Bryce Edwards: Should Clare Curran go?

Bryce Edwards: Should Clare Curran go?

From some angles, it seems like a comparatively trivial and pedantic controversy, but New Zealand’s reputation for integrity in the political system is just too important to be tarnished in the way that the RNZ-Curran scandal is doing. Far from being a “storm in a coffee cup”, it encompasses some huge issues, including the independence of the media, the ability of state entities to self-govern, and the executive to make decisions in a proper way. All of that is under challenge due to the way Clare Curran has created this shambles with RNZ.

Overall, there’s just too much murkiness, and too many bad decisions and conflicts of interest. A consensus is building that Clare Curran either has to be able to credibly explain what has occurred or step down.

The most important questions and challenges that need to be cleared up by the Minister are put by National Party blogger David Farrar in his must-read blog post, Questions and answers on Curran and Hirschfeld.

Farrar makes the case that a state-owned media organisation such as RNZ needs to have total editorial independence, and that this can be seen as compromised when RNZ’s head of news – the person responsible for political coverage – has a private meeting with the minister responsible for broadcasting. He argues this becomes even more sensitive given Labour’s current plans for increasing RNZ’s budget. Such meetings, in which there were no officials present, create conflicts of interest.

Farrar’s questions include: “Why did Curran only use initials for Hirschfeld in her ministerial diary?”, and when the Minister became aware Hirschfeld was publicly misrepresenting the nature of the meeting, “Why did Curran’s office only contact Radio NZ, but not correct the public record?”

If this all seems like partisanship from the right, then it’s well worth reading leftwing columnist Gordon Campbell’s blog post, On Clare Curran’s dim future. It is, if anything, even harsher on the minister, putting forward a case for Curran’s sacking.

Campbell suggests that in her arrangements with Hirschfeld, Curran was “improperly” initiating “a tactical encounter” designed to bypass RNZ’s leadership in order to get her way about developments at the broadcaster, and “If so, that kind of thing is surely a sackable offence.”

Curran has simply been too murky and disingenuous in dealing with the whole issue, especially after her mistakes became obvious: “At the time Curran did not publicly set the record straight, but – as mentioned – did so privately by alerting the RNZ leadership. (Ironically, Curran is also the Minister of Open Government.) Did Curran really clarify the nature of the meeting as soon as she possible could, as PM Jacinda Ardern has claimed? The public, at least, have no reason to think so. They were kept in the dark. Full and frank are really not the first words that come to mind about Curran’s responses.” He also adds, that when Curran attempted to correct the record on what has happened, it “was too little, too late – and it smacked of Curran trying to cover her own tracks.”

Campbell argues that the RNZ management will now have little trust in their minister, and “At best, it is hard to see how Curran can work with Thompson and Griffin in future”. What’s more, the public will have little faith in future funding decisions for RNZ.

There is another must-read account today of the Curran scandal – from business journalist Hamish Rutherford, who asks: Why no calls for Clare Curran, now Minister of Secret Meetings, to resign? Rutherford – like Campbell and many others – suggests Curran was going through back channels essentially to obtain unofficial allies within RNZ to help further her goals. Rutherford says, “If so, Curran should be sacked immediately. Even attempting to form a direct ‘informal’ relationship with Hirschfeld appears improper.”

While all of this might “fail the ‘average voter’ test” in not seeming like a big deal, Rutherford disagrees strongly, saying the whole situation lacks integrity, especially for the Minister tasked with opening up government to greater transparency: “New Zealand needs to focus on open government to assure itself that it deserves to be seen as corruption free. But Curran is now the Minister of Secret Meetings, the Minister of Astoria and the Minister of Costing a Respected Journalist Her Job. She is in no position to drive more open government.”

Rutherford also argues that Curran is unlikely to be sacked, simply because it would “create a precedent against which other ministers might well fail”. But he says, “If Jacinda Ardern is determined not to sack her, she cannot possibly escape the fact that a plank of her Government – to be more transparent than National – is utterly comic while Curran is its figurehead.”

And today’s New Zealand Herald editorial also suggests the government needs to lift its standards, although, while it says Curran has made her government “look amateurish and clumsy”, it does not consider her actions a “sacking offence” – see: Broadcaster goes but minister survives for now. The editorial reiterates how crucial RNZ’s political independence is: “a news medium financed entirely by the state has to be careful to keep its distance from those who control its rations”.

In determining whether Curran should stay or go, some are pointing to whether she has been in breach of the Cabinet Manual in her meeting arrangements with Hirschfeld, a state servant. Richard Harman discusses this in his column, Curran may have breached Cabinet manual, and he concludes “that the obligation was on Curran to ensure that RNZ CEO, Paul Thompson, knew in advance of the meeting. Apparently, he did not.”

Harman points out that Curran will be appearing on Sunday’s Q+A programme to defend herself. But the much more important event will be next week’s Select Committee appearance by RNZ’s executives, where they will put right their unwittingly incorrect statements to the committee. It may be here that Curran’s survival or departure is essentially determined. The RNZ account of what has occurred will need to marry with Curran’s, or she might be expected to depart as Minister.

It is also difficult for Curran to argue she was naïve and didn’t know the Cabinet Manual rules. As Nick Grant outlines in the NBR today, Curran seemed to be an expert in the manual when she targeted former Maori Party minister Te Ururoa Flavell – see: Curran more Machiavelli than muddler, claims former foe (paywalled). According to Flavell, in 2015, “Curran was quick to suggest that I was taking an opportunity to influence the editorial position and indeed the appointment of the Maori Television CEO” when he met with TV boss. And, “She knows the manual because she read it to me and tried to imply I had breached certain protocols.”

Media commentator John Drinnan, who originally published concerns about the Astoria meeting between Curran and Hirschfeld, has written about what all this means for plans to extend RNZ’s activities into a television channel, arguing “Labour should consider abandoning its broadcasting policy, or the minister” – see: Can Radio New Zealand Trust Labour?

Drinnan says the whole scandal has tarnished RNZ’s reputation, raising further questions about its neutrality: “The incident has damaged the state broadcaster, which has long tried to overcome the overblown claims that it was biased in favour of the Left.”

In terms of explaining what has gone on within RNZ, and Curran’s fraught agenda to establish a new public broadcasting channel, see Mark Jennings’ very good article, Coffee meeting leaves RNZ+ in a mess.

But perhaps what Clare Curran was trying to establish justifies her unorthodox approach. Chris Trotter writes today about parallels with the First Labour Government’s attempt to bring in a public broadcaster that would counter the more conservative private media – see: The Politics of Public Service Broadcasting.

Finally, for how cartoonists see the issue, see my blog post, Cartoons about the scandal of RNZ, Carol Hirschfeld and Clare Curran.