The Donghua Liu Affair hit the headlines on 18 June, with allegations that David Cunliffe wrote a letter in 2003, on behalf of business migrant, Donghua Liu.
Four days later, on Sunday 22 June, the Herald ran stories alleging massive donations to the Labour Party by Liu. Tabloid- style stories of $100,000 paid for a bottle of wine and $15,000 for a book, along with a $50,000-$60,000 dinner party hosted for then Labour minister, Rick Barker, and a donation to a rowing club, raged for several days.
By Wednesday, on 25 June, the Herald was forced to retract Liu’s claims. The “new” story was that Liu’s “donation” was,
“… close to $100,000 and that is my closing comment in my statement…that is how much I believe I have donated in total to Labour and some of their MPs during their last term in Government.”
The so-called Yangtze River boat “dinner for Rick Barker” turned out to be some sort of staff function that Liu had invited the Labour minister to attend.
Only Liu’s donation – of $2,000 – to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club, was confirmed. Considering that any “link” between the NZ Labour Party and Hawkes Bay Rowing Club is tenuous at best (Barker’s daughter was a member of the club), the value of this aspect of the Liu Affair is dubious, to put it mildly.
Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003 letter was far from “avocating on Liu’s behalf”. Instead, the eleven year old letter turned out to be a stock-standard inquiry sent to Immigration NZ with the rather banal request,
“I am aware of the difficulties facing the Business Migration Branch of New Zealand Immigration Services in coping with the overwhelming numbers of applicants that have applied for consideration under these categories and the time taken to verify documents. However it would be very helpful to Mr Liu to be advised of an estimated period of time period [sic] in which he could expect a decision on his case.”
Requesting “an estimated period of time period” seems a stretch to describe it as advocating.
Accordingly, this blogger lodged a formal complaint with the Herald’s editor-in-Chief, NZ Press Council; and OIAs lodged with Deputy PM, Bill English; Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, and the Office of the Prime Minister.
A letter seeking clarification was also emailed to Herald journalist, Jared Savage, which he has responded to.
The responses thus far, and the next steps taken…
2. The NZ Herald – formal complaint to the Press Council
On 28 June, I sent a formal complaint to Tim Murphy, Editor of the Herald, regarding his paper’s handling of the Donghua Liu story. (See: The Donghua Liu Affair: responses from NZ Herald and Prime Minister’s Office – Is the PM’s office fudging?)
On 4 July, Mr Murphy responded. I considered his formal response and explanations to be inadequate and in one instance (John Armstrong’s column calling for David Cunliffe’s resignation) no attempt was made to address the issue.
Accordingly, I lodged a formal complaint to the Press Council on 5 July.
Two days later, the Press Council referred the complaint to the Herald;
From: Mary Major [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Monday, 7 July 2014 8:27 a.m.
To: Tim Murphy
Cc: Sarah Lawrence
Subject: FW: Online Complaint
Dear Tim and Sarah,
Please see below for a complaint from Frank MacSkasy. Could we please have
your response within the next 10 working days.
On 15 July, the Herald’s editor responded to the Press Council;
From: Sarah Lawrence [mailto:Sarah.Lawrence@nzherald.co.nz]
Sent: Tuesday, 15 July 2014 5:00 p.m.
To: Mary Major
Subject: FW: Press Council complaint – Frank Macskasy
Please find below a response from Tim Murphy to the Frank Macskasy
complaint. Also enclosed is the full record of Herald stories for the
Council’s information as mentioned by Tim below (I had to split them into
two parts, hope that’s OK), and also our responses to his initial
Thanks so much.
PA to Editor in Chief of Herald Titles
[phones numbers redacted – FM]
From: Tim Murphy
Sent: Thursday, 10 July 2014 10:55 a.m.
To: Sarah Lawrence
Subject: RE: Press Council complaint – Frank Macskasy
We have corresponded with Fran [sic] Macskasy twice on this issue. I have
enclosed our two replies, which I believe address his concerns. The second
reply is to a complaint almost exactly the same as the one below forwarded
to the Press Council. At this point we believe those responses should stand
as our submission to the Council. We have included the full record of
Herald stories on the Donghua Liu-Labour donations issue for your reference.
Editor-in-chief, New Zealand Herald titles.
A day later, the Press Council contacted me with the Herald’s response;
from: Mary Major <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: Frank Macskasy <email@example.com>
date: Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 9:51 AM
subject: FW: Press Council complaint – Frank Macskasy
Good morning Frank,
Please see below and attached for the response from the NZ Herald.
You now have the opportunity to make a brief final comment (around 150
words). We would be pleased to receive this comment within the next 10
working days. The complaint will be considered by the Press Council at the
next meeting, which is on August 4, and the decision will be released about
two weeks after that.
My final comment (unfortunately, not so brief, because of the complexities of this issue), was made on 19 July;
from: Frank Macskasy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: Mary Major <email@example.com>
date: Sat, Jul 19, 2014 at 3:01 PM
subject: Re: FW: Press Council complaint – Frank Macskasy
Kia ora Mary,
I have read Mr Murphy’s response to my complaint and I do not believe they are a satisfactory response to the issues I have raised in my complaint.
1. Many of the Herald stories relating to David Cunliffe’s letter to Immigration NZ, regarding Donghua Liu, did not refer to the actual date of the letter (11 April 2003). In several subsequent stories referring to this letter, the Herald omitted any reference to the date, thereby leaving an unknown number of readers with the impression that the letter was recently written. This is a salient, critical fact of the story and it’s omission may have created a mistaken perception in the minds of many readers.
There was simply no valid reason to with-hold that vital fact from subsequent stories.
2. Tim Murphy wrote on 4 July, ” We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly”.
As of this date (19 July), over two weeks have passed and no ” further ‘evidence’ of this [has been] made public” to date.
The Herald has presented an unsubstantiated claim as fact, thereby mis-representing the truth and giving readers an impression that this claim was verified as true.
Promises of “further evidence” have not materialised. There is no indication when “further evidence” will ever materialise.
3. Regarding the Herald’s “clarification” of Donghua Liu’s claims for $100,000 spent on a bottle on wine.
(A) The “clarification” was inadequate because more coverage was given to the initial (false) claims than the clarification. This is bound to create a lasting impression in the minds of many readers that the initial (false) allegation was correct, being unaware of a subsequent “clarification”
(B) No apology was made to Labour leader, David Cunliffe.
The story was therefore false and only a cursory attempt made to rectify it.
4. I wrote in my complaint that “It is manifestly unfair, unreasonable, and unconscionable that the Herald has not released, in full and verbatim, Liu’s “signed statement” as it did with David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.”
Mr Murphy replied, “We do not automatically make public documents which we obtain as part of ongoing journalistic inquiries. There are many reasons for this, including the conditions upon which they were obtained from whatever source and the need for us to pursue further matters contained within. While there seems to be an expectation that journalistic inquiry must be ‘open source’ this ignores these conditions and also the competitive nature of news gathering. The Cunliffe letter was obtained under the Official Information Act and was released to all media, so is thus automatically a public document.”
I maintain that Mr Murphy has not provided solid grounds for with-holding Mr Liu “signed statement” except reference to “the competitive nature of news gathering”. This is wholly inadequate and gives only a one-sided view to this story. The public are unable to determine for themselves precisely what is is that Mr Liu has stated.
Given that he has already been shown to be less than credible with his allegation (see Point 3 above), I maintain this is a salient aspect of the story.
It is also worth noting that the media rails against governments of various hues for restricting the flow of information under the guise of “commercial sensitivity” and it is supremely ironic that the Herald – a news media organisation – is now following suit and employing the same tactic.
5. Mr Murphy fails to respond in any way to my complaint regarding John Armstrong’s column on 18 June.
(A) The Herald’s stories regarding former Labour MP, Rick Barker attending a river boat cruise in 2007 were not based on fact, and instead relied on nothing more than hear-say from Donghua Liu – who has already had to retract his allegations of a $100,000 bottle of wine. Mr Murphy stated, “You seem to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim he attended only a staff party in China. We do not accept this and expect further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be revealed in due course.”
As Bervan Hurley wrote these allegations on 22 June, it is now one month later and no “further details of the hospitality for him and others in China [have been] revealed in due course”.
In effect, the Herald has made allegations on one man’s unproven assertions and is now promising to “reveal in due course further details”. Mr Murphy offers no hint of when “due course” will arrive.
(B) Mr Murphy writes on the issue of Liu’s $2,000 donation to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club; “It would be wilfully naïve to assume that the donation to the rowing club associated with an MP, the day after that MP has hosted Liu in the region, is unconnected to that MP. The donation was made and Liu made it with the intent of it being in favour of the MP.”
It is simply astounding that Mr Murphy explains away the story regarding Liu’s donation as “Liu made it with the intent of it being in favour of the MP”. Since when can one man’s intent to “curry favour” be turned into a story implicating Rick Barker and the Labour Party of inappropriate activities? What Mr Liu “intended” cannot be laid at the feet of Mr Barker.
It is obvious that the Herald relied on one man’s (Donghua Liu) unsubstantiated assertions – of which one has been retracted; one remains unproven; whilst others have been mis-represented.
This was a story predicated on very little, and which has caused untold damage to a main political party* in a critical juncture in election year.
As such, I maintain that the Press Council should act accordingly in fairness and to send a strong signal to the media that unfair and unbalanced stories based on hear-say are grossly irresponsible and unacceptable.
* Note: I am not a Labour Party member or supporter.
Now we wait to 4 August for a decision from the Press Council.
2. NZ Herald journalist Jared Savage – Clarifications sought
On 19 June, I lodged an OIA request with Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse (to be reported in the next chapter of this story; The Donghua Liu Affair: OIA Responses from the PM; Deputy PM; the Immigration Minister, and next steps).
A response from the Minister’s office was received on 17 July.
Within that response were various pieces of information that required clarification from Herald reporter, Jared Savage, who had been covering much of the Donghua Liu “story”. Accordingly, I wrote to Jared with my questions;
Sent: Thursday, 17 July 2014 8:52 p.m.
To: Jared Savage
Subject: OIA Request; Donghua Liu; clarification on your involvement
This message has been sent via the NZ Herald Website
Kia ora Jared,
I am in receipt of information from Minister Michael Woodhouse’s office released to me under an OIA request.
The information provided requires some clarification on your part.
1. You lodged an OIA request on 16 June 2014 with Minister Woodhouse’s office, seeking, “Any correspondence, including emails, letters or queries, from any Members of Parliament in regards to Donghua Liu’s immigration status prior to 2005”.
2. You received a response, with relevant information, two days later on 18 June 2014.
3. Can you explain why you specifically mentioned “Donghua Liu’s immigration status prior to 2005”? Why did you mention the specific year of 2005?
4. You received material from Minister Woodhouse’s office within 48 hours – an unusually rapid “turn-a-round” time for an OIA request, which normally take weeks, if not months, to complete. Can you shed any light on why you received the information (including the 11 April 2003 letter from David Cunliffe to Immigration NZ) so quickly?
5. Can you confirm that you received a “tip off” to make the OIA, and, specifically, that you were aware of the Cunliffe/Donghua Liu/Immigration NZ letter prior to receiving a copy of it from Minister Woodhouses’ OIA release?
These questions are part of an on-going story I am writing on the Liu Affair. There appears to be unanswered questions surrounding the Herald’s involvement in this issue and any assistance you can provide to clear up unresolved issues will be appreciated.
Jared Savage replied later that day;
from: Jared Savage <Jared.Savage@nzherald.co.nz>
to: “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>
date: Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 11:27 PM
subject: RE: OIA Request; Donghua Liu; clarification on your involvement
Happy to answer questions as I’ve previously answered these on Twitter.
You might recall that prior to writing about Donghua Liu’s links to Labour, I wrote extensively about his links to the Nats.
It all started with queries about his citizenship while the Nats were in power, against advice, specifically after Maurice Williamson writing an email in support in 2010…it eventually led to Mr Williamson’s resignation as a Minister for intervening in a police matter and the discovery that Liu was also lobbying Immigration Minister Woodhouse to change policy.
I’ve also previously written about another citizenship case, Bill Liu (no relation), which was also granted against advice, but this was when Labour was last in Government.
It got me thinking about Donghua Liu’s bid for residency in 2005, which was also granted by Labour against official advice by Damien O’Connor, and whether he was lobbied.
I initially asked for his entire residency file under the OIA on May 8. I note that the next day Minister Woodhouse asked for the file.
I was declined the entire file on privacy grounds on June 16. As I was really only interested in whether MPs were involved in his residency bid, I refined my request to ask for any correspondence from MPs because this is clearly in the public interest.
I specifically mentioned prior to 2005 because this is when Mr Liu was granted residency, against advice. There would not be any correspondence after he gained residency.
Unfortunately, it was clumsily worded because Immigration officials interpreted the word prior to exclude 2005 in the response. I then lodged a further OIA request which revealed Mr O’Connor intervened 3 times in the lead up to residency being granted – including waiving the English language criteria – the day before the 2005 election.
I also wrote that Mr Liu has spent considerable time with Labour Minister Rick Barker in 2007 – the Minister in charge of citizenship under Labour- including hosting him in China and the Hawke’s Bay.
Coming back to the June 16 request, two days later, I received the letters. I have no idea why Immigration released it so quickly. Probably because they had already processed my earlier request of June 16 so the file was available, but you’d have to ask Immigration.
The reason why I asked questions about the potential involvement of MPs in Liu’s residency bid was that I was suspicious in the same way I was suspicious about the involvement of MPs in the citizenship bid.
Does your OIA response focus on Minister Woodhouse’s OIA response to me, solely, or to all media outlets?
Because it was not a Herald reporter asking direct questions of Mr Cunliffe’s potential involvement the day before the release of the letters…
Hope that helps
Awaiting information from several OIA requests and a Press Council complaint, I held off responding to Mr Savage. However, I have since received responses to OIA requests lodged with the offices of John Key, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, and Deputy PM Bill English. A decision from the Press Council is due today (21 August).
Today (21 August), I wrote back to Jared Savage, asking for clarification on certain matters;
from: Frank Macskasy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: Jared Savage <Jared.Savage@nzherald.co.nz>
date: Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 9:34 AM
subject: Re: OIA Request; Donghua Liu; clarification on your involvementKia ora Jared,I am in receipt of your email dated July 17, 2014 at 11:27 PM, in reply to my email dated earlier the same day. Your prompt response is appreciated. (My own apologies for taking so long to reply.)
I have some follow up questions which, I hope, may clarify the answers you have already provided. (I am still pursuing this story, as I believe there are facts yet to be uncovered, especially in the light of Nicky Hager’s book, “Dirty Politics”.)
1. You write; “Coming back to the June 16 request, two days later, I received the letters. I have no idea why Immigration released it so quickly.”Question A: Have you, or any other NZ Herald staffer asked Immigration NZ why the letter was released so quickly?Question B: Was this rapid turn-a-round for an OIA request discussed at NZ Herald, and if so, what was the outcome?
Question C: Do your happen to have a copy of the email from Minister Woodhouse/Immigration NZ and specifically, the date-time on it?I would appreciate a copy of the covering letter that accompanied the 2003 Cunliffe-Liu letter. I am assuming that will not break journalistic standards in protecting your sources, as the source of the letter is now public information.Question D: What other correspondence have you had with Minister Woodhouse, Immigration NZ, or any other Third Party on this matter?
2. You write; “Does your OIA response focus on Minister Woodhouse’s OIA response to me, solely, or to all media outlets? Because it was not a Herald reporter asking direct questions of Mr Cunliffe’s potential involvement the day before the release of the letters…”
I have searched the internet for prior references to David Cunliffe’s involvement with the Donghua Liu Affair, and can find only two media reports that *appear* to precede your 18 June Herald story. One is from Interest.Co.Nz (http://www.interest.co.nz/news/70461/cunliffes-labour-leadership-under-pressure-letter-shows-he-advocated-donghua-liu-2003-des), and the other from TV3 (http://www.3news.co.nz/Controversial-Chinese-donor-also-gave-to-Labour/tabid/1607/articleID/348740/Default.aspx). However, they both refer to your newspaper as the source of the story.
The TV3 story does not refer to the Cunliffe 2003 letter.
The Interest.co.nz story by Bernard Hickey referring to the Cunliffe 2003 letter was published at 1.45pm on 18 June – earlier than your story (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11276510) at 2.29 and yet still appears to link to your story, published 44 minutes later.
Question E: Can you suggest how Interest.co.nz came to have that information?
I understand that TV3 journalists were putting questions to David Cunliffe on 17 June (one day BEFORE you or anyone else had received the 2003 Cunliffe-Liu letter, via an OIA request) regarding what contact he had with Mr Liu.
Question F: Do you have any idea why they asked those very specific questions, and how they tied in with the 2003 Cunliffe-Liu letter?3. You wrote; “It got me thinking about Donghua Liu’s bid for residency in 2005, which was also granted by Labour against official advice by Damien O’Connor, and whether he was lobbied..”
Question G: Where did you first learn about this?
Question H: Were any of O’Connor’s letters already in the public arena? (I can’t locate any prior to your Herald story.)Your Editor, Tim Murphy, has stated that there is much more to come on the Donghua Liu Affair, with new evidence to confirm his allegations.Question I: Will there be follow up stories on this issue? Are any in the pipeline?
5. You wrote, “I also wrote that Mr Liu has spent considerable time with Labour Minister Rick Barker in 2007 – the Minister in charge of citizenship under Labour- including hosting him in China and the Hawke’s Bay.”
Question J: Have you had any contact with Simon Lusk (who also happens to live in the Hawkes Bay area), or any of his associates with regards to this matter?
Question K: Did you recieve a tip-off on Rick Barker’s association with Mr Liu? (I won’t ask you for your sources, for obvious reasons.)6. Question L: Are there any facts that I may have over-looked in this issue that may have a bearing on clarifying the story?
Hopefully, you can assist me to clarify these outstanding questions – especially if you can supply me with a copy of the covering email/letter from Immigration NZ/Michael Woodhouse, including email headers, which pertains to receipt of the 2003 Cunliffe-Liu letter. I would be interested in receiving a copy of that, in conjunction with an OIA request I have lodged on the matter with relevant Ministeries.
3. Immigration NZ and NZ Herald – more questions and a suggestion of collusion
Now, here’s the thing.
In Nicky Hager’s book, “Dirty Secrets”, the author’s remarks on the rapid turnaround of OIA requests made by extremist right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater, to various government departments including the secretive SIS;
“Documents like the SIS briefing notes are not usually released to the public, under the official information law [OIA] or otherwise. Someone had overruled the usual practice and then fast-tracked the release. The released documents were stamped as being declassified on 26 July 2011, the same day that Slater sent off his request. Where was the time for decision-making and consultations?” – “Dirty Secrets”, p40
“[Jason] Ede recommended the wording that Slater use in his official information request: ‘Written and email communications within, to and from, Paula Bennett’s Ministerial office and its staff in relation to Ira Bailey from the beginning of last week til today’ and Slater sent the request that day, using exactly the same words, apart from inserting a bracketed date, ‘Mon 8 October 2012’, after ‘last week’. Slater received the information from Bennett by the following day and was able to publicise it with a government-friendly spin – “Bennett’s office in the clear’ less than two days after Ede wrote to him.” – “Dirty Secrets”, p41/42
This blogger can testify to one immutable fact-of-life: OIA requests to Minister’s offices and governments departments can take several weeks, if not more than a month, to fulfill.
Case in point: I asked for a copy of the covering letter from Immigration NZ to NZ Herald’s journalist, Jared Savage, on 21 July this year,
Kia ora Ms Hames/Minister Michael Woodhouse,
Thank you for providing the information I was requesting under the OIA.
I require some further items of information, which I am lodging as an OIA request;
1. The covering email/letter to Jared Savage, of the NZ Herald, pertaining to the release of David Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003 (pertaining to Donghua Liu, to Immigration NZ) letter to that reporter (or any other person(s) at the NZ Herald or any other media outlet, on or about 18 June of this year.
It took one month (20 August) for that simple response to be filled. A copy of the letter, from Immigration NZ to Jared Savage, is presented;
Note the date that Mr Savage lodged the OIA request: 18 June 2014.
Note the date that Immigration NZ responded, supplying a copy of the 2003 Cunliffe-Liu letter: 20 June 2014.
Yet it took Immigration NZ a month to send the covering Immigration NZ-Savage letter to me.
One cannot escape the conclusion that some form of collusion has taken place between Immigration NZ/Minister Woodhouse and the NZ Herald. Nicky Hager has uncovered how that sort of collusion has taken place between right-wing blogger and National Party-mouthpiece, Cameron Slater and the Prime Minister’s office.
The question now is – has the same collusion been occurring between the NZ Herald and the PM’s office?
Two days for an OIA request to be completed? The Herald has some questions to answer.
To be continued: The Donghua Liu Affair: OIA Responses from the PM; Deputy PM; the Immigration Minister, and next steps
Previous related blogposts
Above image acknowledgment: Francis Owen/Lurch Left Memes
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