Wendyl Nissen: Tuning out: Dirty Politics and the blogs

Questions about smear campaign and conflict of interest made me determined to be on the side of the angels.

Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I don't usually write columns about politics but I'm going to talk about smear campaigns and conflict because it involves me.

As you may know I write a column called Wendyl Wants to Know in the Weekend Herald every Saturday which looks at what is in processed food.

Most of the time the findings are not very good and involve additives or high sugar and salt levels you wouldn't want near your family. Other times I am pleasantly surprised to find a producer making genuinely healthy food.

In 2012 and last year I was on the receiving end of several complaints, including a Press Council complaint, questioning my work and findings to my bosses at the Herald.

The person behind the complaints was Katherine Rich, the chief executive of the Food & Grocery Council, which represents companies who produce soft drinks and processed foods, some of which I have written about.

According to their website, the "FGC promotes the role the industry plays in the health and nutrition of New Zealanders in making better diet and lifestyle choices".

The management board includes representation from Nestle, Frucor and Mars NZ. Katherine was objecting to my role in highlighting many of the artificial colours commonly used in soft drinks and processed foods and the fact many had been banned in other countries.

Fortunately I work for editors who dislike what I believe was bullying and I felt very supported by them. We dealt with the complaints to her satisfaction, I thought.

Last year, right-wing bloggers Whale Oil (Cameron Slater) and Cactus Kate (Cathy Odgers) appeared to begin a smear campaign against me. I haven't read any of the blogs but I was alerted to them and their subject matter.

Please do me a favour and don't go searching on the site for them. I believe they are invented to discredit me and if you click on them you'll just give them the satisfaction that they are being read.

Since then the book Dirty Politics has been released and there are now allegations that these bloggers were paid money to conduct smear campaigns against people disliked by their clients. One of those clients is alleged to be Katherine Rich and the Food and Grocery Council.

The regularity of the posts against me makes me think that someone had paid for them. Why else would they bother smearing someone who simply writes a few columns about healthy living when, according to Dirty Politics, they had much bigger fish to fry? I can't prove this, I can't say who might have paid for them and I will probably never know.

Dirty Politics revealed that Katherine, while campaigning for the rights of food producers to put unhealthy additives in their food, was also on the government-funded Health Promotion Agency board - an agency designed to work for the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. The conflict of interest is so alarming that a group of 33 scientists and health practitioners signed a letter to John Key asking him to investigate.

I spend every day working for a better life for New Zealanders. I run a business which makes environmentally friendly natural cleaners and I give the recipes away for free; I write a weekly newsletter helping more than 11,000 people discover better, more natural ways to live; I write a column in the Woman's Weekly with recipes and hints to live a greener life; and in the Herald I try to alert readers to foods which are too high in sugar or salt and contain additives which in many countries are banned for health reasons but are still used here. I wouldn't have thought that these contributions were reason for a smear campaign by bloggers.

Last week I resigned from my regular Friday morning slot on NewstalkZB, which I have been doing for 15 years, because I didn't want to be on the same platform as Cameron Slater, another commentator on the station, while there are allegations that his views involve cash for comment.

I'm all for free speech when there are genuinely held views, but I believe that if you are paid to express them by big industry or politicians with an agenda, that is not fair.

Over the years I have been writing Wendyl Wants to Know for the Herald, I have been offered many incentives to write nice things about processed foods for food producers. I have turned them all down because my readers have to trust me. Objectivity is the first rule of journalism.

A friend said "this can't be the New Zealand we know", and I agree. As my husband says, "we need to be on the side of the angels", and I try very hard to be.

- NZ Herald

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