Hard News by Russell Brown

Surging across the spectrum of news

Media coverage of the Corngate select committee inquiry continues to fascinate - and to offer the Opposition a priceless platform from which to embarrass the government. In Parliament yesterday National's Nick Smith yesterday tabled a December 2000 memo to the Prime Minister from her policy advisor Ruth Wilkie, which, he said proved that Helen Clark was "donkey deep" in the deliberations over the possible GM release.

Well, no it doesn't - the receipt of an update from her advisory group isn't impossible to square with Clark's depiction of herself as "chairman of the board" - but it does indicate she was taking an interest.

Smith is correct to say that documents further suggest that the officials were toying with what Steve Price dubbed "legislation by press release" in proposing a tolerance limit that breached the zero-tolerance standard of the HSNO Act, an idea that was eventually abandoned. (Interestingly, he seemed to say that National would have looked favourably on the idea of amending the act to allow a tolerance standard.) He also had a case for saying that the act's precautionary principle was not followed in the light of this passage:

The outcome of the work over the last week is that we cannot say we have reliably discovered contamination in the corn currently planted, but equally we cannot say that we have completely discounted it.

But the main political problem is that the memo was among a handful of relevant documents not included in the pre-election document dump in July last year, when the Prime Minister had promised that everything would be released.

The decision has been owned up to by the chief executive of the Prime Minister's Department, Mark Prebble, who has cited a convention that such policy advice is recognised as confidential under the Official Information Act. Prebble presumably exercised this convention under the last National government, but it's a grey area, as this useful 1998 address by Dr Judith Aitken indicates. Whether the PM's promise ought to have overridden the convention is open to question.

Would the prompt release of this memo have changed the result of the election, as Smith is claiming? Extremely unlikely. There was equivalent material in the big document dump, and the public had extracted whatever revenge it was going to by polling day. Smith can claim with hindsight that he would have been in like a robber's dog, but the idea that it would have made anyone switch their vote to National, Act or New Zealand First is hard to sustain.

National Radio has made more of the story than other media, and both on yesterday's Checkpoint and today's Morning Report - where Smith, Prebble and the reporter Catherine Ryan appeared in succession after the 7am news - done an excellent job of explaining it. One News led with it last night, with a good report by Fran Mold. But TV3's coverage continues to be, um, odd.

Having wildly overplayed the Hardacre story on Monday and been obliged to retract on Tuesday, 3 News held this one back till the second segment and twice said that the documents had been "released" yesterday. No, they were tabled yesterday. They were released last November (to Steven Price, for his Metro story, I'm assuming) and Prebble discussed them in the select committee last week. (NB: see the PPS below.)

Continuing a theme of spectacular ill-timing for the government, the select committee inquiry is taking place just as the GM issue heats up again as the end of the government's GM moratorium approaches. It's worth noting that this debate is going on in many other places, including Brazil, where the congress seems wildly split, southern Africa, where a team of African scientists has just come back with a report concluding that GM foods "pose no immediate risk to humans and animals", and even the Vatican, where the Pope is apparently gearing up to give the green light on biotechnology in agriculture. British Nobel Prize laureate Timothy Hunt has declared that we eat manipulated DNA virtually every time we put something in our mouths anyway, it's just that we only object when a scientist, rather than some other element of nature, is doing the manipulating. Scientists at the University of Bonn have isolated the gene which enables plants to survive droughts.

In the new Biotech Unlimited, Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council provides a welcome break from the neo-religious certainties that seem to be crowding the anti-GM side of the argument (and the letters columns of the Herald), by arguing, simply, that whatever benefits GM technology adds to farm production will be ruined by massive resistance to trade. But Lynne Hartley says our strict regulation is already killing biotech research in New Zealand.

Oh, and from the main part of the magazine, here's my reading of the local loop unbundling debate.

Anyway, moving to the other end of the news spectrum, I confess, I hadn't considered the possibility that NZ Tabloid's "exclusive star confession" from Flipside presenter Mike Puru, of which I made jaunty mention on Monday, was entirely invented, but that, it appears, is the case.

I understand that Mike was approached at the TV awards by Jonathan Marshall, and told Marshall he didn't want to speak to him. He received a subsequent call the following night and again told Marshall to go away. Whatever was said, Mike clearly didn't believe he was giving an interview, let alone an "exclusive".

The joke's over now, I think. This is getting sick. And perhaps it's time for the Sunday Star Times to explain its relationship with Herkt and Marshall, and why they get vetting rights on the stories the paper writes about them. The Star Times' editors might also care to comment on the persistent bar-talk that they asked Marshall to go out and fetch whatever dirt might be available on Bill Ralston.

Marshall himself (in an email rather ironically titled "factual error") tells me had had no involvement whatsoever in getting the dodgy teacher tapes to the Star Times. That's not what I was told via a reasonable source, but it's what he says, so ...

Meanwhile, in the mad, mad world of Bush administration economics, the IMF has slammed the American government over its out-of-control budget deficit in the same week as word has been relayed that the White House will seek tens of billions of dollars more to support its out-of-control operation in Iraq. This is also, of course, the week when the number of American soldiers killed since "major combat" was concluded exceeded the number who died in the actual war. Bummer.

PS: David Herkt has been in touch with the following:

I was with Jonathan at the AFTA Awards when the conversation took place. Mike did not tell Jonathan to go away. He approached Jonathan. He told Jonathan that he was going out with Jodie Rimmer. Jonathan said 'Oh, come on, Puru". Jonathan also introduced Mike to me.

The phone call(s) between Puru and JM were clearly done in an interview context. Puru was TOLD it was an interview. He OK'd the quotes. We had several other quotes but he would not let us use them. One we could use but didn't was about his 'bad boy reputation'. Ho hum.

Sunday Star Times? Well you'd best deal with them on the matter. I can tell you JM did NOT provide the tape.

Whatever. I wish I hadn't mentioned it, even in jest, because it all seems so damn dumb and inconsequential. Perhaps we should replace the GM moratorium with a JM moratorium.

PPS:This just in from Steven Price:

Yep, you're right to say that the Wilkie protest letter (and Prebble's response) and the two memos to the PM were released to me in November. I wrote about them all in the February Metro article. I feel like I'm living in some weird parallel universe. (What's more, in my weird parallel universe, Marian Hobbs just admitted to the select committee that she hasn't read Hager's book, nor did she even read the relevant documents assembled by the officials when Hager's book hit the shops -- because she didn't want to corrupt her memory of what happened. Please beam me up.)