Bryce Edwards: The Media’s fraught role in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal

Bryce Edwards: The Media’s fraught role in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal

The media has played a central role in this year’s huge scandal involving MP Jami-Lee Ross. Journalists, broadcasters, and political commentators have reported on the scandal – including choosing to withhold some information – and interpreted it all. Inevitably questions have been asked about how well the media have performed, and the decisions they have made.

I raised some of these issues in my column yesterday, Lifting the bedsheets on MPs’ private lives. Further questions include how much the media have influenced the scandal themselves, in terms of what they’ve decided to report and not report, and the role some in the media have played in their interactions with the political players.

What to report and what to leave hidden?

The media face plenty of tough decisions about what to report in politics, especially in incredibly fraught cases such as the Jami-Lee Ross scandal. One of the biggest issues the media have been grappling with is whether to name the National MP who was reported to be in a three-year relationship with Ross, and who anonymously made allegations about his behaviour in Melanie Reid and Cass Mason’s report, Jami-Lee Ross: Four women speak out. The same National MP was also reported to have sent Ross the infamous abusive text message in which she told him, “You deserve to die.”

Journalists and newsrooms around the country continue to debate whether the National MP should continue to have her name kept from the public. Veteran political journalist, Richard Harman raised this on the Kiwi Journalists Association Facebook page: “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?”

What follows is a fascinating debate amongst journalists, with varying views. Journalist, Graham Adams argues in favour of disclosure and is worth quoting at length: “My view is that she should be named (and I think most of the media are waiting for someone else to do it first!). Until she is named, it casts suspicion on other female MPs who are not involved, which is unfair. Also, the female MP whose name has been frequently mentioned on social media represents a conservative electorate, is socially conservative herself and has promoted family values from her first days in Parliament. I think the public should always been told when an MP’s publicly professed values are at sharp variance to their own private behaviour. That is an obligation the media should fulfil. Furthermore, she has no right to privacy when she has anonymously and publicly shamed Jami-Lee Ross in the Newsroom piece by Melanie Reid. She’s an MP and a highly educated professional whose actions should be held to account. If she had any courage, she would come clean herself.”

Adams then wrote in more detail about the whole issue, suggesting the media, and parliamentary press gallery in particular, can be accused of a “cover-up” by not reporting on the anonymous National MP – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga: Questions around cover-ups continue.

He also raises the issue of whether the media is being inconsistent, and is going easy on the National MP because she is powerful. The comparison is made with the media choosing in 2013 to publish the identity of the woman who had an affair with then then mayor of Auckland, Len Brown: “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.”

The Southland Times also favours disclosure of the woman’s name. In the editorial, ‘Moving on’ is not acceptable, the newspaper argues that the MP is a “hypocrite” for not abiding by National’s core value of “Personal Responsibility”. The paper raises whether the women’s abusive text to Ross “could be a breach of the Harmful Digital Communication Act”, and whether she therefore can “really stay in her role as an MP”. The newspaper elaborates on this issue in second editorial, Another issue arises from the Ross case.

The Listener’s Jane Clifton discusses how gender issues also come into the debate: “Until now, the line in the sand has been the hypocrisy test. Outside the old News of the World wilds, the journalistic orthodoxy has always been that such personal indiscretions as boozing or illicit affairs go unreported unless the public figure concerned is guilty of obvious double-standards. #MeToo shifted the public interest sand line to: was there an imbalance of power, and/or abuse?” – see: Why you should never say ‘now I’ve seen everything’ in politics.

On Facebook Graham Adams takes the view that it’s actually her gender that is protecting her from being outed: “I imagine that if gender roles had been reversed and a man had sent a similar text to the female MP that included personal abuse (including calling her fat and sweaty) and telling her that she ‘deserved to die’, he would have been outed just as soon as his identity had been established. Not many journalists would have hesitated. And he would have been widely and viciously pilloried for it. The MP has successfully cast herself as a victim despite her rank in society as an MP and a successful professional, which is presumably why journalists are hesitant to name her.”

The Press Gallery’s role in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal

As the above debate shows, some are questions about the role of the Press Gallery journalists in how the whole scandal has been covered, and what that says about their proximately to those in power. Certainly, there has always been a complex and symbiotic relationship between journalists and politicians – they rely on each other for the communication of politics to the public. Journalists need MPs to provide them with content for stories, and MPs need the media to distribute their news and views.

But does that mean journalists end up being compromised or complicit in the political agendas of the various political actors? Chris Trotter definitely thinks so – see his Otago Daily Times column Too close for comfort. Here’s Trotter’s main question: “What is the electorate supposed to do if those entrusted with reporting the actions of the principal political players, themselves become important actors in the drama?”

RNZ’s Jo Moir, has been very frank about her use of politician sources, when reflecting on her major scoop in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal, when she published the details of the anonymous texts that were sent to Simon Bridges and Speaker Trevor Mallard, asking for the leak inquiry to be called off. Moir discusses this in the RNZ Focus on Politics programme for 24 August – listen here: Focus on Politics for 24 August 2018.

Moir explains: “Sources are a journalist’s lifeline. And I would probably say even more so when it comes to Parliament and the Press Gallery. I mean every great story that comes out of this place is usually from some sort of a relationship between a Press Gallery reporter and a politician. The amount of information that you get “off the record” in this environment is huge. And that is all based on trust. So, the reality is that journalists go to the grave with that information. And you are just never going to make it in the game really if you don’t.”

Of course, Moir then unintentionally became part of Ross’ downfall, as the National Party’s PWC investigation report focused on the phone calls and texts that Ross had made to Moir in concluding that he was the likely leaker of Bridges’ travel expenditure details. In response to this allegation, Ross tweeted that his communications with Moir were because she was a “friend”.

Some have suggested journalists have relationships with MPs that go further than friendship. As Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins has said, the revelations about Ross’ sexual relationships “sent shock waves through Parliament. Labour MPs were just as rocked as their National counterparts. There was a feeling that a line in New Zealand politics had finally been crossed. And a fear that there may be no going back. Parliament is never short of gossip about affairs between MPs, between MPs and their staffers – and, yes, journalists as well” – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga – dirty, ugly, nasty politics with no end in sight.


This raises the question of whether political journalists choose not to report on certain issues in order to protect their own privacy, or that of their colleagues. Ross, himself, has hinted at this in some of his statements.

Blogger Pete George thinks relationships need to be disclosed: “I think that the media should name the MP who is at the centre of this issue, but if they do they should also look at the wider issue of relationships and sex among MPs, journalists and staff. Journalists should disclose personal relationships if it relates to politicians they are reporting on and giving their opinions on. There are issues with journalists straying more and more into political activist roles, so the public has a right to know who may be influencing their opinions and their choice of stories and headlines…When they don’t want to go near the sex and relationship thing it suggests they could have secrets of their own they don’t want disclosed. This is not a good situation for the supposedly without favour fearless fourth estate to be in.”

The media’s fraught use of anonymous sources

The media quite rightly relies on anonymous sources to carry out its investigations into issues that are in the public interest. Leaks are made to journalists, and “off the record” briefings are important in establishing important stories about politics and power. A number of the stories published about the Jami-Lee Ross scandal have relied on secret sources. Most notable, were Melanie Reid’s Newsroom story with the allegations about Ross’ treatment of women, and the RNZ Checkpoint broadcast of details about the abusive text sent to him by the National MP he allegedly had an affair with.

The use of such sources has helped the public understand what’s been going on behind the scenes. But that doesn’t mean that it is without ethical problems and questions. One of the journalists with the most experience of this, and who has deeply considered the ethics, is Nicky Hager – see his useful piece: Dirty Politics, 2018.

Hager sees some parallels with the journalistic practices he covered in his 2014 book, where the media ends up running the agendas of political actors: “This is reminiscent of the way that Cameron Slater used to hand out scoops attacking opposition politicians to willing journalists (the scoops often having been quietly prepared in John Key’s office).”

But he warns against the media doing the bidding of various political players: “I believe media should not take politically motivated attacks (Slater called them ‘hits’) from political people and allow their identities and motives to remain hidden from the public. Otherwise the journalists are just being used.”

Ironically, perhaps, Cameron Slater has some similar views in terms of the various items published about the Ross scandal. He argues that senior National Party figures were involved in providing the material to the media that exposed allegations about Ross. Slater has three lengthy blog posts that go into detail about what he sees as the evidence that National orchestrated the leaks about their errant MP – see: Another hit job from David Fisher which I must correct and tell the truth that the National party fails toDid Michelle Boag just tell a porkie on national television? and Farrar follows my lead and calls for a truce, pity is the party appears to want to destroy itself.

Of course, he’s not the only one who thinks that National had its fingerprints on the “hitjob” against Ross. Heather du Plessis-Allan explained the Newsroom story like this: “The party is in full attack-Jami-Lee mode. Why do you think at least four women have suddenly come forward accusing Ross of everything from bullying to ‘brutal sex’?”

Finally, for one of the best investigations into the media and political machinations behind the Jami-Lee Ross scandal, see Selwyn Manning’s article, National Affairs and the Public Interest.