Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

The Collapse of the New Zealand Herald

In case you hadn't noticed it, the New Zealand Herald, the paper that used to claim to be the country's premier paper of record, has abandoned this aspiration and seems intent on becoming a mere British-style tabloid. Its journalists are down to a skeleton of reporters; the sub editing (those who fit the headlines to the story below) seems to have fallen into the hands of deliberate troublemakers; and the editor, Tim Murphy, appears not to be in charge of what appears in his paper.

You might think these are rather strong comments. They are. They describe a state of affairs that is poisoning too many relationships around Auckland, and causing the time of competent people to be wasted on countering deliberate falsehoods that appear in the Herald. Several key people in Auckland local government now refuse to talk to Bernard Orsman, the Herald's so-called Auckland City Reporter, because he twists words given to him, fabricates stories, and seems determined not to report the news, but to try to create it. Andrew Stone, the Chief Reporter, was a highly competent journalist, but he seems to be caught in the middle of this mess, and powerless to sort it out.

Let me provide the latest example of a Herald frolic. On Tuesday 10 March well-known Queen's Counsel, Gary Judd, who chairs Ports of Auckland, attended a media briefing about the ports' half yearly results. Judd was not a participant, just sitting in the back row. Amongst other things, journalists were told about a review that the Port Company was undertaking into its capital structure. After the briefing, Judd was approached by Herald journalists Bernard Orsman and Owen Hembry for comment. Always on the lookout for what he hopes can be portrayed as some "right-wing outrage", Orsman asked Judd whether the review might recommend privatisation of the Port. Judd thought that unlikely, adding that in any event, since the Auckland Regional Council through its investment arm Auckland Regional Holdings owned the port, any questions on such matters should be directed to them.

Hembry understood what Judd had said, and next day reported the encounter accurately in the Herald's business section. Orsman, on the other hand, decided on a beat-up. Thursday's lead item in the Herald came under the headline "Profit plunge sparks call to sell city's port: Chairman floats idea, but ARC unlikely to agree". Orsman invented details of the discussion with Judd, saying that in a time of economic recession he had "suggested it could be the right time to consider privatisation".

Judd immediately dispatched a tough letter to Tim Murphy drawing attention to several fabrications in the Orsman article. He added: "In my younger days the New Zealand Herald was regarded as the journal of record in that one could expect factual accurate reporting. Unless the Herald no longer aspires to such standards I expect you will wish to acknowledge that the article contained the fabrications detailed above, and to do so on the Herald website immediately and on the front page of tomorrow's edition".

Murphy immediately called in the lawyers and a carefully constructed reply was sent to Judd apologizing for the headline of the story which clearly was "not accurate". Murphy's letter went on to assert that the Herald's story did not contain "blatant fabrications", just "unfortunate misinterpretations", a distinction that is only barely visible, and which undeniably admits to Orsman's incompetence. The letter ended with another apology and a promise to admit to the errors next day.

When Thursday's Herald arrived it was quickly clear that Orsman's mischief had "grown legs" as he'd always hoped it would. By circulating an erroneous story in the first place, several second-rate politicians had become needlessly alarmed. The heading to Murphy's promised apology read: "MPs worried by port review: Chairman's explanation did not call for sale of company". All that was said in relation to the words that Orsman had put into Judd's mouth was that "The errors are regretted". Just to show readers that the Herald retained confidence in a hack who they admit misinterprets facts, and who others believe fabricates stories, the adjoining article on the front page was by - you've guessed it - the egregious Orsman. It's a serious story. But can anyone trust its accuracy?

This same journalist has been busy this year. Early in the New Year he invented a story about what was likely to appear in the Royal Commission's report on Auckland governance. Then he published a figure about the cost of integrating bus, boat and rail tickets that he knew to be false. He is already the subject of at least one complaint by a leading Auckland figure to the Press Council. Yet the Herald persists with him, and Murphy supports him. If Auckland's leaders increasingly refuse to talk to Orsman, what use can he be to the paper? And if Murphy won't take charge of his paper, what use is it to the citizens of Auckland? Does he want to be known as the individual who turned New Zealand's premier paper into a sleazy, inaccurate British-style tabloid in the hands of tired old lefties?