When the story of teenage Facebook troll Tristan Barker was reported here earlier this month, I wasn't particularly surprised by most of it. The internet is full of young men with an empathy deficit and an exagerrated sense of self-justification. You just hope they'll grow out of it without anyone getting badly hurt.
But what seemed odd was the prominence of the angle that Barker is the son of onetime Split Enz drummer Michael Barker, who is hardly a household name, let alone, as subsequent stories had it, a rock star. It seemed a bit desperate.
Oddly, the Herald on Sunday's first report on the matter was bylined with the name of Jonathan Marshall, who now works for another newspaper company, News Ltd, as Network Investigations Editor (Media3 has asked whether the byline is accurate and how Marshall came to be reporting for his employer's competitor.)
It has been Marshall who has been pushing the rock-star angle. In this story, he suggested that Barker Snr's gig at Australian WOMAD with his band The Swamp Thing was under threat. In fact, WOMAD appears to never have had any intention of dumping the band, and instead referred fans to this ABC Mediawatch report:
It's worth your while watching the whole eyebrow-raising nine minutes, but the key point is that when the Today Tonight programme aired footage secretly shot by Marshall, who travelled to Rotorua to confront Tristan's parents, it implied that a damning quote -- one that appeared to bear out Marshall's contention that Michael Barker was irresponsibly enocuraging his son's vile behaviour -- came from Michael Barker. It didn't. The voice we heard uttering the words attributed to Barker is actually Jonathan Marshall's.
The programme's producer acknowledged the editing "oversight", although I don't think "oversight" is really the word he was after.
So, here we have two hallmarks of Marshall's more controversial work: contested quotes and troubled teens.
Back in 2004, 18 year-old Marshall was one of four teenage boys given P by a North Shore teacher. That became a story after a videotape was stolen by one of the boys and handed to Sunday Star Times reporter, Amie Richardson, a friend of Marshall's. The prosecutor in a subsequent court case said Richardson had "acted improperly, criminally and dishonestly". But the teacher went down.
In 2011, media law expert Steven Price reported that one of his students claimed to have been asked by Marshall to pose as a friend of the 18 year-old who made a sexual assault complaint against former MP Darren Hughes, to dishonestly obtain his class timetable. Marshall's editor at the Sunday Star Times, David Kemeys, insisted the claim was "pure fantasy". Price stood by his student.
The Star Times also stood by Marshall that year -- to the extent of threatening legal action -- when commentator Brian Edwards produced affidavits claiming Marshall had fabricated a sensational and damning quote from the wife of Hanover founder Mark Hotchin.
Edwards has weighed back in on the latest Marshall controversy, describing the reporter as an "odious non-journalist". Whaleoil swiftly responded, hinting at some knowledge that Marshall would be vindicated:
Whisperers out of Australia tell me that we are going to see a release of the full tape, with all the Barker comments in all their glory…and a mea culpa from Today Tonight about a crap editing job.
I hope the whisperers are of better quality than the ones who told Cameron Slater this:
Word has it that Russell Brown is itching to run one up him, hard.
Firstly, eew. Secondly, I haven't said that to anyone, for the simple reason that it's actually not my intention. I don't actually agree with Edwards that Marshall is a "non-journalist". Indeed, after his early escapades, he actually knuckled down and learned his trade as a reporter. He gets a lot of stories, stories that people talk about. That's why he keeps getting employed.
But what Marshall is prepared to do in pursuit of a story is often less admirable. We got a look close-up his style once at a recording of Media7, when a student who had had a few drinks before attending a recording at TVNZ had to be asked to leave.
Marshall, along as a guest, sprang up and leapt into the confrontation, immediately aggravating matters. He was so involved in the conversation that I thought he must know the young man who was being kicked out. He didn't. He'd just got a sniff of a story and he was high on that.
Afterwards, he followed the group the young man was with to a restaurant and (they told us) tried to get them to buy into quotes he suggested about irresponsible provision of alcohol and even (the drunk student was Indian) racism.
They were taken aback and so were we, especially when he called a TVNZ spokesperson that evening. I suspect the hook for the story was that then-CEO Rick Ellis had featured in stories about drinking among students at King's College, where his son was a student. We felt a bit like we were collateral damage. Eventually, only the Waikato Times ran Marshall's story, which contained a quote which none of the students we spoke to said they'd given.
Reporters, the real dirt-diggers, can be very unorthodox people. That unorthodoxy is sometimes how they get results. Marshall's covert recording of shock-jock Alan Jones' revolting comments about Julia Gillard and her father was hugely controversial in Australia, but I think it was a legitmate coup. Jones had no right to say what he said to a room full of people and have it kept secret.
But Marshall has talked before of his own experiences as an ADHD youth, and I wonder if that's still part of the makeup of the man. He's highly intelligent, but really doesn't seem to know where the boundaries are, or, sometimes, who he's hurting. In that sense, he's not unlike the teenage troll at the centre of his current story.
Anyway, we'll be looking at this in more detail on Media3 this week, in the context of the current mood for stronger media regulation. Our panel is David Herkt (who probably knows Marshall as well as anyone), Brian Edwards and Cameron 'Whaleoil' Slater.
If you'd like to come along to the Media3 recording, we'll need you to come to the Villa Dalmacija, 10 New North Road, Auckland, at 5.30pm tomorrow.