Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Tape at top of slippery slope to controlled media

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Phil and Mary Goff would surely object to being recorded without their consent. Photo / Janna Dixon
Phil and Mary Goff would surely object to being recorded without their consent. Photo / Janna Dixon

I have words of warning to those media experts opining that John Key should release the conversation recorded by cameraman Bradley Ambrose (formerly White): be careful what you wish for.

Because Labour, if it becomes government, lusts after state control of media. Instead of the current situation, whereby the Press Council acts as watchdog for newspapers and magazines, handling complaints and functioning reasonably well, Labour would combine print media with broadcasters and have them all controlled by government.

Do taxpayers really want to fund something newspapers and magazines already voluntarily pay for and also comply with the outcomes, adverse or otherwise? Commentators such as Jim Tully play right into Labour's hands. Sure, Key's advisers made monumental errors of judgment agreeing to meet Act's John Banks in a public place and then inviting media.

Key should have phoned Banks for a chat, like any normal person, then told reporters the deed was done.

How he must regret that cup of tea. Act has, with notable exceptions, been nothing but a vexation for National, but if you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.

It seems tea and politics truly don't mix - Boston, Lange, Brash and the Brethrens. Memo to MPs: stick to whisky.

Call me old-fashioned, and I'm out on my own here, but I'm with Key on the journalistic principles. In this campaign, I've seen journalism standards sink to a new low. For instance, Jim Tucker, tutor at Whitireia Community Polytechnic, published an online election poll for his students, asking which politician they'd go to bed with. Can you imagine a poll, similarly disrespecting his students, asking which tutor would like to bed the graduates?

As a journalism student at the same polytechnic 40 years ago, I was taught ethics, which included always asking people if it was OK to record their statements and making it clear when we were "on" and "off" the record.

Ambrose says he unintentionally recorded this conversation. Now neither Key nor Banks will give permission for its contents to be published and I support that stand, even if it were taken by Joe Bloggs the butcher. It's the manner in which the information was garnered - that's a line we shouldn't cross.

If Key gives the OK to publish, he sanctions the unauthorised garnering of information by the media and sets a precedent. He opens the stable door and the gutter press will bolt.

Yes, it was a public place. Yes, it was a publicity stunt - to some extent the entire election campaign is a stunt to capture media coverage. In the same paper, Phil and Mary Goff shared tea and scones with Kerre Woodham. It's obvious they've been happily married for years (I know them, I don't need photos to prove it).

But what if Kerre left a bag behind, went back to get it and found her recorder had "unintentionally" recorded Phil and Mary having a blazing row? What if their public "togetherness" was a farce until after the election? Or they'd exchanged derogatory remarks about David Cunliffe and David Parker? Would these be potential "game-changing" influences on left-leaning voters? How would Goff feel about being taped secretly?

When I was an MP, my private car was bugged. In 2003, when my then-partner visited his friend in Tongariro/Rangipo Prison, the car was searched for drugs and the bug was discovered. We commissioned a report from a leading private investigator, which I still have, along with the bug.

Despite the four-page report concluding this was a "somewhat unsophisticated device ... installed by someone with a basic technical capability", it was not pleasant, to say the least, to know someone would go to such lengths to find dirt on me.

Politicians are not fair game for anything and I don't say that just because my column is subtitled "Right On" and National is under pressure to release these tapes. I have sent private messages of support to MPs on all sides of the House when they've been in trouble, because I know what it's like.

If we want good people to stand for Parliament, then the media must lift its standards.

And newspapers should think hard about self-regulation if they don't want the nanny state's forced regulation.

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