Right. Disclosures. First up, I voted Māori Party in the last election and have personal relationships with one or more people connected to this story. Make of that what you will.
What do we make of the allegations of interference in MTS programming by Te Ururoa Flavell or his staff? If you haven’t caught up on the emails here they are. In them, Māori TV approaches Te Ururoa’s office to ask for his participation in a panel to discuss Whānau Ora in a forthcoming episode of Native Affairs. The mail trail alone is not particularly spectacular, or rendolent of scandal. David Farrar is of the opinion that these are ‘absolutely routine’; there can indeed be quite intense negotiations between MP staffers and media people about the nature of appearances made by those MPs on TV programmes. And then there is the added pungence of a meeting scheduled with MTS executives and Te Ururoa, after which the decision was made to cancel that particular show. To summarise:
- MTS asks for Te Ururoa to appear on the show.
- Te Ururoa’s press secretary says (effectively) “Minister happy to come on, but I’m not sure of the format. Why speak to a whole bunch of politicians, including from New Zealand First? Have you considered talking to Whānau Ora practitioners instead? Would you like some phone numbers?”
- For their part MTS says “Please can the Minister come on? Yep, we are considering those perspectives, it’s important to get this kaupapa aired.” “Really glad he can come on.”
- [meeting between Te Ururoa and MTS executives]
- MTS: “Oops, hang on, show has been cancelled, our apologies.”
- Press secretary: “Oky-doke, thanks for the update.”
So. Just as DF says, right? No drama, just a polite negotiation. But of course, Te Ururoa is not just an MP, he’s a Minister. He’s one of THE Ministers responsible for MTS. This doesn’t change my own opinion that there was no political interference whatsoever, but I can see why this exchange might warrant a second glance. So, here is my second glance. The first port of call is to go the the legislation: the Māori Television Service (Te Aratuku Whakaata Irirangi Māori) Act 2003
10 Independence of Service
(1)The responsible Ministers, or any other Minister, or any person acting by or on behalf of or at the direction of any Minister, or Te Pūtahi Paoho, or a member of Te Pūtahi Paoho, or a director acting without the authority of the board, must not direct the Service, or any subsidiary of the Service, or any director, officer, or employee of the Service in respect of—
(a) a particular programme:
(b) a particular allegation or complaint relating to a particular programme:
(c) the gathering or presentation of news or the preparation or presentation of current affairs programmes:
(d) programme standards.
I’ve bolded the relevant words where issues might be said to arise in this case. This is where the tyre hits the tarmac for Clare Curran, and Andrew Little who is rapidly sniffing large rodents as they both trumpet that Te Ururoa “broke the law”. The key word here is “direct”. The Minister must not direct the Service, for example, in respect of ‘a particular programme’ or the gathering or presentation of news or current affairs. The most basic rules of statutory interpretation mean we have to take the natural and ordinary meaning of words, and we also need to see how the word is used elsewhere in the statute and not just to impose a convenient meaning that best fits our desires. So, according to the Concise Oxford ‘direct’ means to ‘control the operations of’..something, and ‘to give orders to’ someone. The Act doesn’t define the word ‘direct’. But it does use it elsewhere. And the word gets used gives us clues as to what Parliament meant by its use. What do the responsible ministers direct? Did you know the responsible Ministers and the chair of Te Putahi Paoho may ‘direct the board to amend its statement of intent’ under s16(1)(d)? Neither did I. Even more fascinating:
under s24B(1)(a) responsible Ministers must— (a) direct the Secretary for Radiocommunications to, and the Secretary must, transfer from the Crown to Te Pūtahi Paoho management rights to two 8 MHz ultra high frequency ranges, within the limits of 502 to 694 MHz, for the period from 1 December 2013 to 30 November 2033
and back to that ol’ statement of intent thing, under s34(1)(a) [and (3)]
the responsible Ministers and the chairperson of Te Pūtahi Paoho jointly direct an amendment to the statement of intent…
It looks to me very like the word ‘direct’ has been chosen by Parliament to reflect a notion that the Minister has very limited powers to direct certain things to happen, and then, ‘direct’ is restricted to the sense of “give orders” to inferiors in the decision-making process. Directing, in the context of this Act clearly means to order an inferior. This is what the Ministers MUST NOT DO in s10, as set out above. I don’t think the word’s relevant meaning in the context of legislation is intended to stretch to include statements of opinion, or advice or suggestion. Simply put, the Ministers must not give orders to MTS about any of its programmes, or about the gathering and presentation of its news and current affairs.
OK I realise context means something, and that the person receiving advice or suggestions might perceive an order in there somewhere. That’s why I don’t object to the questions being asked, I just can’t see very legitimate grounds for finding that there is any kind of ‘directing’ going on in the email exchange. It’s a pretty long bow to draw to claim the following statement even begins to emulate where a Minister’s proxy/employee might be considered to ‘direct’ MTS in respect of a particular programme or in the gathering of news ect:
I’m just not convinced that you’ll enlighten your viewers by having a panel of politicians talking about Whānau Ora. Have you considered interviewing whānau, providers or the commissioning agencies as well? Or iwi/other Ministers on the Whānau Ora Partnership Group. Happy to help with contacts if you want them.
Not only is this not ‘directing’ as the Act seems to use that word for what the Ministers do, I don’t even see how this reaches a threshold for political interference. The programme was being planned, the talent was prepared to go on, regardless of the presence of other MPs. I’m really struggling to see political interference. What I see are common sense suggestions. Why not have fewer pollies and more practitioners on a show like this? The emails alone are bolstered by the temporal coincidence of the planned meeting between Te Ururoa and the MTS executive. It was after this meeting that the show was canned. I can’t speak for the meeting from any kind of direct knowledge, but Te Ururoa stated in Parliament:
I met with the chief executive officer of Māori Television once in May 2015. The meeting itself had been confirmed in my diary since February 2015, when I believe I had my first meeting with him. I did not discuss, and do not discuss, planned news items or editorial decisions, as those are matters for the staff of Māori Television to consider.
Sorry to be unfashionable but there is nothing here to persuade me to think this meeting was anything other than the two participants said it was. Because Clare Curran has helpfully provided evidence to confirm this statement in releasing the memo from Pāora Maxwell to staff setting out what was discussed:
On Wednesday I met with the Minister of Māori Development the Hon Te Ururoa Flavell. It was an opportunity to outline our plans for the coming year. We talked about our strategic pillars, partnerships and alliances, people, communications/brand content and multi-platform. The minister was very interested in our progress and supportive of our direction of travel. He has very clear objectives around Māori language speakers and he wants Māori TV to be part of that journey.
[Actually, of far more concern was Paora’s observation a couple of paragraphs down that Find Me a Māori Bride “might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s important that Māori TV caters for everyone’s tastes”. If that’s not damning with faint praise I don’t know what is!]
So we have a meeting with a clear ‘reporting’ agenda and a series of emails about setting up an interview, and a provision is an Act whereby a responsible Minister may not direct MTS about a programme. These puzzle pieces don’t fit. Not unless you force them and slather them in Krazy Glue. You want want puzzle pieces that do fit? The long parade of resignations of high profile journalists at MTS and the chopping and changing of current affairs/news programme content by MTS executives. There’s a common denominator there, his name is Paora. Now there’s a story. Not that anyone at Māori TV can tell it.