs. And very good it is too. Reality is for people who can't handle yet another stupid drug story on TV.

Hail, also, to Metro magazine, whose 20th anniversary party I attended last night. I have praised Metro in the past and I have damned it. I am still appalled, years later, by the time the magazine managed to turn the death of my friend in a horrible accident into a back-page joke.

But the essay I wrote for Metro this year was one of the most rewarding jobs I've ever done. I like the new ad campaign: Imagine Auckland Without Metro. Indeed. Guess we just wait and see who the new editor is now.

A few of us bowled on up to the Hobson Street Lounge after the party - and it is surely one of the charms of New Zealand that a single group of drinkers can include both Deborah Coddington and Chris Trotter. Both of whom are very sporting about the occasional caning they get in Hard News. I was positively relieved, then, to learn last night that there's a crack at me in today's NBR, on account of my new National radio show. Christ, I might even have to buy a copy. But me, work as a Parliamentary press flack? No thankyou very bloody much.

And finally, big ups to Dooblong Tondra and their mates for so conveniently staging a party in Grey Lynn last Saturday. It was cool. But please, could there be some form of liquid on sale next time?

And fraternal greetings to the excited but confused group of young men who I encountered at 3.30am driving around in a taxi in fruitless search of said party. I pointed them 500 metres up the road, to the place with the bangin' bass and the bouncers outside, thus earning their considerable gratitude. You never know when you're going to get a hug in Auckland these days


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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