Hard News by Russell Brown

Mo' Fish

If journalists who allowed themselves to be bought food and drink by interested parties were deemed guilty of corruption, there wouldn't be many of us left in the trade. Although I am by no means a champion luncher, I am occasionally fed and watered by someone whose ultimate purpose is to get in my ear about something.

But if I were to, say, freely and repeatedly dine on the account of someone who was the subject of an ongoing investigative report - and to change my angle on that person or entity over the time that I did it, my peers might well look at me sideways.

There has been a bit of tosh said and written over the past few days over the Winston Peters dinner dispute, but the above is the nub of the issue. Peters said he had dined but once on the hospitality of Peter Simunovich - whose company was at the centre of a select committee inquiry into alleged official corruption that had largely been prompted by Peters himself - and then only as recompense for having been previously overcharged.

Simunovich, who initially said Peters' supper was a free meal for a "mate" soon subscribed to the MP's telling of it. But One News and Holmes were then able to produce sworn affidavits from three present or former managers at Simunovich's Kermadec restaurant, which in sum said that Peters had dined repeatedly there, with and without Peter Simunovich. The former manager who appeared on the Holmes show said that it was understood that Peter's tab would always go to Simunovich. It seems inevitable that somebody will have to sort out exactly what did happen. I thought the Herald's editorial on Saturday basically got it right:

If Mr Peters made just one visit and had, indeed, previously been overcharged, he can be accused of nothing more than a lack of wisdom. If, however, he had several "free" meals at Kermadec, as has been alleged, then his explanation would be inadequate. In effect, the strength of claims of impropriety increase directly in relation to the number of "free" dinners at the restaurant. If, as is alleged, Mr Peters had several meals, he will have to offer a more detailed and more persuasive response.

Meanwhile, the National Party, whose MP David Carter made a good deal of the running last week, appears already to be shooting itself in the foot, with its deputy leader Gerry Brownlee talking down the affair even as Carter called for a privileges committee investigation.

National's problem is that its slim hopes of regaining the Treasury benches rest in part on an accommodation with Peters and his party. It hardly needs Peters promising a "free for all" if the matter goes to an investigation. Labour, meanwhile, can sit serenely on the sidelines.

The dish on the fish has also largely obscured National's hard new tack on Maori, foreshore and Treaty issues - which might not entirely be a bad thing. Don Brash entered the Opposition leader's job with a great deal to say about economic strategy - and virtually nothing to say about Treaty issues. Now, suddenly, an alleged threat to non-Maori access to beaches is to be the central feature of Brash's state of the nation speech. As Jonathan Milne pointed out in the Star Times, it's a hard case to make.

More to the point, it's hardly characteristic of the intellectual, business-focused leadership Brash was supposed to provide. Research indicates that the government is more vulnerable on Maori issues than on anything to do with the economy - especially in the sector of the vote that is actually up for grabs. But Brash wasn't meant to be given research-driven populism, was he?

The same sort of research, of course, has a bearing on the actions of the government. It seems highly likely that Helen Clark will front up at Waitangi this year - not only because she needs to be seen to front, but because any protest activity from unhappy Maori will make National's claim that Pakeha are being sold out under the foreshore proposal that much harder for the wider electorate to buy. National is, meanwhile, probably helping Labour by clearly positioning itself as a demonstrably worse alternative in Maori eyes. It's a funny old world.

Meanwhile, David Cohen is in full-bore passive-aggressive mode with his latest NBR column, which takes the form of a mock letter to Ahmed Zaoui. Cohen rather distantly allows that:

If the reports about the cack-handed bureaucratic treatment you've been receiving over the 14 months since you first arrived as an undocumented alien at Auckland Airport are to be believed, then the journalists who have brought them to the public's attention deserve a round of applause.

I would have thought that much of the cack-handedness was now a matter of record. Leaving aside Zaoui himself, the furore has generated a highly useful debate about us, our laws and how they are administered. The most recent posting to Gordon Campbell's weblog makes a strong argument that the SIS Inspector-General Laurie Greig has simply not acted appropriately in this, and perhaps other, cases. I don't agree with Campbell's view of the world sometimes, but his work on this story has been tremendous.

Cohen's point - when he's not patronising Deborah Manning - is that Zaoui stood for election under the banner of the FIS, an immoderate but popular Islamist movement that surprisingly swept first local then a first round of national elections in 1990 and 1991, at which point the army stepped in and cancelled the second round of the elections and began a purge on the FIS.

The FIS platform - as you might expect from a party that was only just over two years old - was not entirely uniform, but appeared to harden after the elections were cancelled and included the imposition of decidedly non-liberal sharia law. Not liberal, not pluralistic, not very nice. On the other hand, it seems to have been a movement bound to shatter in government as it did almost immediately in political exile. We don't know what would have happened had democratic elections been allowed, but it presumably wouldn't have been as awful as the civil war that followed.

Cohen might have sounded a useful reminder about liberal values and where they lie, but he refuses to distinguish between the FIS and the armed splinter group the GIA, which committed grotesque atrocities, especially after the military government rejected a 1995 peace plan. This official Canadian commentary, to take one example, treats the two as distinct and mutually hostile entities. For Cohen to declare that Zaoui was "directly" involved in GIA atrocities is spectacularly disingenuous.

It's a liberal quandary - is democracy paramount when it threatens pluralism? Perhaps some of us fret more about religious extremism in the West than we do in the East - but, well, that's our tribe. Zaoui himself has set out to learn Maori in prison. That hardly seems to be the action of anti-pluralist bigot. I have already read enough to convince me that he was not a terrorist.

Steven Price did an excellent commentary for Mediawatch late last year, looking at the way media portrayals of Zaoui have evolved as the facts have emerged. The initial impulse was, shall we say, not supportive.

Anyway, the FIS has just put up another plan to halt Algeria's numbing violence and urged that a "sovereign constituent assembly be set up to draft a constitution for a new republic" in Algeria. We'll see how that goes.

Miscellany: what was Marian Hobbs thinking when she visited the sex toy factory? And didn't Lindsay Perigo look embarrassed as he followed her around?

My Listener column this week on the Telecommunications' Commissioner's amazing about-face.

And Wide Area News on the Mediawatch site looks at the pre-Hutton inquiry Panorama lashing of the BBC.