Peeved earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee appears to have abandoned embargo-breach complaints against NBR ONLINE.
Mr Brownlee tried to complain to the New Zealand Press Council about embargoes he alleged were breached when the government announced its Christchurch rebuild “blueprint” on July 30 and again when school closures and mergers were announced on September 13.
However, he failed to follow correct procedure by complaining to the Press Council before first raising his complaints with NBR ONLINE, which he subsequently did in September, and to which NBR ONLINE replied.
The time for him to make a complaint has now expired and he has not replied to requests from NBR ONLINE to say what, if anything, he intends to do.
He may have thought better of it, but he and his advisers are not saying.
Mr Brownlee's complaint
Mr Brownlee claimed embargoes existed on both events and accused NBR ONLINE and veteran Christchurch reporter Chris Hutching of intentionally breaking them by deceit and subterfuge.
He also took issue with a story published on September 14 in which NBR ONLINE supported Mr Hutching’s resourcefulness in getting the school closures and mergers story.
NBR ONLINE published its Christchurch rebuild story about 5.15pm, ahead of what was pre-arranged with Prime TV news to announce at 5.30pm and other television channels and media at 6pm.
The school closures and mergers story was published about three and a half hours before that news was to be officially released.
Persona non grata
In retaliation, Mr Brownlee made his former school chum Mr Hutching “persona non grata” and has excluded him from his media releases since.
The petty ban has not in any way prevented Mr Hutching from doing his job.
In reply to Mr Brownlee, NBR ONLINE stands by its reporting of the rebuild plan and the school closures and mergers announcement, and will fight any complaint to the Press Council.
Embrago breach rejected
Mr Brownlee’s claim embargoes were breached are rejected because no legitmate conventionally accepted embargoes existed.
The decision to run the stories was made on newsworthiness in relation to the impact of the information on Christchurch and Canterbury people.
The so-called embargoes were heavily stage-managed and orchestrated by an army of spin doctors, the embargo convention was abused by officials and the rebuild announcement was “pure political theatre”.
The real news of the July 30 event – the compulsory acquisition of land – had already been broken by Mr Hutching several days earlier as a result of working his contacts.
Bernard Hickey wants punishment
After receiving a formal complaint from a rival business reporter, Bernard Hickey, demanding NBR be punished and banned from attending Budget lockups and other financial events, NBR ONLINE was declared persona non grata from earthquake recovery news by Mr Brownlee’s spin doctor Nicholas Bryant – with ministerial backing.
Mr Hutching received no advance notification of the September 13 school closures and mergers announcement because by then he was on public servant Mr Bryant’s persona non grata black list.
Mr Hutching got on to that story through sources and good journalism.
If there was a legitimate embargo on that event Mr Hutching and NBR ONLINE were not bound by it.
In any event, the word about closures and mergers spread rapidly from about 10am that day as head teachers and others quickly phoned and texted the news, independently of anything NBR ONLINE published.
Government officials gravely underestimated the explosive reaction from Canterbury’s education community.
Readers back stories
Apart from a flurry of malice from public relations spin doctors, some with lucrative vested-interest axes to grind in Christchurch, reader comments on both stories supported Mr Hutching.
NBR ONLINE supports embargoes for the Budget and similar market-moving briefings and will continue to honour them.
But in NBR ONLINE’s view, the events of July 30 and September 13 were no such occasions – the July 30 event being, in the opinion of some folk, a $550,000 tax-payer funded infotainment stunt.
The September 13 anouncement was described by Christchurch headmasters as a total and complete cockup, with everything leaking like a sieve.
Who is Gerry Brownlee?
Mr Brownlee (56) is the MP for Ilam, Leader of the House, Minister of Transport, Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery and Minister responsible for the Earthquake Commission.
NBR’s door remains open to him.