The strange goings-on in Southland
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.