Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fran O'Sullivan: Reporter with a mission should get back to basics

"You are implicated" said the headline which sprang up when I clicked open my email at the Herald several days after last year's election.

Ian Wishart's accusation was unexpected but as an attention-grabber it was probably without parallel.

What was he on about? Anyone with half an ounce of life about them will inevitably have accumulated an array of personal "crimes and misdemeanours" after a considerable time on this planet - but this was not an insider gossip session between two journalists with a "history", one around the 1990s wine-box tax-dodging scandal where we competed vigorously but also combined to ensure a story was exposed that the then establishment wanted buried.

This time the boot was really on the other foot.

Wishart had lined me up as a member of the MSM (mainstream media) sloths who failed to investigate documents relating to Doonegate which were posted on a right-wing blogsite days before the election.

Wishart, and the vast right-wing conspiracy that is the Sir Humphrey's Department of Unspin blogsite, believed these documents proved Prime Minister Helen Clark spread lies to unseat the former Police Commissioner. He believed they were documents which would have fatally damaged Clark.

"These were drawn to your attention. Did you inform your editor?" was the tenor of the email.

"Coverup - the story that could have changed the election result - but the media didn't tell you" - blazoned the cover on the following month's Investigate magazine after Wishart did some "dot-connecting" and attacked MSM for general gutlessness by playing up the campaign funding scandal over the National Party's links to the Exclusive Brethren but neglecting new facts that could have fingered Clark.

I was angered by Wishart's claims then and still feel a lingering sense of unease about the issue and not because I failed to "do the story" myself.

I did spend a considerable amount of time working through my own Doone file before deciding the issue needed considerable journalistic re-investigation because much of the substance had already been reported by Herald journalists who mined out the story.

Neither the Sir Humphrey's blogsite, nor "Antarctic Lemur", the anonymous poster of these documents, would declare their political interests in the affair. I did speak to an "Adolf Finkelstein" in weighing these documents but the promised original documents did not materialise.

Were these simply documents obtained for Doone's much-trumpeted defamation case against Clark - which has still to materialise, as Wishart subsequently fails to report?

Was the National Party the source? If so why didn't they go public rather than try to manipulate journalists? Or were the documents fakes?

These are the kinds of questions any journalist will ask before going to print with strong allegations in the last week of an election campaign. The consequences of journalistic failure at this high-wire level are too high to get wrong.

My concern was the presumption that MSM missed an opportunity to bring down Clark, which is not the media's democratic role.

I suspect my attention was drawn to the blogged documents because I had written that it was time to change horses because the Clark Government was running out of ideas.

But the essential difference between the MSM and bloggers is that we have to make sure our journalistic investigations and stories are factually underpinned, are made water-tight as much as possible within the time constraints available, and that the accused gets a chance to respond.

What would have happened had we raced to print with an unverified story that had cost Clark the election and it had then turned out we had missed some obvious links?

My suspicion is that Wishart would have cheered us on because he so obviously now wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Clark and her Government.

The reason Clark calls him "lowlife" is that he has made a number of outrageous attacks against her, claiming she has a lesbian cabal running the Government. But if we had rushed to put Brash in the frame we would have been condemned.

This is clearly hypothetical.

What is not is the "two and a half" Cabinet scalps Wishart has come close to bagging in his crusades against Labour over the past year.

His John Tamihere sting was justified, but there are big weaknesses in his campaigns against David Benson-Pope and David Parker where he chose to again run with the accusations by disaffected sources without putting them to the relevant Cabinet Minister first.

I am not crowing because Wishart's latest effort has blown up in his face. I have a lot of respect for any journalist who is prepared to dig down - uncover the stones - and take a few risks.

But going on to claim on his blog that Benson-Pope could be charged with "kidnapping" under the Crimes Act in relation to peeping tom allegations relating to school girls in shower rooms is just plain nutty stuff.

So, too, is not giving Parker the ability to respond before going with a bankrupt's allegations.

Wishart needs to stop acting as a criminal prosecutor, to go back to his journalistic roots - or get an editor who can save him from his own excesses.


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