The strange go­ings-on in South­land

The Southland Times - - COMMENT&OPINION -

There is a sin­is­ter side to the fake news phe­nom­e­non. And it was never go­ing to be long be­fore those in power ex­ploited it.

Shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger has be­come a means to an end in it­self – when trust in the me­dia is at an all-time low, any­thing goes.

And any­thing goes is cer­tainly how you would de­scribe the ex­tra­or­di­nary go­ings-on in South­land this week af­ter Stuff re­porter Rachael Kelly tried to find out what lo­cal MP Todd Bar­clay had been up to since dis­ap­pear­ing from pub­lic life last month.

Kelly and a Stuff cam­era­man have been ac­cused of in­tim­i­dat­ing and threat­en­ing be­hav­iour, even of be­ing phys­i­cally ag­gres­sive.

And the al­le­ga­tions were made at the high­est lev­els, from the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice and Par­lia­men­tary Ser­vice.

Prob­lem is, it’s not true. A video shows what ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

Kelly, ac­com­pa­nied by the cam­era­man, knocked on a door to Bar­clay’s Gore elec­torate of­fice, where a re­cep­tion­ist came to speak to them. Kelly is well known to the staff at the Gore of­fice - Gore is her beat.

The pair were on the trail of a story that mat­ters in their lo­cal com­mu­nity.

Bar­clay was forced to leave Par­lia­ment af­ter po­lice re­opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions he covertly recorded his elec­torate of­fice staff. But rather than go im­me­di­ately, Bar­clay is stay­ing on till the elec­tion, mean­ing he is still col­lect­ing his $165,000 a year salary.

There has been some­thing of a lo­cal back­lash to the fact that Bar­clay has ef­fec­tively gone to ground since then.

Kelly and her cam­era­man were in Bar­clay’s of­fice barely more than a minute. Af­ter be­ing told Bar­clay was not at work, and check­ing he hadn’t been there that week, the re­porter said thank you and she and the cam­era­man left.

Watch it for your­self on­line on Stuff if you like.

Yet in con­ver­sa­tions with South Is­land ed­i­tor-in-chief Joanna Nor­ris, it was al­leged Kelly and her cam­era­man ‘‘barged’’ into Bar­clay’s of­fice and harassed and in­tim­i­dated staff - even pur­su­ing them to the back of the of­fice, leav­ing the staff feel­ing threat­ened and un­der siege.

There was also a com­plaint about a [dif­fer­ent] jour­nal­ist shout­ing and abus­ing Bar­clay’s PR per­son over the phone.

Ap­par­ently he has one, even though it’s highly un­usual for a back­bencher to have their own me­dia min­der.

The al­le­ga­tions were made in two phone con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Nor­ris and a se­nior mem­ber of the PM’s staff, as well as phone con­ver­sa­tions with the head of Par­lia­men­tary Ser­vice, David Steven­son. Steven­son also dropped the bomb­shell that po­lice were now in­volved.

Both ac­knowl­edged af­ter see­ing the video it was not as they thought. They also de­fended their in­ter­ven­tion as be­ing out of con­cern for the wel­fare of staff, who have had to front for Bar­clay in his ab­sence. But if it had not been for Stuff’s abil­ity to pro­duce video ev­i­dence, the al­le­ga­tions would prob­a­bly have stuck.

And that is the big worry. Not that the al­le­ga­tions were un­true, but that the ef­fect would have been to shut down more ques­tions about what Bar­clay had been up to. It prob­a­bly would have helped turn lo­cal sym­pa­thy in Bar­clay’s di­rec­tion as well.

It’s an in­creas­ingly com­mon way for politi­cians to de­flect ques­tions. At­tack­ing the be­hav­iour and cred­i­bil­ity of the jour­nal­ist and their me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion never fails to find a sym­pa­thetic ear, but es­pe­cially so now. It’s not within the power of the prime min­is­ter or any­one else to force Bar­clay out of Par­lia­ment – pre­vi­ous bad egg cases like Taito Philip Field and Donna Awa­tere Hu­ata are proof of that.

But it is within the prime min­is­ter’s power to com­pel Bar­clay to show up for work.

There is clearly no ap­petite in Na­tional, how­ever, for Bar­clay to show his face in Welling­ton again.

Na­tional would rather avoid the me­dia cir­cus, even if that means deal­ing with the low level ir­ri­ta­tion of ques­tions from jour­nal­ists about his ex­cuse for not be­ing there.

There is huge sen­si­tiv­ity about Bill English’s in­volve­ment in the whole sorry saga af­ter his botched han­dling of ques­tions about what he knew. Hav­ing Bar­clay back in Welling­ton would drag that all up again. The Gov­ern­ment is re­ly­ing on the me­dia even­tu­ally los­ing in­ter­est in Bar­clay’s re­peated fail­ure to show up for work.

It also sees it as the sort of ‘‘belt­way’’ is­sue that most vot­ers will tune out.

But it also seems to think that there is noth­ing about Bar­clay’s ab­sence that can’t be smoothed away with a bit of po­lit­i­cal spin.

If you ask the Gov­ern­ment, Bar­clay is head down in his of­fice work­ing hard on lo­cal is­sues.

The ‘‘Where’s Todd’’ cam­paign by lo­cal me­dia has been coun­tered, mean­while, with the ar­gu­ment that of course Bar­clay has fronted to lo­cal me­dia. Ex­cept that’s not true ei­ther. Bar­clay an­swered ques­tions about a lo­cal tourism an­nounce­ment but in­sisted ques­tions be sent to him by email, and his re­sponse was emailed back via his spokes­woman.

We have no idea whether he even had any in­put to those an­swers.

Ques­tions about his re­turn to Par­lia­ment and whether he will co­op­er­ate with po­lice are still unan­swered. That’s why Kelly and her cam­era­man turned up at his Gore of­fice – to put the ques­tions to Bar­clay in per­son.

The re­ac­tion to their visit leaves an un­pleas­ant taste in the mouth – in­ten­tional or not – over whether it was an at­tempt to heavy them not to come back, and make the ques­tions go away.

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