John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: Don't ask don't tell

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Prime Minister John Key has forced TV3 to rethink its pre-election coverage.

The move follows Key's claim on Tuesday that TV3 political commentator Linda Clark had been providing Labour leader David Cunliffe with media training.

TV3 is reviewing its use of the Kensington Swan lawyer and government relations adviser as a political commentator in the run-up to the election.

The law firm describes Clark as a "special counsel, public policy expert, and political commentator". Kensington Swan has placed heavy restrictions on Clark, so she cannot identify her clients - even off-air, to TV3 - when she acknowledges a potential conflict of interest.

Under an unusual don't-ask-don't-tell arrangement with TV3, Clark removes herself from potential conflicts that might arise if she were to talk about her clients at Kensington Swan.

But she is is not allowed to explain the conflict of interest.

In a bizarre twist, TV3 news and current affairs boss Mark Jennings says he does not know if Clark gave Cunliffe media training - and may never know.

He insists there has been no conflict of interest in her two appearances on The Nation this year. The arrangement with her previous employer, Chapman Tripp, was "more transparent", says Jennings.

"We have always relied on Linda being upfront on these things and she has never let me down."

Clark says she is not allowed to discuss the matter, and neither Kensington Swan nor Cunliffe will comment.

Asked if the arrangement is adequate for viewers or for TV3, Jennings says it is nothing like the conflict of interest problems with Shane Taurima at TVNZ. "But it's not ideal and after events this week we are going to have to have a think about it." He declines to discuss the financial arrangements for the agreement.

Crossfire

Clark is well liked inside the Wellington beltway and has a reputation as an astute political observer. But the bizarre arrangement with Kensington Swan illustrates the growing issue with various pundits and PR people who appear on TV, and the potential for conflicts with their political or commercial roles.

Clark insists she is a commentator, not a journalist. But with her confident, take-control style, that distinction has sometimes been hard to see during her appearances on The Nation this year.

In my opinion, Clark is caught in the crossfire between the Government and TV3, over its coverage of the Oravida scandal. The channel's political team has taken a high-profile approach in that coverage, aggravating relations between National and TV3. Key ticked off Judith Collins for allegations against TVNZ journalist Katie Bradford, but with the attack on Clark, it seems he has taken up the cudgels on her behalf.

In my opinion it would be good if Clark's role was spelt out, so viewers can judge her comments. That might not be ideal for her or for Kensington Swan, but it's a taxpayer-funded show and viewers deserve no less.

Labour of love

At print time, the courtship between the Labour Party and Maori TV news and current affairs director Julian Wilcox had not been consummated.

Meanwhile, Wilcox continues to head a news and current affairs division funded from the public purse, but declines to respond to queries about his political aspirations.

The on-again, off-again romance has been forced on Wilcox, because he apparently has not wanted to seek nomination for the Tamaki Makaurau seat until Shane Taurima's position is clear. After the blowout over Taurima's activities at TVNZ - and given that Maori TV chairwoman Georgina te Heuheu is a former National Cabinet Minister - he had to keep his powder dry.

With TVNZ having completed the inquiry into its Maori and Pacific unit, and Taurima ruled out, Wilcox is the favourite.

Some people make the valid point that Maori find many of their leaders in the media, who are ostensibly politically neutral, and that leads to conflicts. But we really should not have a likely Labour Party candidate running a newsroom in an election year.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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