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Reporter: Colin Peacock

Mediawatch for 19 August 2018

'Limogate' highlights the pros and cons of leaks, Act party struggles for support but not exposure; TVNZ pulls NZ pre-history docos; Paranormal send-up for Sensing Murder.

Last weekend’s Act Party conference attracted plenty of media coverage but not many bums on seats. Meanwhile, pundits have pondered if the party has any future - and if the leader appearing on Dancing With the Stars was a good move with his party disappearing in the polls.

Newshub’s early reveal of Simon Bridges’ big bill for travel created a political drama for the rest of the media this week. But the handling of the leak also sparked a pushback from some pundits and others in the media.

“Simon Bridges is spending up large - using taxpayer funding to pay for his limousine,” Newshub at 6 newsreader Samantha Hayes told viewers on Three last Monday.

Travel expenses leaked to Newshub showed Simon Bridges spent a six-figure sum in the previous quarter in which he went on a national tour to introduce himself as National’s new leader.

Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien - who previously criticised Simon Bridges for going on the road - said the spending was not only unjustified but also contradicted National Party pre-election ads claiming Labour fleeced hard-working Kiwis. And in his own promotional video, Simon Bridges talked about being brought up by parents who knew “how to stretch a dollar a long way.”

Tova O’Brien also reckoned he'd wasted the money.

“Simon Bridges hasn't announced a single policy based on the feedback he heard from voters yet. It was supposed to be a profile-raising exercise but . . he hasn't had a bump in the polls,” she said.

Since when have leaders’ travel expenses been linked to the output of fresh policies or positive opinion poll results? And using the public purse purely for personal poll rating bumps really would be out of order.

On Wednesday Tova O’Brien said Simon Bridges should apologise to taxpayers for what she called ‘Limo-gate’. His refusal “reeked of arrogance,” she wrote.

But not every journalist reckoned Bridges' big bill was such a big deal.

"Once you factor in that Bridges' costs include some invoices carried over from the previous quarter, and the fact that Crown limo's for the Opposition leader are charged out at a higher rate than is charged to government ministers, the figure still seems high, though not outlandish," Stuff's political editor Tracy Watkins wrote.

An editorial published in the Dominion Post, Taranaki Daily News and The Press called the Newshub scoop "a bit of a beat-up"

"If the objective was to get a story loaded with clickbaity phrases like "spending up large", "splashing cash" and "travelling the country by road and in style" into circulation – the leak succeeded admirably," said the editorial.

On Newstalk ZB and in the New Zealand Herald broadcaster Mike Hosking called it "a hit job" and even government minister Stuart Nash said he "didn't have problem with Simon's expenses".

“We don't expect the Leader of the Opposition to have to travel round on a Newman’s bus,” he said on Newstalk ZB.

Veteran political journalist John Armstrong wouldn't have been surprised by that though.

"When it comes to sniping at each other, there is an unspoken pact between the parties in Parliament that this territory is out of bounds. There is a big danger of the pot calling the kettle black, he wrote at TVNZ's One News Now.

The big picture, he said, was that this amounts to "state funding of party politics in drag".

"That was why this week’s fuss about Bridges’ expenses very quickly shifted from focusing on what was leaked to the question of who leaked it," he said.

That certainly became the media's focus when an inquiry into the leak was announced.

Stuff's Tracey Watkins called it “a big whodunnit that could keep us occupied for days”.

(By "us" she means herself and other political reporters, not readers who are not so interested...)

"The various theories have become so incredibly machiavellian, the effort of just keeping up was enough to make our heads spin," she wrote.

Heads of those found out for leaking will be rolling rather than merely spinning if the inquiry finds a culprit or two, reporters all agreed.

Before the last election, NZ First leader Winston Peters was the victim of a leak when two media outlets - including Newshub - reported that he’d been overpaid his national superannuation.

That was private financial information, whereas Simon Bridges six-figure spending on travel would have come out anyway this Thursday - along with the records of other MPs.

But in both cases it’s highly likely the leakers sought to damage those party leaders politically at a particularly tricky time for them.

If that was the motivation, the leaker would have been pleased to hear Tova O'Brien say this after her scoop on Newshub at Six on Monday:

"Simon Bridges' leadership needs a lifeline or drastic change of approach because it does seem like it's on shaky ground"

It remains to be seen if Parliament’s inquiry will unmask a culprit.

But as with Winston Peters pre-election Super story, the story that is really in the public interest is why the information was leaked to the media - and whether media are being used to undermine party leaders.

Journalists are duty-bound to protect sources of sensitive information so Newshub certainly won’t be making the source public.

While Simon Bridges was burned in this story, reporters will not want to burn their bridges with the sources of such scoops in the future - whether the public interest is being served or not.

TVNZ has removed a documentary that claims Celts settled New Zealand thousands of years before the arrival of Māori from its on demand service following a query from RNZ's Mediawatch.

The two-part documentary, New Zealand: Skeletons in the Cupboard, claims, among other things, that the Polynesian demi-god Maui was a real-life explorer who not only discovered New Zealand but claimed much of South America for Egypt; that Australian aboriginals arrived in New Zealand tens of thousands of years before Māori, that seven foot tall, red-headed Celts built complex astrological stone monuments, and that pale-skinned fairy-like people taught Māori how to weave fishing nets.

Mediawatch contacted TVNZ following a tweet from a concerned viewer. The tweet - which TVNZ didn't respond to -asked why the network was featuring pseudoscience in the 'documentary and factual' section of its on demand service.

Richard Stephen
@TVNZ should you really have this pseudo-history nonsense under "documentary and factual" available on demand on your site? https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/new-zealand-skeletons-in-the-cupboard … This sort of stuff is promoted by conspiracy theorists and the far right. @MediawatchNZ @historiesmeet #NZHistory

10:55 PM - Aug 3, 2018

New Zealand: Skeletons in the Cupboard | TVNZ OnDemand
Thousands of years ago, giants and tiny people inhabited New Zealand. Ngati Hotu and Waitaha tell stories of coming from the west and the east, across the mighty Pacific, and offer a provocative and...

See Richard Stephen's other Tweets
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On Thursday TVNZ told Mediawatch: "We’ve taken another look at Skeletons in the Cupboard. We accept that we should have taken more care in how we signposted this series to our viewers. On reflection, we don’t think it’s robust enough to stay in our factual line-up so we’ve made the decision to remove it from TVNZ OnDemand."

TVNZ said the two-part documentary was viewed about 4000 times in the two weeks it was available on its on demand service. The documentary has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Youtube.

Skeletons in the Cupboard draws heavily on the work of the self-described astro-archeologist Martin Doutre - author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand - and the late Noel Hilliam an amateur historian who also promoted the idea of a pre-Māori Celtic people living in New Zealand.

In the documentary Hilliam claims a British pathologist carbon-dated the remains of skeletons found in Northland and found them to be 3500 years old and of Welsh origin.

Last year the New Zealand Press Council (since renamed the NZ Media Council) upheld a complaint after the Northern Advocate splashed the same story across its front page.

The council decision said: "The paper failed to check with the unnamed experts Mr Hilliam cited or any other credible historic or forensic experts to test whether his claims could be valid. The story should not have been published without rudimentary checks."

Other journalists did try and verify the existence of the British pathologist without success - with the University of Edinburgh, where Hilliam claimed the pathologist worked, denying any knowledge of him.

The Cairns-based director and researcher of Skeletons in the Cupboard Peter Marsh told Mediawatch there was a good reason journalists couldn't find any evidence of the pathologist's existence..

"You have to realise that Noel was covering for that guy. He didn’t want to implicate him because the New Zealand authorities were out for blood. They wanted to arrest somebody for taking a tooth back to England."

Peter Marsh said he was aware of claims that the Celtic New Zealand theory had been promoted by people with an interest in undermining the Māori claim to tangata whenua status but that he did not in anyway support those agendas.

The documentary also claims that a digger driver uncovered numerous skulls north of Auckland but was told by Auckland Museum to just ignore them because the local iwi wasn't interested in anything that pre-dated its arrival.

Peter Marsh said he made no effort to verify the story with the museum. "We know they wouldn't have admitted it even if they did. A reputable museum like that, they're not going to admit something shonky going on. What's the point?"

There are a few academics quoted. The late Barry Fell a New Zealand educated professor at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology is the source of a claim that the Polynesian demi-god was an historical figure who not only discovered New Zealand but was captain of a fleet of six ships from Egypt

Barry Fell was recognised for his research into star fish and sea urchins but his work on the origins of the Polynesians isn’t taken seriously by experts.

New Zealand: Skeletons in the Cupboard does favourably quote two academics with expertise in New Zealand’s pre-history: Professor Richard Holdaway and Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith. Both have done work that suggests rats may have arrived here earlier than first settlement – and that almost certainly arrived with people.

On the face of it their findings could give credence to the idea of pre-Māori settlement in New Zealand. Neither of them were interviewed in the documentaries and both are scathing of the ideas being promoted in them.

Lisa Matisoo Smith told Mediawatch the documentaries had misused her data. "I have communicated with these people and have pointed out the errors in their interpretations but they do not want to hear the truth."

She said it wasn't a good look for TVNZ to feature it on its website. "It is a piece of fiction and misuse of real data. But sadly, conspiracy theories attract viewers."

And Professor Holdaway described the documentaries as total rubbish. He said his research, which can be found on open source online journals, suggests that people, probably of the Lapita culture, visited New Zealand a few hundred years before the beginning of settlement. "But there’s absolutely no evidence of people settling here before the arrival Polynesians around 650 years ago."

When asked about the criticisms Peter Marsh said the scientists were scared for their jobs. "They don't want their superiors cutting their funding."

And how does he respond to the suggestion that he's a peddler of conspiracy theories? "Well the term 'conspiracy theory' was, I think, coined by the CIA during operation mocking bird after the JFK assassination."

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