Control of the media is a central aim of every government to varying degrees and for various reasons. We tend to think, to the extent it occurs in New Zealand, the manipulation is relatively innocuous.
Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, released last year, gave us a peak at the dust on the frost which accumulates on the crust of the tip of the press deception iceberg in New Zealand. This keyhole view, limited to a few conservative politicians, still offended the sensitivities of many New Zealanders.
On 10 March 2015, the New Zealand Herald ran a story of a Wellington man’s apparent abuse of the New Zealand court system. Under the close-up photo of a Lotto ticket (replicated here), the ‘national’ headline read ‘Lotto winner’s bitter battle with ex-partner’. The Herald article went on to report the lotto winner unsuccessfully attempted to get the New Zealand Supreme Court to cut his former partner out of her partial claim to the $1.3 million jackpot three times in the past few months.
The problem was none of the Herald article’s material facts aside from the names were true. Not even close to the truth.
The tagline vaguely attributed the article to “NZME.” More about this later.
Perhaps the only accuracy was the name of the man and the Supreme Court. Errors the Herald now privately admits – but blames on ‘the police desk’ through which they were fed the story. No correction has been issued. The subject, Mr Rabson, swears no reporter attempted to contact him for this article. Elizabeth Binning, who Mr Rabson says he later spoke to at the Herald, did not respond to kiwisfirst’s email requests for the relevant facts. According to Rabson she was indignant that he would question a story which came in through the “police desk”.
What makes this story so remarkable in its deception is ALL of the relevant documents were publicly available on the web, they number no more than a half dozen, and the longest is pushing 3 pages in length. The Herald puzzlingly claims not to have looked, instead trusting the government-fed story. The application and reapplication make clear the Wellington man, Malcolm Edward Rabson, was attempting to judicially review the Supreme Court Registrar’s failure (Rabson says ‘refusal’) to publicly record judgments at New Zealand’s highest court. These material facts did not garner a mention in the Herald article.
Conversely, the readily available court documents understandably made no mention of the lotto ticket or the relationship property dispute hawked by the Herald. Someone had to create these false facts but the Herald claims it was not the guilty party.
Had any reporter read the Supreme Court judgment or recall judgment relied upon by the Herald article as central, they would have become quickly aware the Court of Appeal was preventing appeal of a judicial review on the spurious ground the bankrupted Mr Rabson was disentitled to review unlawful acts of the Supreme Court Registrar – and that the Supreme Court was equally fixated on covering up this public law violation at New Zealand’s highest court by right.
The Supreme Court blindly claimed in dismissing Mr Rabson’s application that the Court of Appeal would “grapple with the accuracy or otherwise” of the unlawful edict at the substantive appeal. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal prevented Mr Rabson’s substantive appeal on the premise he could not come up with $6,000 ‘security’ for Crown counsel to oppose his appeal. As the Court of Appeal unlawful edict that public law rights are tied to financial solvency was recorded as authority, it will now be used by Crown lawyers to argue precedent against judicial review at the High Court.
This microcosm of mainstream press reporting raises legitimate questions as to why the government sought to use the Herald to misdirect public reporting of Mr Rabson’s court challenge. But alarm bells clang louder in the realisation that the Herald fell for the misrepresentation without the journalistic equivalent of a spell-check.
Interestingly, in 2011, the Supreme Court decreed in Chapman v Atty General that NZ judges are immune from accountability for rights abuses under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 because it now acts as a safeguard remedy in correcting such judicial abuses. The Bill of Rights Act had for two decades expressly bound judges before this Supreme Court ruling. The new level of judicial activism has gone unchallenged.
Where the fourth estate acts primarily as a democracy’s check against State propaganda and abuse of power, is it dangerous practice for the New Zealand State to feed unfettered misrepresentations to the mainstream media for dissemination to the masses, particularly after the Supreme Court decreed its members are immune from the Act which Parliament required judges in Section 6 to apply above all other New Zealand laws? Do the lessons of history not convince us that placing any man above the law is a licence to steal?
On the other hand, why is it the Herald has never reported that every judge in New Zealand petitioned Parliament to kill a bill this year which would require disclosure of their pecuniary interests despite their petition accepting it is a good concept for the rest of the world? Perhaps this watershed event concerning rule of law principles (the absence of which inevitably breeds lawlessness) is not news to them.
“NZME.” – the attributed source of the article – is a fully owned APN entity (APN is owner of the Herald) which claims 3.1 million New Zealanders get their news and entertainment from it. It operates in the never-never land of news, entertainment and make believe, as was frighteningly apparent in the Rabson story. ‘Frightening’ because many people reading the story actually believed the reported facts even though the Herald news desk now knows it to be demonstrable fiction.
NZME. being credited for misreporting a judicial review challenge of secret rulings in the New Zealand Supreme Court as “a bitter lotto dispute” adds another layer. No reporter was credited. The finger length arrangement between NZME and the Herald appears designed to immune The Herald from accountability in respect to government fed stories. It used to be in the news business that reporters took accountability. Not any more in New Zealand ‘mainstream’ media. NZME, while undoubtedly controlled by the same “media” it feeds, is a nebulous, seemingly unaccountable entity.
Should this Herald story be a warning to those who prefer news to entertainment? The New Zealand public will ultimately decide.
On the surface, it appears that forced ignorance is bliss in the New Zealand media when it comes to State power. Increasingly, the way to get accurate news is to look off shore.