Hard News by Russell Brown



'Labour reaches for smoking gun in Key's past' ran the headline of the story published at 3.30pm on the New Zealand Herald website yesterday, under the byline of Eugene Bingham.

The story held that "John Key faces accusations of misleading the public about his knowledge of one of New Zealand's most notorious white collar crimes," -- a fake foreign exchange transaction conducted by Equiticorp in the 1980s -- and its most notable paragraph related to statements Key made in an interview with the Herald last year:

Checks by the Herald of court documents made public by Labour have unravelled several aspects of the version he told, including the fact that he resigned from Elders in June 1988, six months after the first payment. There is no evidence that he was involved in handling the sham transactions.

At 5.24, the headline became 'Key claims no knowledge of fraud' and the paragraph had been reworked thus:

Checks by the Herald of court documents made public by Labour have raised questions about several aspects of the version he told, including his memory of when he left the company. He resigned from Elders in June 1988, six months after the first payment. There is no evidence that he was involved in handling the sham transactions.

So there was no suggestion in the paper that Key was involved with the dodgy deal, just that he may not have been straight about his history. Enter Labour's "Trust" theme.

There followed details on some minor discrepancies between court records seen by the Herald in Melbourne this week and the interview Key gave last year to the Herald. Key claimed to have been able to refute Elders' chief Ken Jarrett's denial to investigators that he had been in New Zealand in connection with the deal, because he:

… had paid for the lunch and had the credit card bill to prove it. In fact, the court records show that Mr Richards paid for the lunch, not Mr Key. Neither do any of the records show that Mr Jarrett denied attending the meeting with Mr Richards, though he did say it was several days earlier, on August 26.

"Read more in tomorrow's NZ Herald, plus exclusive online audio of Key's 2007 interview," the paper trilled.

This morning, that story, datelined 4am, again written by Bingham, is headed 'Neutron bomb' on Key proves fizzer for Govt. It says:

Last weekend, the party believed it had a smoking gun - a signature on the A$39m first H-Fee cheque bearing a striking resemblance to Mr Key's. Senior party figures advocated making the document public immediately.

Within days, though, court documents proved that what would have been the campaign's most explosive allegation was wrong. The January 11 cheque was actually signed by an Australian-based executive of the firm Mr Key worked for.

This isn't quite the tenor of story the Herald was promising its readers. Helen Clark was placing great emphasis on the Herald's investigation yesterday, offering that her party president "believes there are questions to answer but that would mean nothing if a major paper didn't think there were questions to answer." Did Labour, in return, get punked?

Perhaps it's simply, as Bingham himself pointed out in the extended tribute the Herald ran on Key this year (I had to laugh this morning when Key described it to Sean Plunket as an "expose") that when it comes to the "minutiae" of dates and places "he can be oddly imprecise".

A Standard reader recently noted similar imprecision from Key with respect to his time at Merrill Lynch, including an odd claim to have "recruited from the private sector" a longstanding Merrill employee who perished on September 11.

At best, Labour could have hoped to show Key was slippery with dates with respect to his time at Elders -- indeed, I expected that to be the gist of today's story -- much as he's been hard to pin down over his views on the Springbok Tour in 1981, a time when he claims to have been fascinated by politics. Nobody cares what he actually thought about the Tour at the time -- it has been his apparently unnecessary evasiveness over the matter that seemed odd.

Curiously, Key's imprecision over his own thoughts on the Tour continues. Bingham's big story for the Herald noted:

His answer is puzzling for someone who was surrounded by, and fascinated with, political debate. Whether he was pro-Tour or anti-Tour is almost irrelevant 27 years down the track. But saying that he can't remember how he felt leaves him open to criticism that he did not want to get off-side with people by stating his position. (In subsequent broadcast interviews, he sounds strangely confused. He has said that he didn't go to the games, but that he might have if he could have afforded it; and that he wasn't happy that the Springboks were here, but that he didn't feel strongly enough to go out on the street.)

But in this month's TVNZ debate:

The National leader did have his weak moments. His opening address was a little clumsy and over rehearsed. He struggled through his recollections of the Springbok Tour, declaring his position as "mildly pro-Tour".

As things stand, Labour would have been better advised to stick with the Tour, because its H-Fee story is going nowhere good, fast. The neutron bomb has not so much fizzled as backfired rather badly.

PS: One observation: it is a little ironic that some of the people most up in arms this morning about the "smearing" of John Key are the same people who spent weeks masturbating over Ian Wishart's despicable book about Helen Clark's supposed secret personal life. Sheesh.

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