John Drinnan on business

John Drinnan is a Herald business writer and media commentator

Media: Shearer dinner date bad look

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David Shearer says he chatted mostly about football to lobbyist Tony O'Brien. Photo / Paul Estcourt
David Shearer says he chatted mostly about football to lobbyist Tony O'Brien. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Labour leader David Shearer attended a dinner party with his wife at the home of long-time Sky TV lobbyist Tony O'Brien on April 27.

Shearer insists they did not talk about Labour's broadcasting policy.

However, a private dinner with a lobbyist linked with News Corporation is strange logic while Sky TV is fighting off a regulatory push and amid a global furore as Rupert Murdoch and News Corp are accused of undue influence on British politicians.

It has sparked a debate about political lobbying in this country.

Some would say Shearer's lack of caution is an example of New Zealand's easy-going democracy and we should not over-egg such contact.

But Sky TV is ultimately 44 per cent owned by News Corporation, and News Ltd representatives on the Sky TV board report to Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Ltd.

The dinner party was alluded to by the right-wing blogger Whale Oil.

O'Brien is one of New Zealand's most assiduous and effective lobbyists, and there are no other allegations here of anything inappropriate.

Famously he has his own parliamentary access card so he can move backwards and forwards into security areas at will.

You cannot fault O'Brien's skills getting close to politicians on all sides of the house - and key journalists - but what was Shearer thinking going to a dinner party with a senior lobbyist held without government officials?

The Opposition leader said broadcasting policy was not talked about.

It was "mostly football, US politics, the role of the Citizens Advice Bureau and what my wife and I had done while working overseas for the UN and other humanitarian organisations", he said.

Asked if it was appropriate to meet with a lobbyist in this way, Shearer said it was normal for MPs to meet and eat meals with people from all walks of life.

"I have also recently had afternoon tea with community co-ordinators in Auckland and shared a sausage sizzle with students at a film school," he said.

"I had dinner with him [O'Brien] at his home once before about 18 months or 2 years ago," he said, alluding to a time he was a mere backbencher.

DAVID AND GOLIATH

A private dinner with a lobbyist linked to the Murdoch organisation might be just a lack of foresight, but a source familiar with Labour thinking suggested it might be explained by interest inside Labour about getting its media message across better.

In that scenario Shearer might want to pick O'Brien's brain about getting onside with the media.

Indeed Shearer has been a disaster in most of his media appearances, leading to growing questions about his future.

Labour supporters I've spoken to are aghast at clumsy appearances in front of cameras.

Increasingly TV news networks seeking left-wing comment on a run of government scandals have gone first to the Greens, then sometimes to Winston Peters, with a dozy Shearer sometimes a distant third.

O'Brien studiously avoids a public profile - but in the cosy atmosphere of Parliament he is well-liked by many politicians on the left and right.

PLUS ONE MINUS 7

Television New Zealand will launch a "plus one" channel on the digital frequency on Freeview now occupied by TVNZ 7 from July 1.

The new channel will be an exact duplicate of TV One, broadcast an hour later - the same as TV3 Plus One on Freeview.

Talks are still being held for the Plus One channel to be available on other platforms such as Sky TV.

Plus One channels allow people who do not use personal video recorders like MySky or My Freeview to catch up when they have missed the start of a show.

The change will provide a low-cost way for TVNZ to add value to its offering when TVNZ7 goes off the air.

But it will do nothing to appease the simmering discontent among supporters for TVNZ7 who see its demise as closing a door on a public service channel.

Critics have argued TVNZ was always half-hearted about TVNZ7 and never promoted shows, underestimating the support for them.

MONEY FOR HAM

While public service programmes on TVNZ7 are being abandoned NZ On Air with an obligation to reflect culture and identity backed TV3 reality show The GC.

New Zealand On Air has long ago abandoned the notion of culture beyond what is dreamed up by admen and TV3 network bosses are chasing advertising dollars.

The GC may be the final proof that New Zealand on Air has been (to use old Treasury parlance) "captured" by its funding recipients - the TV networks and the production industry.

The GC has been praised and pilloried online, but has no obligation to be to everyone's taste.

I watched Wednesday's debut and it was clearly not my demographic (as they say). But the problem is not with the producer but the use of taxpayer funds for highly commercial shows.

NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson is happy with the show but confirmed TV3 has promised future episodes will have "more cultural content".

The GC was watched by a healthy 26.7 per cent of the audience and an astonishing 40 per cent of Maori viewers, according to ratings figures provided by TV3.

Last week this column questioned taxpayer funding for The GC as well as overseas format such as TV One's show NZ's Got Talent.

TV3 is also planning to seek funding for another overseas format show, The X Factor.

TVNZ LAGGING

With all the upheavals facing New Zealand media at the moment it's encouraging to see the effort being put into detailed journalism.

Some will disagree with me - due to political support for the Government - but I would argue reporting of the teapot tape, the SkyCity deal and the John Banks-Dotcom donation are examples of a healthy news media.

Without being too much of a crawler to my own employers, I'll note this paper has been central in all of those things.

But so too has 3 News and Campbell Live whose persistence has restored mana to the show.

In reporting on SkyCity and Dotcom, TVNZ has seemed to be playing catch up, possibly due to the fact it has not had a political editor for six months and new head of news and current affairs Ross Dagan has only just started.

On TV One's Q&A, Shane Taurima has shown himself as a feisty interviewer and some would say he could do with a little more engagement. Alas, Paul Holmes has not been shining. Last week, given the opportunity to put allegations to John Banks that were broken on TV3 and in the Herald, Holmes threw out some rapid fire questions about what Banks did know and what he did not but prevented him from saying anything by interrupting.

The interview wound up with a chuckle talking about a helicopter trip they had been on. Holmes has admitted a personal admiration for Banks and in my opinion was not the right person to interview him at this time.

- NZ Herald

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