Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has continued his war on the media, blaming it for allowing the long Auckland Covid-19 lockdown.
In an interview on The Country, he also accused then-Finance Minister Grant Robertson of breaching the Cabinet Manual to force the creation of the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) of $55 million.
Robertson said Peters’ allegations today were “nonsense”.
On the pandemic, Peters said: “If they [the media] are so concerned about the state of the economy with respect to their industry, why did they allow the second dramatic lockdown with only one case in Auckland of our biggest commercial sector in the country in terms of volume and number?”
A far longer Auckland lockdown began in August 2021, and was triggered by a single case of the Delta variant being found in the city. That cluster led to thousands more cases.
While the long lockdown was successful in stamping out Delta cases, the arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid triggered a dramatic change in strategy.
On the idea of the PIJF, Peters said: “They came to us when I was Deputy Prime Minister and wanted to bring this into force”.
“We were alarmed and said to it you’ve got to be joking. Everyone will accuse us of bribing the media and we will not support it,” he said.
Peters said that Robertson “went behind our backs and told the media Winston Peters was the roadblock trying to stop it from happening”.
If that allegation was correct, it would be a serious breach of the Cabinet manual for leaking secrets from Cabinet and breaching collective responsibility.
“The notion that I went behind his back to talk to journalists is absolute nonsense,” Robertson said.
The fund was announced in early 2021, after Peters was booted from Parliament following the 2020 election.
An earlier support package of $50 million was announced in April 2020, during the first lockdown and when Peters was Deputy Prime Minister. This was intended to be the first round of media support, with the second round, the PIJF, coming later. Then-Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi said at the time of the first package that a second round was coming, although he hinted it would come as early as the Budget in May.
It was one of a series of economic support initiatives announced during the first lockdown. NZME, publisher of The New Zealand Herald, had funding from both packages.
Peters’ said the PIJF amounted to bribery of media outlets, an allegation that stems from the PIJF having a goal of supporting the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Applicants to the Public Interest Journalism Fund were asked that, when appropriate in producing funded content, to support NZ identity, culture and public interest requirements, including support for the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
However, overriding this in NZME’s funding agreements - a clause specifically requested by the company - is an acknowledgement of the absolute editorial independence of the media entity: “We acknowledge the importance of your editorial discretion as a media entity and confirm nothing in this Agreement will limit or in any way impede or influence the ability of your news reporting functions to report and comment on news stories and current events, including those involving us, as you see fit.“
Peters’ latest outburst came as Labour leader Chris Hipkins today put pressure on Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to restrain his Deputy Prime Minister.
“The behaviour that we’ve seen from Winston Peters in the last 48 hours is just wrong. Christopher Luxon needs to show that he is actually the Prime Minister and stamp down on that very quickly.
“It is wrong for Winston Peters to be stepping outside the Cabinet manual at the very meeting where they were supposed to be confirming the Cabinet,” Hipkins said.
Another of Peters’ allegations was that the media ignored him during the election campaign.
The New Zealand Herald made numerous attempts to do a campaign feature on Peters both leading up to and during the campaign, but Peters never agreed to them and would not disclose his campaign diary other than pre-set public meetings.