14 Feb 2016

Tinker, tailor, soldier . . . journalist?

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 14 February 2016

An article about a local controversy in a local magazine puzzled readers in Nelson recently - until the local paper swiftly solved 'the mystery of the spy's byline'. 

picture of the controversial article in Nelson's Wild Tomato magazine.

The article in Nelson's local magazine that sparked scrutiny. Photo: screenshot

One of the big issues in Nelson these days is the Southern Link, a proposed road to get heavy traffic off Rocks Road on the waterfront. Many people like that idea, but many don’t want more traffic going through the neighbourhood of Victory and elsewhere in south Nelson. 

Local MP Nick Smith, who's also the environment minister, pledged to do his best to make the Southern Link happen if he was re-elected in 2014, and a group called Progress Nelson Tasman was formed to promote the project in May last year. 

Several city councillors have criticised Mr Smith for championing the project. Just last Wednesday, one councillor hit back in The Nelson Mail at Mr Smith’s claims that councillors were playing politics with the issue. 

Read all about it 

Clearly, there was plenty for the the local monthly magazine Wild Tomato to get stuck into. A story about the Southern Link is flagged on the cover of the latest issue with this bold heading:

Why we must turn Rocks Road into a place we can be proud of. 

The story's writer Peter Gilham includes the mayor of Nelson's frustration about the stalled Southern Link, Wellington’s former mayor singing the praises of waterfront boulevards and MP Nick Smith is quoted as saying: “If we don’t change, we die”. 

Peter Gilham canvassed opposition to the Southern Link too, and mentioned that the environment court had ruled against it ten years ago. 

But one question remained for Wild Tomato readers in Nelson: who is Peter Gilham? No-one in Nelson had heard of him. 

Naughty nom-de-plume

The magazine’s editor admitted to The Nelson Mail the article was in fact written by a former journalist at the paper, Karen Goodger, who left in 2012 to work as electorate manager for MP Nick Smith. 

The Nelson Mail also said Karen Goodger left that job soon after the 2014 election, but maintained “a working relationship" with the MP. In May last year, the Nelson Mail had also reported she was a founder member of pro-Southern Link group Progress Nelson Tasman.

Today, Karen Goodger’s profile on online professional network Linked In tells prospective Tasman clients for her PR services: "I know how the region operates, I know how the media operates". 

So why was the name 'Peter Gilham' attached to her article in Wild Tomato?

The magazine’s editor Jack Martin told The Nelson Mail he had made the substitution because Karen Goodger didn't want her name alongside it. 

"I imagine Karen wanted to keep her head below the parapet . . . to avoid it being shot off by the local tall poppy hunting fraternity," he told the paper.

Why so shy?

Karen Goodger responded with a statement saying she was often a "ghost writer" for others.

"I requested my name be left off the article." the statement said. "This isn't an unusual thing for journalists to do in that kind of situation." 

In fact it’s highly unusual - especially if the author also belongs to groups with a vested interest and has worked for a a local MP who's also a cabinet minister. 

Interestingly, Karen Goodger has pondered media best practice since she left journalism for PR. 

In 2013, she wrote an opinion piece for The Nelson Mail in which she said the media have an important role to play as a responsible, independent voice:

Those of us with busy lives want a thorough and regular local news service that can be relied on for fair, balanced and uncompromised reporting. Editors need to show brave leadership while holding tight to core values.

"Core values" would surely include being upfront about what you write for publications. And if editors really want to use fake bylines to disguise the author, it's probably best not to choose the name of a top spy from top-selling yarn like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy