Hard News by Russell Brown

Tabloid Tale

Yeah, I know I wasn't going to mention NZ Tabloid, but I have come into possession of some interesting emails, and no one else seems to have covered this, so this is how they got scammed …

Some of you will recall the brief flap over NZ Tabloid's story about the Prime Minister, in which it was claimed that she had dressed as a "drag king", and, after a few wines, had spoken in the presence of her staff of a childhood ambition for a sex-change. NZTabloid ran this as 'EXCLUSIVE: NEW ZEALAND POLITICAL SEX SHOCK HELEN'S SECRET DESIRE: A SEX CHANGE!'

Bizarrely, it was actually raised at a Prime Ministerial press conference, and even obliquely mentioned on National Radio on the same day. Understandably, it went no further. Which is just as well, because just like Helen Clark's press secretary Mike Munro told NZ Tabloid's David Herkt, it was "fiction … it never happened."

It started like this: Herkt, in response to his standard plea to hear from anyone who had "shagged a celebrity", received an email from a "Simon Jones", a former Parliamentary staffer, apparently, who related a tale that became NZ Tabloid's story. Herkt responded thus:

From an e-mail pile that included photos of John Banks in 1962, odd doings in a drug-dealer's penthouse, information on an actor's genitals, sundry complaints about a recently exposed fraudster, and something Judy Bailey said to someone else in a cafe, I have to say that yours was the best. Really liked the story. And we'll definitely be able to use it.

"Simon" responded with a bit more detail, and what appeared to be gossip about the sexuality of other MPs. But Herkt, who isn't stupid, had noticed some very obvious flaws in the original yarn. The most glaring of which was the repeated reference to Clark aide Heather Simpson as "Helen Simpson". He'd also been unable to turn up the name "Simon Jones" in any searches. Plus, he'd had a flat denial from Wellington, and discovered that Labour's caucus rooms, aren't on the floor that "Simon" claimed they were. Was there anything else that could corroborate the story, he asked? But:

We're probably going to go with the story anyway because we have a denial of sorts, and that itself is fun, but our handling of it will depend on you. Like are you real, Si?

"Simon" replied in a somewhat indignant tone, warning Herkt against asking around too much about his name ("I work in a govt consultancy here now"), adding some more spurious detail, and concluding:

My intention was simply to pass on some words that were heard and exchanged some time ago, which i thought would have been of interest to u. i have little interest in playin any games and fully respect if you delete the emails and story.

But the story ran pretty much as laid out in the original email to NZTabloid. And, subsequently, the group of people (they refer to themselves as "we") who claim responsibility for the scam have circulated copies of the correspondence, along with a covering letter explaining why they did what they did:

It was to test their response and reaction. To see if they would simply be tempted to publish anything without any credible checking or investigation. These crazy invented allegations and suggestions, which would obviously be preposterous to any journo with half a brain and an ounce of noodle, however thought that NZtabloid would bite. And they did.

A number of concerned people over recent weeks have watched with alarm at the type of trash and stories they are publishing, without a care for the people they're taking aim at. We are very disturbed by this. We said 'we'd try and catch NZtabloid out', see how "credible" their checking methods were, or if their motivation was simply to print anything for seeking publicity. NZtabloid didn't disappoint these expectations.

This exercise has displayed that NZtabloid was and is prepared to publish any material that:

- had no basis on fact
- is not proven nor checked
- was provided by an invented name with no parliamentary connection - wasn't properly investigated
- was challenged and laughed at from official authorities
- gave no right of reply nor balance
- the public publishing was aimed to be personally damaging or insulting - didn't care how the "victims" would be treated with such publication
- was hell-bent on putting out nonsense or anything for sheer sensational and shock value
- has consistently showed that they want to attack personal issues and sex-based innuendos
- breaches all codes of ethics and responsible media, publishing and journalism
- has treated the website as a sick 'game'

So that's it. Not my battle really, but entertaining nonetheless. (Lest it be thought I'm picking on them, I should say that I find the police decision to charge Jonathan Marshall, three other young men and a Sunday Star-Times reporter in connection with the video featuring the predatory high school teacher - whose behaviour would not have come to light without their actions - strange and counterproductive. What's going on there?)

Still, it makes a change from Paul Holmes, doesn't it? Speaking of which, is the man capable of making a simple apology without then moving on to his favourite topic - himself? Last night's second try at saying sorry morphed into a promo for his TV show.

He apologised for the Kofi Annan cracks, and the dumb one-loner about women journalists, but his description that same morning of Iraqis as "gypos" (speculating on US troop withdrawal he shrieked "then watch the gypos tear each other apart") has gone pretty much unremarked. Still, I'm for putting this one aside now, and waiting for the Broadcasting Standards complaints to be processed. I'm over it.

Excellent column by John Roughan in the Weekend Herald on hitting kids and that slightly dubious Unicef report. And I'm glad to discover I wasn't the only one who found the statement from Coral Burrows' family on the smacking issue quite creepy. Roughan quotes from the statement:

Most of us had parents who disciplined us by smacking when we needed it and today we respect, honour and thank them for it ...

To the Prime Minister and Government, we don't need or want your help or interference with smacking our children - when they are obedient little angels all the time ... we will stop smacking them.

Hmmm. There's no better means of justifying your actions than to set an impossible condition for stopping them, is there?

I'm also quite impressed with the Herald's P campaign. Like last night's Documentary New Zealand programme on the P epidemic, it is effective because it revolves around the stories of real people rather than politicians' tub-thumping.

The P problem has swelled even as methamphetamine has been reclassified to Class A, and as judges hand out increasingly stiff sentences (prison for small, first-offence cases involving supply). But, as I said what seems like ages ago, this will only be turned around at the community level. P can't be policed out of existence, but it can be made socially unacceptable.

As a psych-nurse friend of mine observed of smoked methamphetamine's addictive properties: "If you have a chink in your armour, it will find it." And, of course, you don't know if you have a chink until you try. Altogether now: not funny, not clever, and definitely not good …