25 Jun 2017

Start-up scores a scoop and a scalp

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 25 June 2017

Established news media and the parliamentary press gallery were scooped by a recent online start-up on the biggest political scandal of election year so far.

Glenys Dickson talking to Newsroom's Melanie Reid.

Glenys Dickson talking to Newsroom's Melanie Reid. Photo: screenshot / Newsroom


Back in March, the New Zealand Herald and the ODT revealed that MP Todd Barclay declined to talk to police about allegations he recorded his electorate staff member Glenys Dickson. National Party officers in the Clutha Southland electorate had also quit too citing various grievances.


But Prime Minister Bill English told reporters the matter had been resolved. Todd Barclay denied wrongdoing and the police ended the investigation.


It was time to move on, the PM said, and Todd Barclay had been selected again as a National's candidate for the upcoming election.


But the story burst back into life last Tuesday when online news website Newsroom.co.nz published an investigation by Melanie Reid.


Along with an exclusive interview with Glenys Dickson, it included written pieces and a timeline with the catchy title “The File of Denial.”


The full half-hour video is as compelling - and as televisual - as anything Melanie Reid created for the TV current affairs shows she worked on for over 25 years: 60 Minutes, Campbell Live and 20/20.


Glenys Dickson talked about the covert recording, pressure put on her and even anonymous threats by phone.


What Melanie Reid termed “the debacle in the deep south” reverberated further north in Wellington when she revealed the PM knew all about Todd’s trouble and hush money paid from the public purse.


That was revealed by text messages redacted from the the police report, but acquired by Melanie Reid.


News travels

On TVNZ’s Breakfast former National Party president Michelle Boag said the mainstream media seemed reluctant to talk about who broke the story.

“This was a story that came out of a subscriber website. All the other media with all the resources had all that time to get the story and none of them did. Very few have acknowledged the fact that it’s not their story,” she said.


The rest of the news media certainly weighed in full noise on the biggest political scandal of election year so far.


"This is not about an employment dispute. It is now about the Prime Minister, trust and credibility," said The Herald’s political editor Audrey Young.


Later, news websites broke out the breaking news banners when the PM changed his tune and said he had told the police that Todd Barclay had told him about the recording during the investigation.


"Bill English should have thrown his MP under the bus," said Fairfax political editor Tracey Watkins.


On The Spinoff, University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis reckoned claims of pressure put on Glenys Dickson to withdraw her complaint could even lead to the reopening of the police investigation.  


PM Bill English was a wanted man in the corridors of power last Tuesday.

PM Bill English was a wanted man in the corridors of power last Tuesday. Photo: screenshot


Todd Barclay was still clinging on to his job when Newshub’s political editor Patrick Gower cut loose live on TV3's The Project.


"The only thing those people in the Beehive care about is themselves," he said.


“Good on you for keeping them honest,” replied co-host Jesse Mulligan.  

But the irony was that it could have been TV3's scoop.


Melanie Reid produced investigative journalism for TV3 for years, until the management there began a scorched earth policy for current affairs in 2015.


That included culling Campbell Live at 7pm, so now the closest thing TV3 has during the week is the host-heavy but news-lite The Project, where the kind of reporting Melanie Read produces has no place.


Coincidentally, one of those applauding the demise of Campbell Live in 2015 was MP Todd Barclay.


Photo: screenshot


The following year, the TV3 news boss Mark Jennings left MediaWorks and teamed up with former New Zealand Herald editor Tim Murphy to create Newsroom for public interest journalism. Melanie Reid was the first journalist to come on board.   


Newsroom published a second exclusive on Tuesday afternoon which also appeared in full on stuff.co.nz, reproduced by permission. It carried the bylines of Newsroom’s Melanie Reid and Sam Sachdeva, who formerly reported for stuff.co.nz from the press gallery in Parliament.


Beltway or bust 


At this point, political journalists were at pains to point out how serious and politically damaging the story had become. 


"Let me count the ways the Barclay scandal matters," said Audrey Young for the Herald, above a handy 5-point summary.

But one colleague at NZME was going out of his way to say the opposite. 

Mike Hosking's verdict on TVNZ's Seven Sharp.

Mike Hosking's verdict on TVNZ's Seven Sharp. Photo: screenshot


Mike Hosking told Newstalk ZB listeners it was "just a beltway issue."

After Todd Barclay's announcement he wouldn't contest his seat at the election after all, Mike Hosking told TVNZ Seven Sharp viewers it was still just a beltway issue.

"No-one cares about politics, lives and breath this stuff, the rest of us get on with our lives," he said on Newstalk ZB on the next day. 

Mike Hosking seemed very determined to tell his viewers and listeners this was something they wouldn’t be interested in.

When Bill English fronted up on TV3's The Nation this weekend he wouldn't concede Todd Barclay made any covert recordings at all. When asked if he'd been economical with the truth for more than a year on this matter, he said he was anxious not to compromise the police investigation or the confidentiality agreement reached after the employment dispute involving Glenys Dickson.

But for the media, that goes beyond what Todd Barclay did or didn't do. That agreement was secured with money from public purse through the Leader's Fund.   

The New Zealand Herald investigative reporter Matt Nippert put it like this on Twitter this weekend:

Glenys Dickson also told Newsroom’s Melanie Reid a member of the National Party's board warned her about consequences of pursuing her grievances, and that she and her family members had been threatened by phone.

The National Party's former Clutha Southland chair Stuart Davie didn't want to answer when Melanie Reid asked if he had been threatened too.

But it is a question that needs an answer now that Newsroom has exposed things politicians in Southland and in Wellington wanted to hide.