Opinion: Speaker backtracking from humiliating blot on record

Backdown with a capital "H". That is "H" as in humiliation; humiliation complete and utter.

That was the only condition that could be ascribed to Speaker Lockwood Smith yesterday afternoon as he tried to clear up the sorry mess he had created less than 24 hours earlier with his outrageous decision to ban New Zealand Herald journalists from working within the precincts of Parliament.

By yesterday, Dr Smith was almost in full retreat and "clarifying" that the ban did not apply to the Herald's office at Parliament.

That statement was in total contradiction to his letter to the Herald the day before, detailing the sanctions he said he would be applying.

Having got their office back, however, Herald journalists still faced restrictions on their previous right to move around the parliamentary complex. This farce has rightly incurred the wrath of other media.

That, in turn, will worry National. No party can afford to see the media going feral on it so close to an election.

What next for the New Zealand Parliament?

The Spanish Inquisition?

Whatever planet Dr Smith is on, it isn't this one.

It is extremely rare for even a lone journalist to be suspended for some misdemeanour. To remove all the accreditations of a newspaper's complete complement of press gallery staff for 10 days is simply unheard of.

It is truly staggering, very disappointing, yet deeply troubling that someone who takes his job so seriously and is so genuine about improving Parliament not only failed to think through the implications of his fundamentally flawed decision to initially shut the Herald out of its parliamentary office.

Such a wholesale misreading of things is close to resignation material.

For starters, the punishment was way out of kilter with the nature of the crime the nzherald.co.nz website's publication of a photograph of Wednesday's ugly incident in the public gallery in Parliament.

The paper does not quibble over the photo's publication being a breach of the rules forbidding the media from photographing or filming disruptive behaviour in the public gallery.

Just as television cameras no longer film streakers at sporting events, the ban at Parliament is designed to deter protests being mounted from the public gallery.

But what happened on Wednesday was no ordinary protest. Someone who was clearly suffering from a mental illness nearly managed to throw himself into the debating chamber.

Who knows what he intended doing when he got there. MPs were stunned by what was a very close call - the worst in recent memory. The Herald's argument that this was somewhat newsworthy fell on deaf ears.

But the punishment was not only out of all proportion to the crime, it was utterly inconsistent. Last year, Dr Smith responded to the hounding of ex-Labour MP Chris Carter by TVNZ and TV3, which saw one cameraman entering and filming in the MP's office in Mr Carter's absence, by temporarily revoking the TV channels' parking permits in Parliament's underground car park.

This slap over the wrist with the trusty old wet bus ticket extended to ensuring the networks' camera operators did not have to lug their gear too far. Dr Smith generously found replacement parks in the complex's above-ground car park.

The camera people were free to work as before. But then, Television is All Powerful. Television is God.

Even worse, the punishment meted out to the Herald has set a dreadful precedent.

It has set an uncomfortably high benchmark in terms of punishment which Dr Smith and future Speakers will have to meet when dealing with miscreants who dare to infringe Parliament's inordinately large number of rules and regulations.

The other and more worrying problem with this precedent is that the punishment inevitably reduces the flexibility and thus the freedom of the media to do its job and consequently the flexibility of politicians to do theirs.

To impose such a ban just six weeks out from an election is thus unconscionable. It simply beggars belief. In some respects, it is concerning that the chorus of disapproval has not been stronger, especially from the right of the political spectrum.

There will be those, of course, who will point out that this writer is only arguing against Dr Smith's astonishing ruling purely out of self-interest.

Self-interest might be better served by remaining silent. But to remain silent would be to buy into the boarding school culture which has inextricably woven itself through Parliament as an institution.

It is a culture which believes all that is needed to change behaviour and deter others is to give the offender a good caning.

Even so, the punishment for running the photograph has shocked those in the complex who work both inside and outside the media.

Thus far, Dr Smith had been a very good Speaker. To take one example, his campaign to rescue daily question time in the House from becoming a ritual exercise in meaningless point-scoring has been nothing short of heroic.

It is his National Party colleagues who have had to obey his demands that ministers make a real effort to actually answer questions properly, rather than just mouth political flim-flam.

No doubt he has come under pressure from some in his own party to ease up. He hasn't.

Parliament's role as the one place where ministers have to front up and be accountable for what happens in their portfolios has been considerably enhanced.

Those who consequently have some sympathy for Dr Smith will be hoping he was the victim of some poor advice from a parliamentary bureaucracy which regards the Fourth Estate as fourth-class citizens and which has always strived to be as obstructive as possible to the media.

Even so, that Dr Smith got it so badly wrong is a blot on an otherwise pretty perfect record in an extremely challenging job. And it is a blot which will take some time to fade.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.



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