Hard News by Russell Brown


The sphere of influence

In his withering portrait of Judith Collins in this month's Metro magazine, Steve Braunias relates the story of her work in achieving a reconciliation between two of her most loyal media pups, Cameron Slater and Rachel Glucina. The minister proudly confirms the tale: "They get on well now. Isn't that great?"

Glucina, who was the subject of a long hate campaign from Slater (he called her "the pork chop", among other things), rather spoils the story by describing Slater as "like a little boy" and Collins as "sort of a surrogate mother to him" in her account of events. Nonetheless, it's a tale that illustrates Collins as someone who likes to win loyalty through the brokering of influence.

Slater testifies to Braunias that Collins is "Loyal in actions and deeds. She's one of those people who will ring you and actually doesn't want anything: she's just ringing to have a chat as a friend."

"She's a mother hen slash friend," says Glucina. "She's like a fixer."

Of herself, Collins says: "I like to bring people together."

She is pleased to have closed a rupture in her circle and not particularly bothered that her two followers seem determined to continue behaving like dreadful people. It's a testament to her charm. And make no mistake, the minister can be very charming.

Collins seems similarly untroubled by the mountain of constitutional questions growing around her assistance to Oravida, the company where her husband is a director and which itself seems to constitute a key network of influence for the National Party. How could her kindness be seen in such a way? People are so rude.

I suspect that's why her responses to questions over Oravida have increasingly been emotional rather than formal. When Labour Grant Robertson did his job in Opposition he was "attacking my family". But that, she said, had only "humanised me". I think she really believes this.

But Minister Collins' encounter with 3 News' Brooke Sabin yesterday was next-level. In defending the calls made to senior police on behalf of Donghua Liu by Maurice Williamson -- just helping a friend who'd helped a friend -- she depicted the controversy as no more than a media concoction. In doing so she not only undermined the police (as Justice Minister!) but the Prime Minister, who had decided it was a problem serious enough to require Williamson's resignation.

And then she really lost the plot. Her claim that TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford had sought her help to get her husband into police college (Bradford, the daughter of activist Sue Bradford, was concerned her family connections might be unhelpful) was, as she admitted when challenged, false. Bradford never sought the minister's intervention and her husband did not, in the end, apply to join the police. And yet Collins actively insisted on naming her, on camera.

There are several problems here. One is that she gave a false account of the conversation. Another is that she vindictively exposed a private conversation in the first place -- and Slater, loyally, fired out threatening tweets about other journalists who might not like the same treatment. If she wanted to make the confidences of ministers fair game for angry gallery reporters, that was a pretty good way to go about it.

The interview was presaged by series of tweets in which Collins repeatedly called Bradford a liar, linked her to the Green Party and demanded an apology for Bradford's fairly modest crime of mistakenly saying that Collins hadn't attended the National Party regional conference over the weekend. She was apparently set on vengeance by the time she could get in front of a camera.

The third thing is that this starts to look like a pattern. The authors of this year's World Press Freedom Index made this observation:

In New Zealand, the interception of reporter Jon Stephenson’s metadata by the military, which thought his articles were overly critical, and the release of journalist Andrea Vance’s phone records to a leak investigation is indicative of growing government mistrust of the media and their watchdog role.

To those cases, you can add the misguided, vindictive decision to try and prosecute cameraman Bradley Ambrose over the "teapot tapes" (which saw search warrants served on newsrooms in the midst of an election campaign) and the disgraceful subborning of the Minister of Education's office in a campaign to shut out Maori Television's Native Affairs from the Kohanga Reo National Trust story.

This government has a smooth, effective relationship with friendly media. Slater and several more established figures receive personal briefings, often from John Key himself. They are flattered, invited into the circle of influence, benevolently given the good oil.

This isn't new in politics. Helen Clark was quite capable of slipping you a tip as a way of saying hello at official functions. But the reach and precision of the current government's system is remarkable. And the lashing out at those who don't dwell in the sphere of influence is becoming creepy and alarming.

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