The Dominion Post
Brierley forever in hall of shame
New Zealand business high-flyer Ron Brierley has joined a shortlist of the shamed and disgraced. Along with entertainer Rolf Harris and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Brierley has been stripped of royal honours.
Weinstein had been awarded an honorary CBE in 2004 for his contributions to the British film industry, including the massive success of Shakespeare in Love. Harris had been awarded a CBE in 2006, a year after painting the Queen’s portrait. Both were disgraced by abuse scandals.
But of the three, only Brierley achieved the mighty status of ‘‘Sir’’, having been knighted in 1988 for services to business. Even without the recent revelations, such an honour might now seem wildly premature. He was barely 50, and his recognition was a feature of a 1980s political and business culture that lionised men who made fortunes quickly.
It was not business wrongdoing that saw the legendary corporate raider lose the title he had carried for more than 30 years, but the horrific discovery of what Australian border police called ‘‘large amounts of child abuse material’’ in Brierley’s luggage when he was caught at Sydney Airport in 2019.
Exactly how large has been a matter of some dispute. When Brierley offered a guilty plea to three charges last month, they covered ‘‘photographs of young girls approximately two years to 15 years of age, in sexually suggestive poses’’, a second charge of 1615 images on a data storage device, and a third charge relating to just one image. Fourteen other charges were withdrawn.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signalled that she was starting the process to strip Brierley of his title, but Brierley chose instead to resign his knighthood. Some have wondered whether the guilty plea and the pre-emptive resignation are attempts to win a reduced sentence by appearing contrite.
Others also have to grapple with Brierley’s legacy. Wellington College waited until his guilty plea, more than 15 months after the initial arrest, before it removed old boy Brierley’s name from a theatre and a sports ground.
He was also a major supporter of cricket on both sides of the Tasman, and it has been reported that a charity called the Brierley Cricket Foundation still has $1 million in its account. Trustees remain uncertain about what to do with the money.
There are differing opinions about whether money is tainted merely by association with the donor, even if the fortune was made legally. Handing the money back is not a viable option.
Brierley’s downfall also illustrates the changing times. In a 1990 biography, it was reported that he ‘‘enjoys encounters’’ with teenage prostitutes in Thailand. That kind of sex tourism would now ring alarm bells.
Locally, Brierley joins former Central Hawke’s Bay mayor Hugh Hamilton and former Christchurch deputy mayor Morgan Fahey in having an honour removed. Hamilton’s was for fraud, while Fahey’s was for sex crimes. Former Cook Islands premier Albert Henry also lost his knighthood after an election scandal.
These examples do not invalidate the honours system, but should cause us to reflect on the potential for flaws in any system that aims to recognise and celebrate achievements.
But we can take some consolation that, as with Weinstein and Harris, Brierley’s disgrace will outlive him.
His recognition was a feature of a 1980s culture that lionised men who made fortunes quickly.