Muddying the waters of integrity

One of the enduring echoes of the Murdoch affair in the United Kingdom arises from the extent to which politicians had become "too cosy" with the media. Too cosy is a euphemism: it's code for a relationship in which influence may have been peddled. I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

This is why there is particular interest in the closeness of British Prime Minister David Cameron to Rupert Murdoch's News International through his friendship with former News of the World and Sun editor, and subsequently CEO of the company in London, Rebekah Brooks; and with another former NoW editor, Andy Coulson, who resigned when phone hacking of the Royal Family was uncovered on his watch, and whom Mr Cameron subsequently employed as his communications director - in opposition and in government.

Mr Murdoch's company had been seeking full ownership of BSkyB in Britain. The move was opposed in principle by those who envisaged potential for the emergence of a Fox-style network in the UK - fears only partly assuaged by the separating off of Sky News into a separate company. The deal had been all but signed off when the hacking scandal erupted.

What did Mr Cameron know of all this? Had he discussed the BSkyB deal with representatives of the company? Or while relaxing with his comms director? While out horse riding with Ms Brooks? At social functions in the company of James Murdoch? Did he seek in any way to influence the outcome? Was there a tacit understanding of mutual support, an unholy alliance of quid pro quos?

On his return to the UK from Africa as the ramifications of the hacking scandal spread, the Prime Minister participated in a parliamentary debate. There was one question in particular on which he steadfastly refused to be drawn. Did he or did he not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs?

And he refused to be drawn because if there is a political affront as severe as being found out interfering in a commercially sensitive and independent process, it is that of being caught purveying porkies to Parliament.

Misleading the House is one of the still-deadly political sins. It demeans, devalues and undermines the integrity of the institution. That applies equally in this country.

Ask former Labour minister David Benson-Pope. Those with memories will recall that it wasn't so much what he did or didn't do that led to his resignation from Cabinet in 2007, rather what he said or did not say to Parliament: there were allegations he misled it, and it was this as much as anything that curtailed his high-flying political career.

But one has to wonder if the transgression has lost its import. We will see.

Take the case of Communications Minister Steven Joyce. This week, Labour's communications and IT spokeswoman Clare Curran, MP for Dunedin South and, as it happens, Mr Benson-Pope's successor, tabled a complaint with Speaker Lockwood Smith over Mr Joyce's failure to acknowledge to Parliament he had received a critical letter from Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds concerning the ultrafast broadband project.

Two years ago, responding to the written question on whether he had had any such correspondence on the issue of structural separation, Mr Joyce categorically denied it. Now it transpires he "overlooked" a letter sent to him by Mr Reynolds.

Then just yesterday - a day after the complaint was laid with the Speaker - Mr Joyce deemed it appropriate to set the record straight. He provided an amended response to Ms Curran's original question, officially fessing up.

Had he, in the interim, deliberately misled Parliament?

Says Ms Curran: "The circumstances surrounding the tendering process for the ultrafast broadband project have been under a cloud from day one ... He [Mr Joyce] and his Government have consistently denied any discussions with Telecom on this matter. The letter clearly signals otherwise."

This may seem an arcane matter. It is certainly more elusive to the public imagination than were the tennis ball and school discipline allegations that dogged Mr Benson-Pope.

But, having resisted the release of the letter in the face of a concerted campaign by the Dominion Post newspaper, one involving the ombudsman, Mr Joyce's line of having simply "overlooked" it does not cut the mustard. The ultrafast broadband project was and is one of the Government's biggest projects. It involves $1.35 billion of taxpayer funds. It is scarcely credible that Mr Joyce would "overlook" it.

The letter's existence does not prove the minister and the Government were in cahoots with Telecom or favoured its ultimately successful tender - rather it does, as Ms Curran suggests, muddy the waters of integrity surrounding the process.

"The minister has shown a cynical disregard for accountability and transparency in the parliamentary procedure and has treated the entire process with contempt," she said yesterday.

Hear, hear!

- Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.

 

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