It’s stating the obvious to say there’s a natural tension between the media and politicians. Whenever the subject comes up the tendency is to think in terms of central government – Robert Muldoon’s infamous 1983 ban on The Dominion, for example. But some of the most unpleasant outbreaks of hostility between politicians and the media occur at local government level and often take place largely out of the public view.
When I was news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail (as it was then) in the 1980s, Nelson had a belligerent, autocratic mayor named Peter Malone. Malone fiercely resented the fact that the Mail not only closely scrutinised Nelson City Council affairs but had the audacity to provide a platform for his opponents. It wasn’t enough for him that the paper’s coverage was fair and balanced (which it was); he resented being held accountable and wanted a compliant paper that would provide bland and uncritical coverage – in other words, do a PR job. He took issue with virtually every story that didn’t portray the council, and the mayoralty, in a good light. I never had to deal with Malone’s harangues but Rick Neville, the editor, frequently did; and even Rick, who was no softie (along with Richard Long, he had borne Muldoon’s wrath for publishing leaked Budget documents while working as a political reporter for the Dom), found him difficult. A weaker editor would have been intimidated by Malone’s aggression and intensity – which of course was his aim.
Many years later I was involved in a long-running stoush between the Evening Post and the mayor of Lower Hutt, John Terris. Terris was a very different personality from Peter Malone. In-your-face bullying was not his style. But he was a very shrewd and experienced politician who exerted tight control over his council and his city. I believe he greatly resented the fact that the one element he couldn’t control in Lower Hutt affairs was the Evening Post’s stroppy local reporter Hank Schouten, who infuriated Terris by constantly unearthing embarrassing stories that showed the council, and sometimes Terris himself, in a bad light. This of course was exactly what a good reporter is supposed to do, but it drove Terris to distraction and he waged a determined campaign to discredit Hank – with the aim, I believe, of having him removed or reassigned. Again, a timid editor might have been worn down by the constant pressure and nitpicking; but Sue Carty, then editor of the Post, was a lot tougher than she looked (as many people discovered, to their cost). As long as she was satisfied Hank was simply doing his job, Terris could huff and puff for all he was worth – it wouldn’t get him anywhere.
These are just two examples from my own experience of controlling mayors trying to exert pressure on local media. Doubtless there are many others that I don’t know about. In cities run by dominating mayors, the local paper – if it’s doing its job properly – may be the only effective check on their power. In such cases, conflict is almost inevitable.
Only occasionally do these tensions erupt in full public view – as is happening currently in Wanganui, where mayor Michael Laws is engaging in some industrial-strength unpleasantness against the Wanganui Chronicle. Of course Laws loves a scrap, and the more public the better; it’s meat and drink to him. He thrives on combat and is accustomed to browbeating opponents.
Laws has taken the blowtorch to the Chronicle because … well, I guess because he doesn’t like the way the Chronicle reports things. Local health politics and lingering ill-feeling over the great spelling issue (Wanganui or Whanganui?) seem to be factors, judging by press statements emanating from the mayoral office (which you can find simply by googling Michael Laws and Wanganui Chronicle, or by going to Laws’ self-adulatory website www.mayormichael.co.nz). He accuses the paper of editorial bias (now where I have heard that before?) and complains that its coverage of council issues over the past five years – in other words, since Laws became mayor – has been abysmal. This week he upped the heat by issuing an open letter in which he told the new editor, Ross Pringle, that he (Pringle) was the latest in a long line of “inconsequential” Chronicle editors. Such personal animus is a Laws trademark. Whether it’s the sort of behaviour the people of Wanganui expect from their mayor is another matter.
The real issue, it seems to me, is an age-old one: Laws wants to be in control of things and the Chronicle is making it difficult for him. It’s an irritant. So he’s out to hector, harass and if necessary starve the paper into submission.
On one level this makes great spectator sport, especially when the TV cameras go into the Wanganui District Council chamber to show Laws in mayoral attire – T-shirt and jeans – fulminating against the Chronicle. (Is it just me, or was there a slightly demented glint in his eye on One News a couple of nights ago?) But Laws is going beyond mere bluster. He wants to pull a council-prepared Community Link page from the Chronicle and have it published elsewhere. This would reportedly deprive the Chronicle of $100,000 in revenue at a time when local newspapers are already struggling for survival. Is this a proper use of mayoral power? Councillors held Laws back at Tuesday’s council meeting but the matter will come up again at forthcoming annual plan meetings and it would be out of character for him not to persevere until he gets his way.
So who’s in the right here? I’m sure the Chronicle has made mistakes and errors of judgment – what newspaper doesn’t? But any allegations of bias can be tested by the Press Council. I’d be more inclined to respect its opinion than that of Laws, who is not exactly a neutral party.
For his part, Laws has in many ways been a good mayor for Wanganui. He has greatly lifted the profile of a city that was in danger of sinking out of view, much as Tim Shadbolt did for Invercargill. But he also has an ego the size of St John’s Hill, and an apparent intolerance of anything remotely resembling opposition. His response to resistance (as he demonstrated last year against the unfortunate Otaki schoolgirls) is to mount a crushing attack. In other words he’s a bully.
In situations like this I ask, who has most to gain? And the answer that comes back is that Laws has much more to gain from subduing the Chronicle than the Chronicle has from running what Laws suggests is a biased and unfair crusade against him. And now he’s using public money as leverage to get his own way.
It’s not unheard of for powerful institutions – and in this context the Wanganui District Council is a powerful institution – to apply financial pressure in an attempt to bring troublesome media to heel. When I was editor of The Dominion the paper’s biggest advertiser, Telecom, pulled all its advertising because the then CEO, Peter Troughton, didn’t like the coverage his company was getting. It caused the paper a lot of pain but the late Mike Robson, then managing director of the Dom’s parent company, INL, held firm and Telecom was back within a matter of weeks. If Laws goes ahead with his threat, I hope APN – owners of the Chronicle – display the same resolve.
The two situations are not strictly analogous, of course, because Laws’ threat involves the use of public money to score a political point – and in a manner that may not be in the public interest, if it means the council’s Community Link page ends up being used less effectively. The bottom line is that when politicians parade themselves as arbiters of journalistic neutrality and fairness, we should automatically suspect base motives.