Hard News by Russell Brown

This unusual affair

Hands up who knew before this week that former police commissioner Peter Doone was still pursuing legal action over a story run by the Sunday Star Times five years ago? It was revealed yesterday that the action against the paper had been dropped - in favour of a new action, concerning the same story, against a prominent New Zealander: Helen Clark.

This unusual affair began when a car driven by Doone's partner (and now wife) was stopped by police on election night, 1999, because she was driving with her lights off. A story from the time offers a sequence of events.

The original Sunday Star Times story is, naturally enough, not available online, but this January 17 2000 Herald story reports his threat to sue after its publication (you'll have to ignore the June dateline on these stories - the Herald has a date problem in its archive):

Mr Doone said yesterday that allegations in the Sunday Star-Times that the constable tried to breath-test Ms Johnstone were untrue and defamatory.

"The allegations that the commissioner told the constable that breath-testing his partner 'won't be necessary' have never been raised, are false and also defamatory," a statement from his office said.

The Star Times subsequently retracted the claim and apologised. This wasn't enough to head off Doone's legal action, which has now been abandoned as a result of his discovery that Helen Clark was involved in the story.

The Herald also ran a report on January 22 that led thus:

A Police Complaints Authority report to Prime Minister Helen Clark contests evidence given by Police Commissioner Peter Doone, Government sources say.

The Weekend Herald also understands that the evidence of an off-duty police officer provides a crucial eyewitness account of the late-night incident when Mr Doone and his partner were stopped by a police patrol.

There's no indication that the evidence mentioned there included the "that won't be necessary" phrase. And if it ever did appear in inquiry evidence, the phrase did not appear in the published report. But on the basis of what the report did say - notably that Doone's actions on the night were "undesirable" - a January 26 Herald editorial was scathing:

As long as a month ago, Police Commissioner Peter Doone should have stepped down. It was apparent then that, whatever the outcome of the Police Complaints Authority inquiry into his role in a late-night police stop in Wellington, his position had become untenable. A demoralised and embarrassed police force needed a new face at the top. As December turned to January, it was increasingly obvious that Mr Doone would find no white knight among the ranks of the new Government. The commissioner was not so much damned by faint praise; he was forsaken. Signals from the Government suggested he had lost the confidence of the cabinet and should either step down or be sacked.

It reflects little credit on Mr Doone that it has taken him so long to accept the inevitable. Already badly wounded by being ultimately responsible for the Incis debacle, the disorganised restructuring of the force and the police's inability effectively to counter minor crime, he could hardly have contemplated survival. His action during the police stop has, unsurprisingly, been found to have been "undesirable." Prudence should have dictated that when his partner's car was stopped, Mr Doone insisted that she be breath-tested. Instead, she was not even spoken to after the commissioner engaged a young constable in conversation.

By most measures of accountability, Mr Doone should have tendered his resignation. Yet he continued to insist this was not an option. Faced with the prospect of being dismissed, he devoted his energy - and that of a Queen's Counsel - to securing the best possible deal. This put the Government in an invidious position. It, and the public, have long tired of golden handshakes. But outright removal would have left it vulnerable to financial compensation for unfair dismissal.

A day later, the paper reported the arrangements agreed for Doone's departure, under which he served out a final six months working on Maori crime reduction in the Prime Minister's Department. It was an arrangement that allowed him to work long enough to claim the full police pension, and it was that that was controversial at the time. Clark was slated not for knifing her top cop, but giving him a soft landing.

Clark at the time was already establishing a reputation of being far more accessible and forthcoming with journalists than the previous Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, had been. Was she, in fact, too open?

On the face of it, Doone's demise was a consequence not of the subsequently retracted Star Times story, but the official Police Complaints Authority report. The Star Times says Helen Clark was not its source for the original claim, but confirmed it when approached by the paper. She will apparently "vigorously defend" the action, and it appears that she will need to show she believed what she said to be true at the time. Doone will presumably be required to demonstrate that the Star Times story caused the damage to his career, which may be rather difficult. The intention of Star Times publish Fairfax to claim costs on Doone's abandoned case adds further sizzle.

There's some excellent writing on the racks this week. In The Listener, David Young's story on gay parents may well be the best thing on the topic I've ever read, and Philip Matthews' lowdown on The Da Vinci Code is typically adept. Philip would make a great religious-affairs blogger. In Metro, Bevan Rapson's story on the Green Party is a very good primer and Gilbert Wong's scary-future-of-Auckland cover story looks good too.

Some responses to Tuesday's Anzac blog. Craig Young was unsurprisingly unimpressed with the thoughts of Jim Hopkins:

Does the increasingly decrepit Mister James Hopkins not realise that lesbians and gay men have been in New Zealand's armed services for the last twelve years, and that they didn't ask for an exemption from the Human Rights Act 1993?

It does raise some interesting questions about what future military commemorations might be like. Given the Relationships Act, what will Elderly Master Hopkyns thinke if the day arrives when openly gay soldiers do die for this country in some future conflict? Would he begrudge their widowed partners survivor benefits in the name of his ridiculous twaddle about social engineering?

As for your comments about Christian symbolism - well, look at the 2001 census. NZ is an increasingly secular and multifaith society in today's open economy.

Matthew Andrew had some misgivings about the tone of proceedings:

One thing I noticed in your Anzac day post was the heavy sentiment that came through in a number of the articles that you referred to (not in your own writing). I have noticed this throughout the media coverage of Anzac day and of the comments of the general public. When I was at primary school in Australia (in the 80s) Anzac day was a reasonably solemn occasion, returned servicemen (and sometimes their descendants) would attend the dawn service, march and then go to the pub and drink ponies all afternoon with their former comrades. The focus was on all servicemen, and the largest number of marchers were fairly young (at the time) Vietnam vets and older aged WWII and Korea veterans.

Things seem to have changed, there seems to be a focus on school children saying what Gallipoli means to them and thousands of Australians and NZers going to Gallipoli and getting ridiculously over-emotional. That piece you quoted from the columnist who could hear the 'bullet ripping into the throat' etc etc, was ludicrous. Why has Anzac day gone from being a memorial to those in our countries who have fought, to being a national outpouring of sentiment, false sentiment mostly.

Does anyone really think that those who went and fought and died at Gallipoli (a handful in comparison to Anzacs who died on the western front) and other theatres in other wars would really want this sort of gnashing and wailing?

I thought Sunday did it well, a WWII veteran pilot who didn't attend dawn services and liked to keep himself to himself, but, who during WWII went through a lot and helped others survive it. Maybe the media should provide more coverage like that, rather than breathless "how emotional is it?" questions from studio anchors to reporters at Gallipoli celebrations where thousands of Australians and NZers (mostly) try and fool themselves into believing that they really can understand what an 18 year old went through when he disembarked on the beaches there under fire, and get teary and emotional and want to tell camera crews how teary and emotional they are about it. Don't get me wrong, I understand recognising and paying respect to the war dead, and I understand that sentiment can be a good thing, its just false sentiment in the pursuit of some sort of national identity I can't abide.

Philip on the other hand, offered a "pet theory on the extraordinary revival of the Anzac Day ritual":

It's a way of being proud to be a Pakeha New Zealander without reaching for either old imperialisms or post-80s Pakeha guilt.
This is not a 'redneck' attempt to exclude the tangata whenua, merely an acknowledgment that it's a bit rough when your official national day (ie, the 6th of February) is currently a ritual of abuse against the state and, it's implied, your kind. So popular national feeling searches for an alternative, and finds it in the story of our brave great uncles and grandfathers who left these shores to die for our freedom. People like us. Stories we all can relate to.

The nice thing is that all of the above is entirely consistent with working out the bi-cultural, multicultural package that we're currently putting together. It's not a reaction; more a heartfelt way of seeking togetherness.

And Neil Morrison shed light on a part of World War 2 that I certainly knew little about:

I've just come back from New Caledonia collecting material for a soon to be published cultural history that my partner is invloved with (very interesting to see the similarities and differences - colonial past etc - with NZ).

While there we spent some time at the National Archives and came across albums of photos from NZ soldiers stationed there during WW2. Many were from a place called Bourail, which we passed through on a number of occasions. Photos of young men and women at dances. Rugby games. Graves.

It had not really dawned on us that ANZAC Day had come and gone until we reached the airport for our return flight. There, there was a group of elderly NZ men, some with their partners, who had returned as part of the ANZAC comemorations. Some for the first time in 63 years. Many had been at Bourail.

Listening to their stories I was struck by how little I knew of that part of the war.