Hard News by Russell Brown

Weighing up

Told you so. The rugby union and player negotiators have, with a deadline looming, settled exactly halfway between their original positions on a World Cup win bonus for the All Blacks: $80,000 per player.

It's rational to feel some sympathy for both parties here. The union is prudently looking to build a big war chest before the 10-year Sanzar deal with News Corporation ends, mindful that any new deal will almost certainly be less generous. And the players can't be blamed for measuring their lot against that of the other leading sides in world rugby.

The villain, if any, is the International Rugby Board's company Rugby World Cup Limited, which has a history of covering up its own underperformance by changing the rules for all the other stakeholders in the game. Its change of mind on prize money has a lot to do with the player payments problem - effectively it is obliging country unions to pay prize money themselves, for the IRB's tournament. As Joseph Romanos points out this week, player eligibility is another complete shambles for the IRB.

So, it turns out that the taxi driver Winston Peters claimed couldn't speak English has lived here five years and studied at secondary school and two universities. His account of their late-night dispute, frankly, rings truer than that of the New Zealand First leader, who has now been sent on his way by police after paying the $15 fare (with a taxpayer-funded chit!). It's hard not to wonder whether a member of the public would have enjoyed such sympathetic treatment.

Peters wasn't apologising on Morning Report today, nor making a lot of sense. And his apparent attempt to threaten his interviewer, Sean Plunket, who quite reasonably asked Peters how much he had had to drink at the time of the incident ("given who you are and what I know about you, you shouldn't be asking those questions") was simply extraordinary. This is the man who routinely comes second in preferred-Prime-Minister polls …

Peters was once on Off the Wire, the comedy news quiz show I do for National Radio. Like Richard Prebble, he was pretty much able to walk in, sit down and be witty, which was impressive. Like Prebble, he had a slightly distant, defensive air away from the mic. It was quite a change then, with our third guest party leader (fourth, counting the Libz' Peter Cresswell), United Future's Peter Dunne.

Ladies and gentlemen, we witnessed the Peter Dunne effect. He's just a really nice bloke. He was good-humoured without being scorchingly witty, and his answer to an ambush question about the foreshore issue was so utterly, pathologically reasonable that nobody could bear to even give him a bit of curry afterwards. By the time he left, the audience was waving him goodbye. Interesting …

Anyway, Salam Pax is currently beside himself with frustration and anger at the incompetence of the US occupying authority in Iraq, and over the moon at being namechecked by William Gibson. Gibson himself makes a point that had occurred to me amid the flap over the Pentagon's bizarre-sounding terrorism futures market, which Wolfowitz suggested was a result of the Defense Department getting too imaginative: "The last time DARPA got too imaginative, we wound up with the Internet."

Steven Price has a couple of comments on yesterday's critique of Gordon Campbell's critique of the Broadcasting Standards Authority's Corngate decision:

It's not really accurate to say that the BSA didn't "reach back" to the Timberlands case. The BSA did talk about the Timberlands case, but distinguished it, not entirely convincingly, on the grounds that Hilliard had made an incorrect denial in an earlier statement, so the line of questioning was okay. I think I agree with Gordon that the PM did much the same in the Corngate interview. But I think the Timberlands case was capable of being distinguished on sounder grounds. For a start, the BSA in the Timberlands case came damned close to upholding the fairness complaint (the BSA criticised the interview as deceptive). On woolly issues like fairness it didn't create much a precedent: additional small factors could easily tip the balance next time, I thought. Secondly, the BSA in Timberlands emphasised that John Campbell's questioning was okay because it was largely about *general* issues. The Corngate interview was much more specific, and therefore, more readily thought of as unfair.

As I might have said before, my analysis is that the BSA's reasoning about unfairness is odd. Why would a quick introductory sentence saying "PM, Nicky Hager is about to publish a book and we've just interviewed him about it..." have made the interview fairer? What about (as Gordon mentions) sources you need to protect for more convincing reasons than a deal with an author? Would the BSA have still regarded this as unfair if the PM had been given much more detail about the allegations before the interview, but still hadn't mentioned Hager's book? (I think that would have made it fair.) I prefer a line of reasoning that says the lack of info before the interview was unfair, but as it happens, it was justified in the public interest on this occasion, though only just. The PM said some revealing things about her knowledge of the incident (things she never subsequently acknowledged), and was put under pressure in a revealing way.

I completely agree with you about it being wrong to say that the BSA the "cleared of allegations that the story was factually wrong".

I cast doubt yesterday on TV3's approach, rather than the claims themselves, in looking at the story's basic failure amongst the wider media and the public - I think the secretive way the book was launched backfired too, along with the knee-jerk designation of any other opinion as "spin". Steven says:

My impression of the coverage has been that it was almost uniformly lacking in any initiative. Laura Sessions, a scientist and Fulbright scholar who's researching science journalism at Canterbury, who's closely studied the coverage, and with whom I corresponded closely while I wrote the Metro piece, agrees. Given the large numbers of unanswered questions after the book was published, the obvious channels through which to pursue them, the significance of the issues, and the fact that Hager had damning source documents that made a prima facie case, I still find this utterly astonishing. Frankly, I didn't much want to do the Metro piece. I thought I was too close to the thing. Someone else should have done it - but then no one did.

I absolutely agree (and have said to anyone who will listen) that the way TV3 handled the story unfortunately meant that its merits were not properly tested - and in particular, that the PM never had to face a searching interview having been properly prepared, which I would have found fascinating.

So, I really will tune out from this for a while. Unlimited, for which I'm doing a power of work at the moment, has invited me along for a few free drinks at the sold-out Greg Johnson show at Coast tonight, so I'd better be getting some paying work done …

PS: If Bill Ralston can make simple, effective fixes to other TVNZ news programmes the way he has with The Last Word then he's well worth his salary. The integration of the programme's news and entertainment components at a single, bare desk, and (presumably) the instruction to Pam Corkery to calm the hell down and keep it simple has made the programme not just bearable, but (last night) actually quite good. I never thought I'd be saying that ...