The real losers in the Hirschfeld-Curran debacle will be you and I, says PAT PILCHER. He outlines the sorry saga and why the real costs may be greater than many realise.
As is so often the case, a political/media storm in a teacup has come out of nowhere. This one happened because of a meeting between Clare Curran and Carol Hirschfeld. There’s a pile of things about this sorry saga that don’t add up and the real costs may be greater than many realise.
So, what exactly happened?
Well, apparently the then head of Radio New Zealand news, Carol Hirschfeld, and Minister for Broadcasting Clare Curran caught up over a cuppa. It turns out that this was a breach of protocols. This wasn’t the way things are meant to get done. A meeting between an SOE employee and a minister should in theory be pre-approved by the SOE chief executive.
Further stirring the strata-cumulus in the teacup, Hirschfeld played into the Nats hands. When asked by her superiors if she’d planned the meeting, she said they’d bumped into each other. This was then communicated by the RNZ chair to a select committee. Unfortunately, this was when the brown sticky stuff hit the fan.
According to Newstalk ZB, when Curran learned what the select committee got told by RNZ, her office contacted RNZ to set the record straight.
Again, according to Newstalk ZB, RNZ chair Richard Griffin had said that a personal source contacted him to tell him that the meeting between Hirschfeld and Curran had been scheduled in Curran’s diary and wasn’t unplanned. Was that personal source Curran (unlikely), or was it one of Griffin’s National party contacts (which seems probable given his history)?
Either way, this information gave RNZ the ammo it needed to act. The official explanation appears to be that she’d misled her superiors and thus ‘resigned’. Curran and Hirschfeld were not the only ones departing from accepted protocol.
Once Hirschfeld ‘resigned’, Griffin called National broadcasting spokeswoman Melissa Lee. This was to let her know of Hirschfeld’s resignation. Telling the opposition before telling their biggest stakeholder (the government!) strikes me as being as shady as the meeting that caused this mess in the first place.
Surely advising the government and then holding a joint press government press conference or issuing a statement would have been a more professional approach? What’s good for the gander doesn’t seem to apply to the goose.
So, to sum up, it appears that Hirschfeld and Curran got spotted in the café and the National party got tipped off. Sensing political gains could happen, the Nats got digging and somehow accessed the Ministers diary (how and if this happened is another important question).
Based on what they already knew, the Nats took a punt that this meeting wasn’t quite as Hirschfeld had portrayed to her superiors. That Hirschfeld slipped the hangman’s noose around her neck added fuel to an already burning political bonfire. So, in short, it appears the Nats went on a fishing trip and landed a fish. The media and social media has since gone nuts and speculation is flying in all directions.
Regardless of the sheer volume of noise, some important questions are still unanswered.
The number one question in my mind is why Hirschfeld mislead her superiors?
Indications are that Hirschfeld and her boss, RNZ CEO Paul Thompson got along well. They were both seen as the driving force that’d revived RNZ after a few tough years under the last government. Pundits put this down to a combination of Thompson’s management and digital savvy plus Hirschfeld’s ability to envisage a style that was compelling to RNZ’s audience.
Be that as it may, Hirschfeld must have had some issue with Thompson and persisted in telling him that the meeting was a casual catch up. It is unlikely we’ll ever know why.
The second big question must be what got said at the meeting? Several people saw Curran and Hirschfeld at Astoria cafe, but no one overheard their discussion. Knowing this might provide some insight into why the Nats got worked up. It might even help us understand why Hirschfeld fell on her sword when a warning or reprimand would have sufficed.
The chances of ever finding answers to both these questions is likely to be less than zero. Hirschfeld has stayed mum, and it is fair to assume that a non-disclosure agreement is in place.
It’d be a good bet to say that Hirschfeld was keen to talk about Labour’s RNZ+ strategy and wanted to get a feel for Curran’s RNZ+ vision.
Curran could have wanted to find out what was going on at RNZ. If this was the case, she’d have been keen to cultivate a relationship that would have given her eyes and ears within RNZ. It’d be a fair to assume that she’d be wary of a more direct approach given that Griffin used to be the press secretary for ex-National party leader and PM, Jim Bolger. Griffins actions once Hirschfeld resigned seem to back this up.
But here’s the rub. It wasn’t as if the meeting was clandestine. It took place in the middle of Astoria, one of Wellingtons busiest cafés. While you could argue it wasn’t a smart move by Curran or Hirschfeld, it doesn’t appear to have happened on the sly.
There are lots of possible answers but it most likely comes down to political gamesmanship and RNZ+.
It’s no secret that RNZ+ is a political hot potato. Within RNZ there’s got to anxiety about how they’ll make RNZ+, as articulated by Labour, work given the funding they received. Thirty million dollars might sound like a lot of money, but it is a small drop in a very big bucket when it comes to transforming RNZ into a fully-fledged TV broadcaster.
It’d be a fair bet to say that this isn’t lost on RNZ either. No wonder Griffin had gone on record to say that RNZ+ could be an expanded version of what is already available from RNZ.
RNZ+ is where Hirschfeld could’ve stepped in to give RNZ a fighting chance of making things work. As the former head of programming for Maori TV, Hirschfeld knows how to make a little money go a long way. She also has a solid working knowledge of the TV industry. This would’ve allowed her to help RNZ navigate the pitfalls and traps of television broadcasting. These will now most likely elude RNZ until it is too late.
Either way, the reality is that while the Nats have scored a political broadside, the outcomes are not going to be good for the listening public or RNZ. While the Nats continue to grandstand, the dust is settling. People are already asking, what now?
RNZ are right to worry. They must come up with a workable RNZ+ solution and do so on a shoestring budget. Now thanks to a liberal helping of politics, the one person who could’ve helped them achieve this is gone.
RNZ are also in the unenviable position of having to work with a minister who will most likely have serious trust issues with the RNZ management team. As is the way so often, the real losers here are you and I.