11 Sep 2016

Mock shock over fake coke joke

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 11 September 2016

News media here and overseas couldn't resist a yarn linking a government minister with drugs and a primary school, but it wasn't really news.

news.com.au headline reporting the minister's denial.

news.com.au gave pride of place to the story - but got the minister's name wrong. Photo: screenshot

"New Zealand’s health minister was forced to deny he pretended to take cocaine at a primary school fundraiser.  Yes! That’s a real sentence." 

That was how the the website of Rupert Murdoch's News Limited empire in Australia teased a story that piqued the interest of media here and overseas. 

Indeed, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman attended a Las Vegas-themed fundraiser for his children's' primary school last weekend. Icing sugar - or something similar - was apparently used as a prop simulating a pile of cocaine. 

When asked if he had ingested the fake cocaine, or pretended to - Dr Coleman said he wasn't even in the same room.

"'Course I didn't," he replied, "I didn't even know it was there, until I heard it was in the media yesterday. This is such a beat-up."

A denial goes viral

Guardian list of most popular news stories.

Guardian online readers have a strong interest in our politicians. Photo: screenshot

The story ran on RNZ's midday news and rnz.co.nz. Hundreds of readers commented on stuff.co.nz. A story by the Dunedin-based correspondent for the UK’s Guardian sat seventh on its list of most popular world news stories on Tuesday night, just below another story of hers involving a comment by the PM concerning drugs.

The UK’s notorious tabloid The Sun wasn’t interested in that one - but it was interested in Northcote primary’s fundraiser.

"Outrage as parents served fake cocaine along with mirrors and razor blades at a PRIMARY SCHOOL’S Las Vegas-themed fundraising party," its online headline screamed.

What outrage? No-one quoted in these stories had expressed any concern about what actually happened at the school or the conduct of Dr Coleman.

On his Radio Live Drive show host Duncan Garner followed up with an excruciating six-minute interview.

 What icing sugar looks like: Guardian

What icing sugar looks like Photo: screenshot

"Were there strippers?" he asked hopefully?

No strippers, no cocaine - just icing sugar in another room the minister didn’t even see.

Undeterred, Garner used his imagination.

"If nurses took fake cocaine to a party in a hospital boardroom, would you - as health minister - take a dim view of that?" he asked. 

Dr Coleman said that was a hypothetical question and a sense of perspective was needed. But perspective had long since disappeared  over the horizon. 

How did this end up in the news?

As with so many short-lived stories these days, it was scraped from social media.

Scruffy photos posted on Facebook were recycled by the media online, captioned generically as “supplied”.

The razor wasn’t a characteristic cut-throat job that would make the scene look realistic. It appears to be a pink-handled Ladyshave - not really fit for for this particular purpose.

The exception was the Guardian which didn't harvest the Facebook shots. Instead it used a stock shot of icing sugar in a kitchen sieve, for those who might have a hard time picturing a pile of powder. 

On TV One's Seven Sharp that night, Mike Hosking agreed that it was "a beat-up".

Mike Hosking's opinion on TVNZ

Mike Hosking's opinion on TVNZ Photo: SCREENSHOT

The fuss was prompted by what he called hand-wringing from “a growing clique of wowsers” upset by what was just a bit of fun at a fundraiser.

However, it was the media who made it a story.

In an era where online clicks are currency, a story combining drugs, schools, kids and a government minister is a sure fire hit - even if there’s nothing in it. 

That’s why this story appeared on some of the biggest news media websites around the world where no-one would know or care about the school or Dr Coleman.

Hours after Dr Coleman's denials appeared worldwide, the story was history.

There was no follow-through simply because there was never anything to follow-up. Sometimes the media are a right bunch of charlies.