Simon Bridges and the National Party are not the only ones in the gun. The media is too.
Cover-ups — or allegations of them — leave a lingering stench that no amount of air-freshener can disguise. Simon Bridges may have tried to clear the air this week by testily telling journalists that he is moving on from Jami-Lee Ross and doesn’t want to talk about him any more but that seems much more like wishful thinking than acknowledging political reality.
Journalist Barry Soper reminded Bridges at a standup interview at Parliament when he said he had already answered similar questions a day earlier in a round of media interviews about Ross’s latest secret recording that it was the “press gallery” he was now talking to, “not some radio interviewer”.
The clear implication was that parliamentary journalists set the agenda about what gets asked, and certainly not the politician who is being interviewed.
If the parliamentary gallery thinks a question is worth pursuing then they will ask it until they get answers that satisfy them. In short, they are powerful people who politicians have to answer to and can’t easily avoid since they work in the same buildings.
Of course, there has been plenty for news hounds of every description to get their teeth into with Ross’s revelations, and most of them involve some sort of cover-up of important questions about our politics.
So far they have included how large political donations may be laundered so they no longer have to be declared — which Ross has alleged with regard to a $100,000 donation he says was made by a Chinese businessman and later split into smaller amounts so they would fall below the $15,000 level where the name and address of the donor must be disclosed.
This week it was the question of whether Bridges had been willing to cover up the allegations of Ross’s harassment of women by letting him take extended personal leave with nothing said about his behaviour — and compounding that sin by offering him the possibility of returning to Parliament in 2019, perhaps with a promotion.
Previously, a cover-up was alleged over how National Party president Peter Goodfellow had handled a complaint of bullying against Ross by a general election candidate, Katrina Bungard. After having given an anonymous account to Newsroom, Bungard came forward to say that she had complained in 2016 to Goodfellow, who facilitated a mediation meeting between the pair. Ross says they both signed a confidentiality agreement, which he described as a cover-up.
Apparently, Bungard’s complaint and the details of how it was handled were never passed on to Bridges either when he became leader and promoted Ross to his front bench. Some say that if the complaint had not been covered up internally, Ross’s behaviour may have been put under scrutiny much earlier.
But as the messy Jami-Lee Ross saga rolls on, accusations of cover-ups are not being levelled only at Bridges, Paula Bennett and the National Party. The news media — and particularly Parliament’s press gallery — have been accused of their own cover-up regarding the questions they are not asking in relation to the married National MP who apparently had a long-standing affair with Ross.
She was one of the four anonymous Newsroom complainants who made allegations about being bullied by Ross and she was later also reported to have sent Ross an abusive text that included the words, “You deserve to die.”
Richard Harman, who publishes the authoritative Politik newsletter, recently asked on the Kiwi Journalists Association Public Group Facebook page (which can be read by the public “in order to promote transparency, which as journalists we expect from others”) whether his fellow journalists thought he should publish her name.
Harman wrote: “Like most political journalists, I believe I know who that MP is… The inexorable pressure is now moving towards naming the MP. It’s a very difficult ethical issue. I certainly have emails from people on the left making the same allegation as Whaleoil — that the Press Gallery is party to a cover-up. But equally at what point does this simply become prurient gossip?”
Although nearly all the opinions in response (including mine) were in favour of naming her, Harman concluded that he would be guided by the aphorism that “What the public is interested in is not necessarily in the public interest” and that she should remain anonymous.
In fact, there are very good reasons in the public interest to name her, and the Facebook discussion canvassed most of them. Obviously, there is the old-fashioned test of hypocrisy. If the married MP is indeed the one who has been widely named on social media, she represents a conservative electorate, is a social conservative herself, and publicly espouses family values. At the very least, you might think, voters might like to be told who she is so they could decide whether to continue supporting her.
Another, possibly more powerful reason is the fact that her abusive text could have breached the Harmful Digital Communications Act — and in particular its provision against inciting or encouraging a person to harm themselves or commit suicide, given that she told Ross, “You deserve to die.”
Lawyer Graeme Edgeler wrote on Facebook in response to Harman’s question: “I’m not 100% certain that I agree the text encourages suicide, but it’s clearly arguable and if, in your assessment, it does, then the public interest is clear. It’s a serious offence (maximum 3 years’ imprisonment), and a conviction for sending it would see the MP out of Parliament. Would you sit on evidence an MP had assaulted a police officer (aggravated assault — 3 years max)? If not, then why this?”
A Stuff editorial also put the matter clearly: “Surely, however, those four words [“You deserve to die”], in themselves, are sufficient to require assessment against the laws of the land; specifically the Harmful Digital Communications Act. When more information is provided, as it must be, the appropriate consequences for the text sender — including whether she can stay in her role — then become a legitimate issue.”
It’s true that invective such as “F*** off and die!” is hardly unusual or remarkable speech for many people but one aim of the Harmful Digital Communications Act is to curb any kind of abuse online that is intended to cause the recipient “serious emotional distress”.
The events that led to Ross being sectioned to the mental health unit at Middlemore Hospital strongly suggest that he was seriously emotionally distressed. It's possible the MP's abusive text may have played a role in provoking that distress.
And the MP can hardly claim ignorance of that particular law, even if that were a legitimate defence. It was a National Party bill, which was passed in 2015, and one she must have voted for given that everyone in her caucus did.
It is also a law that is being regularly enforced, which pleased then Justice Minister Amy Adams, who shepherded the bill through Parliament against opposition from the likes of the Council for Civil Liberties.
In June 2016 Adams declared it a success because 38 prosecutions had been made in its first year.
In April 2017, alongside an updated list of how many more offenders had been charged and convicted, she emphasised that, “The law is also protecting those most vulnerable to online abuse by clamping down on bullies who encourage their victims to commit suicide, regardless of whether or not the victim attempts or is successful in taking their life.”
The total number of those convicted of offences under the act is now more than 100, with the majority being given community sentences while more than 20 offenders have been sent to jail.
It’s not as if political journalists don’t know who the MP is either if they want to ask questions. All the news organisations to which the abusive text was leaked must know, including RNZ. And Heather du Plessis-Allan and others who work for Newstalk ZB must also know because in an interview with Ross he named her (which was bleeped out).
The hypocrisy test can also be used to judge the media alongside the MP. Certainly, the argument that it is not in the public interest to name her stands in stark contrast to the media feeding frenzy that erupted in 2013 when news of a sexual liaison between Auckland mayor Len Brown and a junior council adviser was made public on the Whale Oil blog.
When Whale Oil published an affidavit by Brown’s mistress detailing their trysts (including very personal details of their sexual encounters), her name was redacted to preserve her privacy.
She naively thought her identity would be kept secret but within a day of the anonymous affidavit being published, she was named by the NZ Herald as Bevan Chuang. TVNZ reporters had been among the first to phone her and other media organisations followed.
It should be noted that Chuang was single, and a person of no particular influence in the community, and nor was it alleged she might have broken any laws.
The fact that five years later the media is so coy about naming a married National MP who anonymously gave Newsroom highly personal details about her relationship with another married National MP inevitably raises uncomfortable questions — including whether there is one rule for Parliament which has a dedicated press gallery that operates in a symbiotic relationship with politicians and another for councils which don’t.
A casual observer might conclude that when you’re a woman like Chuang who is an ambitious nobody you’re fair game but when you’re a woman like the National MP who is an ambitious somebody the media will protect you.
And that’s hardly a good way to inspire trust in the media’s impartiality or its willingness to upset powerful people.