As the the final acts in the smear campaign that was the Donghua Liu Affair are about to unfold, and the curtain soon to fall, it is worthwhile re-assessing what has occurred; what has been learned; and the fall-out for certain individuals.
1. The NZ Herald
The NZ Herald does not emerge from this Affair very well.
From 18 June, when Cunliffe’s eleven year old letter was “discovered” and made public; to 21 June, when Donghua Liu’s first “signed statement” was reported by the Herald; to 25 June, when the Herald released a “new statement” from Liu – this has been either a cock-up of colossal proportions, or self-serving connivance, in a carefully orchestrated smear campaign.
Where does one start to unravel the mess that the Herald and some of it’s staff and editor have created?
- The sensationalist headlines that were splashed across the paper with damaging allegations, with no evidence, and based purely on one man’s “signed statement” was trash “journalism” at it’s worst.
etc, etc, et-bloody-cetera…
- Liu’s “signed statement” was not even in the nature of an affidavit – the latter carrying more legal weight under the Evidence Act 2006. Which means that Liu could make any wild claim he fancied, with minimal repercussions. (Not unless someone with deep pockets, and plenty of time, bothers to take a defamation case against the trouble-prone migrant businessman.)
This should have made the Herald and it’s supposedly professional, experienced staff of journalists and columnists, more cautious.
Instead we read outrageous claims of a “$100,000 bottle of wine” (or “four bottles of wine” depending on which account you read); “$15,000 books”, and “$60,000 dinners on the Yangtze River” – all without a jot of evidence or witnesses. (The Yangtze boat trip/party turned out to be a staff party that then-Labour minister, Rick Barker, had been invited to attend.)
In short, we witnessed an appalling standard of sloppy “journalism” and “trial by media” based on no evidence, and judged guilty-by-innuendo.
- This shameful style of media reporting was made worse by the likes of Jared Savage who wrote uncritical pieces on this story, repeating in a parrot-like fashion any fanciful claim that Liu could come up with. When only one of Liu’s claims was substantiated – his $2,000 donation to a boating club – it was trumpeted as “proof” that all of Liu’s claims had been confirmed,
“The confirmation comes after Labour has denied other allegations in the signed statement from Liu, including the claim he paid “close to $100,000″ for wine at fundraising auctions.”
Rick Barker had his own views on the rowing club donation, which seemed a whole lot more credible than Liu’s “$100,000 bottle of wine”. (‘Cold Duck’ anyone?)
- Or Herald Editor, Tim Murphy, on Radio NZ’s “Morning Report“ on 23 June, where he was evasive in his answers and gave no explanation as to why Liu’s “signed statement” had not been published verbatim. Murphy said on the interview that he stood by the Liu story, confidently asserting;
“Well, what’s not to stand by?”
We now know that Liu’s claims were either misleading, fanciful, or over-exaggerated and most likely, defamatory.
That is the most likely reason why the Herald did not publish, verbatim, Liu’s “signed statement” It would have made them a party to a defamation lawsuit.
- But perhaps the worst offender was Herald Columnist, John Armstrong, who on 18 June, penned one of the most scurrilous pieces of “journalistic” rubbish in recent media history. Armstrong’s piece was written on the same day that the Herald published Cunliffe’s eleven year old letter to Immigration NZ. Amazingly, as Armstrong vilified Cunliffe for “a lapse of memory”, and demanded his resignation as Labour leader – he omitted to mentioned that the letter had been written some eleven years ago.
Armstrong’s piece was written and published at 1pm on 18 June – one hour twentynine minutes before Jared Savage broke the story detailing Cunliffe’s 2003 letter to Immigration NZ, on behalf of Donghua Liu.
Which suggests Armstrong’s haste and eagerness in putting the journalistic ‘knife’ between Cunliffe’s ribs.
It was not until three days later that the Herald’s other right-leaning columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, attempted to inject some degree of sanity into her colleagues with her more thoughtful, restrained opinion piece on 21 June,
Memo: David Cunliffe. Don’t let your political enemies (that includes your frenemies) push you out of the Labour leadership ahead of the election.
There is already a media-fuelled expectation that Cunliffe should either step down or be rolled so that Labour’s fourth leader in one parliamentary term can lead the party into the September 20 election.
This would leave precious little time for a replacement – be it Grant Robertson or Andrew Little – to bed their own leadership in place before going head-to-head with Key in the election campaign. It would almost certainly result in electoral defeat.
Similarly, the resignation calls Cunliffe faced after the Herald broke the story that the Labour leader had signed off a letter on behalf of Liu bordered on risible.
That letter was clearly a pro forma note written by his staffers. There was no element of special pleading. It’s no wonder he had forgotten it. It should not have sparked a Gotcha call from political journalists.
Well, I’m not so charitable.
The behaviour of the Herald (with some notable exceptions) has been nothing short of disgraceful. It has with-held information from the public. It has published defamatory claims from a vengeful businessman with no evidence to support his claims regarding Labour (rowing boat club aside). It has engaged in tabloid-style, “gotcha” political-journalism. It has demonstrated a particularly virulent style of biased, partisan reporting. It has not undertaken the most basic journalistic requirements of confirming a story before going public. It has not bothered to investigate (as far as anyone can tell) who was behind Liu’s claims and why. It has abused it’s position as a major media organisation, with it’s considerable influence in New Zealand society.
As such, to take a page from John Armstrong’s 18 June opinion piece, I issue the following;
Tim Murphy must apologise to David Cunliffe and to the NZ Labour Party promptly, fully, and unreservedly. That apology should be placed on the front page of the Herald. It is the very least that he should do as a matter of justice.
After which, Mr Murphy should re-consider his own position and decide whether his role as the Herald’s editor is now tenable after this shameful fiasco.
(See Appendix B)
There is no question – John Armstrong must resign immediately. His behaviour has been shocking and inexcusable. Any notion of Armstrong as an impartial journalist was swept away with his intemperate and openly partisan column on 18 June.
To para-phrase Mr Armstrong, “he has called for [David Cunliffe’s] head to roll for the equivalent or less. Having set the standard required of others, it is incumbent on him to himself follow suit“.
When a supposedly well-educated person writes such a travesty of journalism, there is only one course of action open.
(See Appendix B)
Jared was the author of many of the pieces reporting (more like cutting and re-pasting) Donghua Liu’s claims. There was no evidence to support Donghua Liu’s claims – but they were published and given prominence nevertheless.
Jared does not appear to have given any serious thought to questioning Liu’s claims, nor the motivations for them. This style of reporting is grossly irresponsible and undermines his profession.
Unlike his colleagues, Murphy and Armstrong, Jared is young and still learning his craft. The Liu Affair has not been to Jared’s credit, but hopefully he has learned from the experience. I encourage Jared to under-go a refresher course in journalistic ethics so that future reporting can be more balanced and accurate.
2. A more measured p.o.v.?
With the dust settling on the Liu Affair, and the hysteria from more ‘excitable’ media columnists and commentators dying away, I refer to the reader a more measured, thoughtful p.o.v. from Dominion Post columnist, Vernon Small, who wrote that the Liu saga hits harder when Labour’s down.
Small’s column wasn’t just a breath of fresh air, it was a full tank of oxygen in an otherwise murky atmosphere of political muck-raking, innuendo, lies, and media histrionics.
3. The Labour Party
Without a doubt, Labour – and specifically, David Cunliffe – have no choice. They must take legal action for defamation against the Herald. The kind of shabby, tabloid-style “journalism” shown since June 18 has further undermined the Fourth Estate’s credibility (whether Herald staff and management realise this or not, is irrelevant) and must not be allowed to become the new default standard by which editors and journalists operate in this country.
For these reasons, Labour must sue for three good reasons;
- It runs the risk that the public ‘memory’ on this incident will be fixed at the point of “revelations” about a “$100,000 bottle of wine” – not that Liu changed his story. Nor that no evidence was forthcoming.
- If the Liu Affair goes to Court, the process of discovery may reveal who was behind this smear campaign.
- If the phone tapping/”News of the World” scandal in Britain has shown us anything, it is that the tabloid journalism road, where irresponsible reporting becomes an acceptable ‘norm’, leads to unpleasant (and often illegal) consequences.
However, my advice to Cunliffe and the Labour Party is to defer legal action until after 20 September. The Labour Party cannot afford distractions this close to an election.
Rapid Response Team
Unless Labour already has one, I suggest that they create a media “rapid response group” which can ‘kick in’ when the next smear campaign rears it’s ugly head. (Mark my words, the next dirty trick is probably already in the works.)
Such a group could comprise of senior party members, MPs, legals, media minders, etc, and could ‘swing into action’ at the first hint of another event like the Liu Affair.
Every Labour candidate should have an easy-to-contact “rapid response group” team-member on their phone’s speed-dial.
If the Liu Affair has shown anything, it is the old maxim,
“United we Stand, Divided we Fall”
The smear campaign was notable for one thing; Labour stood alone against the NZ Herald, other media, and various lunatic right-wing bloggers. It had few allies.
Perhaps this incident should serve as a wake-up call to Labour that it needs allies – potential coalition partners who can come to the aid of an embattled Labour Party. And vice versa.
God knows the Left has many enemies in the media, political sphere, business world, rant-back radio, and rabid-right blogs.
A more collegial and co-operative relationship between Labour, the Greens, Mana-Internet, trade unions, and other progressive organisations will be needed if future dirty tricks and smear campaigns are to be successfully resisted.
“United we stand, divided we fall” is not just a catchy catch-phrase. It actually means something.
Last year, John Key and the National government, with support from ACT and Peter Dunne, changed legislation to allow the GCSB to carry out domestic surveillance and spy on New Zealanders.
Of course, this does not mean that I am suggesting that when Labour becomes government, that they should use the GCSB to spy on the Herald, Donghua Liu, his lawyers, Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, David Farrar, and anyone else who might be connected with this Affair, to find out who was responsible.
I am not suggesting that at all.
That would be morally wrong.
But quite legal.
4. John Key
It was clear from Day One, that John Key had been fully briefed on David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter to Immigration NZ. On 19 June, John Key said he had previously known about the letter;
“Can’t exactly recall, I think it was a few weeks ago.”
But far more interesting is that Key seems to have been aware of Liu’s “signed statement” prior to the Herald aquiring a copy of it.
Note the following article from the Herald, written by Audrey Young, when she was in New York, covering Key’s visit to the United States . Specifically, note the date; Thursday 19 June;
Note the opening paragraph;
Prime Minister John Key believes the Labour [sic] has a lot more than $15,000 in donations from wealthy Chinese political donor Donghua Liu.
Key is quoted in Young’s article,
“I’ve heard the rumours and we’ll see what actually comes out but I’d be very, very amazed if the amount is $15,000,” he told New Zealand reporters.
But according to Herald on Sunday editor, Miriyana Alexander, revelations of Donghua Liu’s claims for other donations did not come to their attention until Saturday, 21 June;
But Herald on Sunday editor Miriyana Alexander said it only got a copy of the statement on Saturday and called the party within an hour of receiving it.
The date of when the NZ Herald came into possession of Liu’s “signed statement” was also confirmed as “on Saturday” [21 June], by Herald editor, Tim Murphy, who was interviewed on Radio NZ’s “Morning Report“, two days later (Monday 23 June). In the same interview, Murphy refused to say how the Herald acquired the statement.
When asked by Morning Report co-presenter, Susie Ferguson, why a copy of Liu’s statement had not been supplied to Labour, Murphy’s response was,
“There’s still more to be done. And there’s issues of sensitivities around it, for us. All these these things don’t get passed over […] I imagine it’ll come out but it just a matter of us working through some things first.”
19 June (Thursday): Key stated that he believed Labour had a lot more than $15,000 in donations from wealthy Chinese political donor Donghua Liu.
21 June (Saturday): NZ Herald came into possession of Liu’s “signed statement”. The Herald does not publish the “statement” verbatim, nor does it pass a copy on to the Labour Party. (A point raised by Morning Report co-presenter, Susie Ferguson in her interview with Tim Murphy.)
23 June (Monday): NZ Herald editor, Tim Murphy confirms that his paper did not acquire a copy of Liu’s “signed statement” until two days ago (21 June).
So John Key knew the contents of Liu’s “signed statement” two days in advance of the Herald.
In my previous blogpost (The Donghua Liu Affair threatens to unravel – PM and NZ Herald caught up in a dirty trick campaign?) I posed these questions;
- Who had access to the Prime Minister in such a way that he could be briefed, with such detail, in advance, on Cunliffe’s letter and Liu’s “signed statement”?
- Who was involved in encouraging Donghua Liu to make his statement?
- How did a copy of Liu’s “signed statement” get to the NZ Herald?
- What was the motivation in briefing the Prime Minister?
- Who else in the PM’s office was involved? Was it Jason Ede?
Without much doubt, Key, his ministers, and some of his closest advisors, were fully aware of Cunliffe’s 2003 letter and Donghua Liu’s “signed statement”.
The Herald’s editor, Tim Murphy and political columnist John Armstrong behaved disgracefully throughout this entire event. Either through ineptitude or complicity, they allowed the NZ Herald to become a tool for a carefully planned and executed smear campaign against David Cunliffe.
In an email to Tim Murphy (see Appendix B), I call for a full-page apology to be published in the Herald.
I also call for Tim Murphy’s and John Armstrong’s resignations.
As such, after my email to Tim Murphy, and depending on his response, I will be considering a complaint to the NZ Press Council on the matter.
I may also look at other avenues such as contacting the Herald’s main advertisers.
David Liu was not the instigator or author of his “signed statement”. Without doubt, it was a dirty trick of the sort that Nicky Hager warned us about in his brilliant exposé on corruption in the National Party, “The Hollow Men”.
The date on Liu’s “signed statement” – 3 May – was only two days after Maurice Williamson’s enforced resignation after being found out attempting to influence a police investigation into Liu’s assault on two women.
The close timing of Williamson’s resignation and the date on Liu’s “signed statement” was a critical mistake on the part of those responsible for this smear campaign. It ties the two events together. I believe Key’s senior media strategist, Jason Ede, and right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater were probably involved.
The motive for the smear campaign was an act of utu, in retaliation for Labour prosecuting revelations against Maurice Williamson.
Labour must sue the NZ Herald for defamation. Whilst smear campaigns are, unfortunately part-and-parcel of politics (because partisan voters seem not to care, as long as it is done to the “other side”), complicit or incompetant actions by media reporting such stories cannot – must not – be allowed to stand.
Unless we want to see this country’s media become a South Pacific mirror of “News of the World“, with associated phone hacking, bribery, police corruption, and god knows what else, the kind of sensationalist, headline-driven, misleading “journalism” shown by the Herald from June 18 cannot be allowed to become the new standard of media behaviour.
Even media companies have responsibilities and obligations to behave in a responsible manner.
If not, we must look to legal remedies to ensure responsible behaviour.
from: Frank Macskasy <email@example.com>
to: John Key <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date: Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 1:06 PM
subject: OIA Request – Reminder!
Kia ora Mr Key,
On 19 June – now one week ago – I lodged an OIA request with you and your office.
My request was as follows,
Kia ora Mr Key.
This is a request lodged under the Official Information Act.
Please provide me with copies of all correspondence, minutes, notes, reports, and any other written or otherwise recording, relating to any and all activities surrounding the procurement; storage; and planned circumstances of the release of the letter between David Cunliffe and Donghua Liu dated 11 April 2003.
This includes a request for all communications relating to the letter between David Cunliffe and Donghua Liu dated 11 April 2003, which may have occurred between yourself; any and all staffmembers in your office; any member of the National Party; any blogger; any media person; and any other group or individual who was contacted on this issue.
Information may be emailed to me, or, if the file is too large, I can supply a postal address for hard copies.
Since then, I have not received any acknowledgement to my lodged application and require you to do so, under the Act.
If I do not receive acknowledgement to my request, I will have no option but to pursue the matter with the Office of the Ombudsman.
An hour later, I received an emailed acknowledgement to my OIA request.
from: Frank Macskasy <email@example.com>
to: Tim Murphy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date: Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 10:34 PM
subject: The Donghua Liu Affair & Consequence
The New Zealand Herald
Kia ora Mr Murphy,
After recent revelations, it has become patently obvious and apparent to all that Mr Donghua Liu is no longer a credible witness to any alleged wrong-doing or alleged inappropriate behaviour by David Cunliffe, Rick Barker, or the NZ Labour Party.
Mr Liu has;
1. Failed to provide evidence for his allegations of hefty donations to the Labour Party. The closest he has come has been a $2,000 cheque he gave to the Hawke’s Bay Rowing Club, on his own volition.
2. Mis-represented Rick Barker’s invitation and attendance at a staff party, on a river-boat, in China.
3. Made no verifiable Affidavit, and provided only a “signed statement”.
4. Issued a second statement on 25 June, changing his initial allegations.
5. Offered no evidence for his second, 25 June, “signed statement”.
Since 18 June, when your reporter, Jared Savage, broke this story in a piece entitled “David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid“, the Herald has;
* published unsubstantiated allegations;
* failed to provide subsequent evidence to back up those allegations;
* published stories damaging to the reputations of David Cunliffe and Rick Barker;
* published allegations damaging to the Labour Party (during an election year!);
* published a column calling for David Cunliffe to resign (“John Armstrong: Cunliffe’s resignation may be in order“), based on incomplete information, and omitting a crititical fact, namely that Cunliffe’s letter to NZ Immigration had been written in 2003, and was a legitimate reason why the MP may have forgotten the letter;
* resisted calls to publish, verbatim, Mr Liu’s first signed statement, or his subsequent version, thereby acting as a gate-keeper/censor of information that the public had a right to see;
* resisted calls to publish, verbatim, Mr Liu’s first signed statement, or his subsequent version, despite having no hesitation in publishing David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter to NZ Immigration (“David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid“)
* made little or no discernible attempt to investigate the background to Liu’s allegations; his motives; and who else might have been involved.
Under your watch, the tenor of stories relating to the Cunliffe-Liu issue has been one-sided and predicated on baseless allegations.
This has been a tabloid-style, highly-emotive, unjustified witch-hunt which collapsed only because Donghua Liu’s story changed and it became apparent he was no longer a credible witness.
The Liu Affair has seriously damaged your paper’s reputation and also further eroded public confidence in the ability of the Fourth Estate to report fairly, accurately, and without bias.
Accordingly, I submit that it behoves you to put this matter right. I therefore call upon you;
1. The NZ Herald should immediately publish a full page apology on the front page of your paper.
2. It may also be appropriate for you to re-consider your position and decide whether your role as the Herald’s editor is now tenable after this shameful fiasco.
3. On 18 June, in a highly biased, unreasonable column, John Armstrong called for David Cullen’s resignation, (“John Armstrong: Cunliffe’s resignation may be in order“). I submit that Mr Armstrong’s own position as a senior Herald staffer is no longer tenable and must take his own advice and resign.
These three steps are the basis upon which the New Zealand Herald can regain it’s reputation that has been severely dented since 18 June.
– Frank Macskasy
Note: this letter will be made public on “The Daily Blog”, and subsequently, on “Frankly Speaking” (my own personal blog). Any response you care to make will also be disclosed and made public.
Legislation: Evidence Act 2006
Radio NZ: Newspaper stands by donation claims
NZ Herald: Liu donation to rowing club confirmed
NZ Herald/Hawkes Bay Today: Saga returns to bite Rick Barker
Auckland University of Technology: Journalism Major – Bachelor of Communication Studies
Dominion Post: Liu saga hits harder when Labour’s down
Wilson Harle: Overhaul of New Zealand’s Discovery Rules
Radio NZ: Cunliffe accuses Govt of smear campaign
Radio NZ: Newspaper stands by donation claims
Fairfax media: Labour fights new Liu donation claims
Twitter: Jared Savage
NZ Herald: Liu: $100k not just for wine
Previous related blogposts
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