Hard News by Russell Brown

Smother Hubbard

I dropped into Magazzino on Friday to pick up a copy of the National Business Review so I could read its Dick Hubbard hatchet job in its entirety. All five pages of it. But unfortunately, there were no NBRs. A man had come into the shop earlier and bought every copy on the rack.

So either someone thought the story was such a cracker that they wanted all their friends to have a copy, or Hubbard's campaign was keen to get it off the newsstands. Fortunately, the sanitisation effort did not extend to the Pt Chev Lotto shop, so I was eventually able to secure my own, highly collectible copy of the September 17 issue.

Some parts of the NBR's story are relevant. Hubbard has traded on his image as a "socially responsible" employer and his role in promoting so-called triple bottom line reporting, which assesses a company's social and environmental performance, as well as its financial results. If, in responding to tough market conditions, his actions at his own company have not matched his lofty advice to others, then that is certainly news.

But I haven't been able to find any reference to Hubbard saying, as NBR claims, that the Business Council for Sustainable Development requires "all members to [file a triple bottom line report] every two or three years". The council's published policy, set in 2002, is that all members undertake to produce such a report within three years of joining, which Hubbard Foods did. The council's policy was reiterated in a press release on Friday.

Other parts of the story are a bit desperate. And some are really desperate.

The front-page lead story is headlined 'Hubbard's triple bottom lie' and focuses on Hubbard's apparent claim on Wednesday Night's Face to Face programme, that Hubbard Foods had produced a triple bottom line report in 2001 and 2002, whereas he had earlier told NBR that it has produced one only in 2001. A short excerpt from a transcript of the programme is headed 'Dick's TV deception'. (My five bucks says John Banks was primed to raise the triple bottom line issue, but that's by-the-by.)

NBR's reporters, Jock Anderson and Coran Lill, forewent the logical step of contacting Hubbard and asking him to clarify his comments, presumably because that would have risked letting a little too much air out of the story. The Herald did, however, and was told by Hubbard that he had simply misspoken: "I said 2001. I corrected myself to 2002. There is no 'and' in there and they have taken that to mean two."

At the time, I also took what Hubbard said to mean he'd done two reports, but the Newztel transcript of the interview tends to support his explanation. While NBR's version reads "We did one in 2001, 2002 …", the Newztel version is punctuated differently: "We did one in 2001/2002 …".

More to the point, NBR cuts off the transcript before his next sentence (after an interjection from Banks), where Hubbard talks about "[having done] a lot of recommendations from our first one. Our company is changing dramatically at the moment, Kim, because of our approach to triple bottom line."

Earlier in the interview, he objects not to Banks' taunting about Hubbards having done only one report, but to the mayor's claim that the company has "given away" triple bottom line as "a bad show". Nowhere does Hubbard actually say he did two reports.

So the deployment of the words "lie" and "deception" in the headlines, and the selective use of the transcript would seem quite deceptive in itself. I don't think Hubbard is without his faults, and he has campaigned surprisingly poorly, but this is a very ropey story.

Before we move on, it's only fair to note that John Banks' inference that he championed Auckland City Council's adoption of triple bottom line is fanciful, given that he actually commissioned and loudly praised the Birch Report, which was about as hostile to triple bottom line as you could imagine ("the provision of arts, culture and recreation is not a public good"). I think you'll find that the Local Government Act had a lot more to do with it than the mayor did.

The funniest of NBR's nine Hubbard stories is the one headed 'Strike loomed at stopwork meeting', in which Anderson offers a positively reverential audience to the national secretary of the Service and Food Workers' Union, Darien Fenton, who describes Hubbard as an "average" employer ("not the worst employer, but certainly not the best, despite his self-publicity"). The paper is generally rather less sympathetic to Fenton and her comrades in the trade union movement. As has been noted in Hard News passim, Hubbard's attitude to unionisation has sometimes been paternalistic and obstructive.

Unfortunately, NBR must have forgotten to check the lead angle for the story - that a "looming strike" had been "narrowly escaped" last week at Hubbards - with Fenton herself. Once again, the Herald did, and was told by Fenton that there had been no impending strike action and that staff had simply met and ratified a 3.25% pay rise offered by management.

A story scrutinising the changes in governance structures at Hubbards is also relevant (its board expanded from two to six in 2001, the year of the triple bottom line report, but has since shrunk back to three - making earlier statements about expanding the board to better serve "stakeholders" look like famous last words), but would have been more so had Anderson not tried so hard to squeeze bile and innuendo into every sentence. So there was a "parting of the ways" with Hubbard's longtime operations manager and latterday board member John Ashman. Is this illegal? Or even particularly unusual? The story's claim that only two of the 95 staff famously flown to Samoa by Hubbard in 1998 are still with the company appears to be baseless.

From there, it gets a bit bizarre. On the strength of comments from Barry Gustafson, Hubbard is declared a "thin-skinned opportunist". Another story pots him as - gasp! - a cask wine drinker. A brief story with photograph is based on the clearly alarming fact that Hubbard, um, has a holiday home in Queenstown …

And the whole thing descends to the gutter in a nasty story in which Coran Lill follows Hubbard and his wife Diane into their church and mocks Diane Hubbard's devotional enthusiasm. I wonder if all the people who got up in arms about the Herald's really rather sober assessment of Banks' claims for himself - and all the stuffed shirts who have been noisily defending the churches from "liberal fascists" - will have something to say here?

Hey, but why stop with that stuff? The candidate has had his evidence in a civil case (which took the form of extraordinary allegations of dishonesty against his former business partners) dismissed as worthless by a judge. The judge noted that his evidence did not tally with an earlier sworn affadavit.

The candidate has also been rapped for producing TV ads in which he endorsed a product without disclosing that he had a financial interest in the company that made the product. (Another "endorsement" in the same campaign was offered by a woman who was employed by the company!) And, in a separate case, for making unsustainable claims for that same product.

The candidate has also repeatedly claimed credit for things for which he was not responsible, and in some cases is on record as opposing. I could even put you in touch with one of his former employees, who will have some withering things to say about his management style. Honestly, there's heaps in this. Oh, hang on … that's the other guy, isn't it? The current mayor, that is. Still, it'd make a great story though, wouldn't it? Perhaps this week, then?

Staying with the NBR, it offers an admirably optimistic headline for a story on its latest political poll: 'National still in the running even with continuing economic boom'. Oddly enough, both Stuff and the Herald reported the same poll under the headline 'National Party support ebbing away'. The other papers also noted that under the same poll results, "ACT would be wiped out, with the Greens winning 10 seats, New Zealand First eight, United Future five, and the Progressives and the Maori Party one each." It sounds like the freakin' holocaust for some NBR readers, but oh well, chin up …

I spent Friday night in the company of some of the journalistic stars of the future, at the Aotearoa Student Press Association Awards. As you might expect, Salient just edged out Critic as best overall student publication (the category I helped judge) but I thought the overall standard of entries was up on last year.

Other awards: Salient's ace Keith Ng in the paid newswriting category, Kate Newton, at Critic for best news volunteer, Critic's Hamish McKenzie (a young man who clearly knows how to enjoy himself) for best feature profile, Alec Hutchison (Craccum) and James Robinson (Salient) tied for best issues feature, Sarah Barnett at Salient for best editorial, Brett Ellison at Critic for best Maori content, Emily Braunstein at Salient for best reviewer, the crew from Wellington Massey's Magneto for best design, Critic's Ryan Brown-Haysom for best column, Critic and Nexus tied for best cover and, last but not least, Craccum's Tim Molloy for best cartoonist. As I have previously noted, there's a lot of talent in the student press at the moment.

Craccum's team also probably warranted a special award for Promotion of Unflattering Stereoypes About Aucklanders after spending the whole ceremony smoking, drinking, shouting and heckling from their front-row table. "Are they on the P?" asked one of the down-country journalists. That might be a bit harsh. Too many party pills perhaps. I wouldn't want to have had their co-editor's hangover the next day …

Anyway, Patrick Crewdson deserves a pat on the back for making it all happen. It would have been nice for a few more of the grown-up judges to have turned up, but it was a most enjoyable evening, especially after Damian Christie discovered that some very distinguished Scotch whiskies could be purchased in most gentlemanly servings for only five dollars a pop. I fancied that the rich, complex Johnny Walker Blue edged out the 18 year-old Glenfiddich as Best Whisky to Be Served at the 2004 ASPA Awards. After that, it would have been rude not to have accompanied the kids and some reprobates from the Herald over to the Shakespeare for a nightcap, so I did.

Saturday was quiet, until we went to the rugby at 5.30, to see underperforming Auckland give competition leaders Taranaki a good smacking, with Jerome Kaino, Kees Meeuws and Brent Ward to the fore.

So I certainly picked the right day to go to my first NPC match of the season. And the much-mocked TAB head-to-head odds came out looking pretty good, even if they were only set that way to try and balance the TAB's exposure after three big-time punters made $10,000 bets on Auckland. Do these people know something the rest of us don't?