Hard News by Russell Brown

30

Never let the facts ...

If you read anything in the Sunday papers yesterday, it should have been David Fisher's tremendous story about the battle between Affco and ACC in Wairoa. It's the story of corporate welshing, hired PR, tame politicians, pig-ignorant radio blatherers and one kid's wrecked life.

In April 2003, sitting in the carpark of the Affco meat processing plant in Wairoa during his dinner break, 18 year-old Joel Storey was shot by a Mongrel Mob member in a passing car. His spine was damaged and and his right kidney was mashed. The friend had gang connections, but Storey did not -- although Fisher's story describes how the young man's alleged gang connections took on the status of fact in the whirl of lobbying, fostered outrage and pig-ignorant talkback blather that followed.

Affco is liable for $1 million towards the lifetime support of the employee shot in its carpark. That might seem odd, but it is the very clear implication of the contract Affco (and its private insurer) signed with ACC to become an Accredited Employer. As an Accredited Employer, Affco took responsibility for injuries on its property, up to the value of $1 million (Storey's lifetime support will come in at 10 times that, with the balance paid by ACC) -- in exchange for paying virtually no standard employer levies.

But rather than honour its contract, Affco hired top-flight spin (Richard Griffin) and got National's Anne Tolley on the case, whereupon the facts started to go west.

For some reason, Fisher's story isn't online, but the droppings of the tale are everywhere.

Here's Anne Tolley saying "it is unfair that AFFCO is being slapped with a $1 million bill for a gang shoot-out outside its premises." But it wasn't outside its premises, it was Affco property, and the kid was at work. And it wasn't a "shoot-out" either, which would imply, y'know, some sort of reciprocal fire between people in gangs.

Here's Tolley again in Parliament, asking "Why does the Minister continue to claim that the 2003 gang shooting of Mr Storey is work-related when the man was not working but on a break outside AFFCO’s staffroom, outside the security fence, and outside the employer’s control?"

According to Fisher's story, there was no security fence. It was constructed after the shooting, and Tolley should really read up before declaring that break-time isn't work-related.

Here's Ralston, not letting the facts get in the way of a good rant, and DPF doing his bit for the team.

Meanwhile, Affco saw fit to introduce the allegation that Storey had left the premises to smoke marijuana. There was no evidence whatsoever for this claim. (And, indeed, given the kid's acknowledged dedication to the skilled job, it seems quite unlikely.)

The radio, as you might expect, was a bunfight. Until the kid's family were able to reach him and ask him to desist, Michael Laws loudly and repeatedly told his listeners that Storey was a gang member. On Radio NZ's The Panel, that haven of not-very-well-informed indignation, Gary McCormick (isn't it sad what he's become?) harangued ACC minister Ruth Dyson.

No one seemed inclined to acknowledge that Affco had done a deal that saved it millions of dollars in levies -- and then, when it didn't fancy the outcome, after having originally accepted the claim (and assured Storey's mother it would cover his costs), tried to relitigate. Griffin pronounced thus to the Herald:

A spokesman for Affco, Richard Griffin, said ACC might think it had a strong case legally, but its position set a strange precedent for employers.

"There has always been a difference between law and common sense, and in this case the law flies in the face of common sense," he said.

"We think from a business perspective it's very, very weird."

Or very, very inconvenient. If Affco didn't know what it was signing then it doesn't need pricey spin doctors, it needs new lawyers. Or is the law just something the little people worry about? Reality check: insurance is about cost and risk, and Affco made a choice.

The strength of Fisher's story is that it's multi-faceted. He doesn't shy from the media's own role in the affair or from the political dimensions (Affco is owned by the Talley family, whose principals, according to The Hollow Men, offered the National Party a $1 million donation in 2004), but keeps it grounded in Wairoa. The sad, ironic note of conclusion is that Joel Storey now does wear a gang colour -- the red of the Mongrel Mob whose bullet wrecked his life.

Fisher starts soon as the new staff writer at The Listener. I think he's the magazine's best catch in a long time.

Meanwhile, the inevitable press release-driven faux outrage fills the silly-season papers. Poneke, who warned us about this, notes Simon Power's absurd releases about the purchases of LCD TVs to replace old ones in prisons (have you actually tried buying a CRT set?) and, wait for it, the costumes worn by two Corrections staff at a Christmas party. Even DPF thought Power needed to calm down a bit. It's hard to believe he was seen as potential Prime Minister material.

And finally, the person for whom there is never an inappropriate moment to get her picture in the paper. Christine Rankin weighed in on the current investigation into the death of an 11 week-old baby with a statement that she managed to get run verbatim in most media. The TVNZ version:

For the Sake Of Our Children Trust spokeswoman Christine Rankin says it is clear current approaches to the problem have not made a blind bit of difference.

She says it proves the anti-smacking law is a complete failure and the message just is not getting through to those who need it most.

Rankin says we need to start responding strongly to drug and alcohol abuse.

The Newstalk ZB/Herald online version:

For the Sake Of Our Children Trust spokeswoman Christine Rankin says it is clear current approaches to the problem have not made a blind bit of difference. She says it proves the anti-smacking law is a complete failure and the message just is not getting through to those who need it most.

Ms Rankin says we need to start responding strongly to drug and alcohol abuse.

Really? Whatever has happened here, given that the parents of the dead child are Muslim immigrants, it seems unlikely that drugs and alcohol are a factor. Indeed, given that very little is known about the case yet, it would seem only decent to refrain from wading in and shouting your usual talking points. But that wouldn't be Christine Rankin, would it?

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I'm away enjoying the mysteries of Waiheke Island for a week from tomorrow, so you won't be hearing from me for the duration (although I'll pop something else up before I go).

Also, I have a giveaway: a Heineken Open prize pack, including "a double pass to the Heineken Open, a Heineken 15 pack and tasty cuisine and perfectly poured Heineken in the Heineken Hotel after the game." I'm a little late on this, so click reply, put "Heineken Open" in the subject line and tell me who the top seed is. I'll draw it this afternoon. UPDATE: Comp closed. The winner, as selected with the help of a random alphabet generator, is Rob Wallace.

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