Curran: I didn't believe Hirschfeld meeting was formal

Publish Date
Tue, 27 Mar 2018, 12:29PM

Curran: I didn't believe Hirschfeld meeting was formal

Publish Date
Tue, 27 Mar 2018, 12:29PM

UPDATE 2.56PM: Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran says her controversial meeting with former Radio NZ head of news Carol Hirshfeld, which has lead to Hirchfeld's shock resignation should never have happened.

And she says that calling it an unofficial, informal meeting was wrong, and it may have been naive to have it in the first place.

"I considered it to be an informal, not an official meeting, and I got that wrong," Curran told media this afternoon.

"At no time have I ever said that the meeting was coincidental. While I believe the meeting was not official and informal, as soon as I became aware that it should have been considered an official meeting in answer to a written question from the Opposition, I corrected the Parliamentary record.

"The meeting was not secret and I regret that the meeting took place."

She said it was a "really unfortunate set of circumstances where both the broadcaster and the minister have behaved appropriately".

Curran said she learned that Hirshfeld was calling it an unplanned meeting after the select committee meeting on March 1. That prompted her office to contact Radio NZ on March 1 and on March 22 to set the record straight.

"It then became a matter for RNZ to deal with."

She described the meeting was a "catch-up".

"It was a high-level discussion about the state of the media in New Zealand. RNZ and its future was discussed."

he said she was "absolutely" aware of how sensitive it may have looked to meet with Hirshfeld as the minister.

Asked if it was naive, she said: "It may have been naive, but I was unaware of that."

Curran insisted it was not a "secret meeting" and noted it was held at Astoria in Lambton Quay - "one of the busiest cafes in Wellington".

Now knowing Radio NZ protocols about appropriate meetings, she said she would not have the meeting again.

She said it was a shame that Hirshfeld had quit over the matter.

Asked why Hirshfeld was telling RNZ bosses that it was a chance meeting, Curran said: "You'd have to ask her."

Tipoff revealed meeting was no coincidence

Radio New Zealand chairman Richard Griffin says he uncovered the discrepancies about Hirschfeld's account of the meeting with Curran after a tipoff.

Griffin says a personal source contacted him late last week to tell him that the meeting between Hirschfeld, Radio NZ's head of content, and Curran was not coincidental and was in fact scheduled in the minister's diary.

Hirschfeld had initially and repeatedly claimed to Radio NZ bosses that she bumped into Curran at a Wellington cafe by chance.

She assured RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson the December 5 meeting was coincidental, leading Thompson and Griffin to inadvertently provide incorrect information to Parliament.

She has resigned today, effective immediately, after admitting the meeting was arranged.

Griffin said today that Hirschfeld was not authorised to meet the minister.

He says the issue was compounded by Hirschfeld maintaining an incorrect version of events for almost four months.

Griffin says he will be making a further statement to the select committee on the issue, as his last one was based on false information he'd received from Hirschfeld.

Griffin described the saga is disappointing for the whole company.

The meeting between Hirschfeld and Curran was revealed publicly after National MP Melissa Lee asked questions about it at a select committee this month.

Griffin is a former Radio NZ journalist and later worked as Prime Minister Jim Bolger's press secretary.

Cafe meeting was planned

Lee, National's broadcasting spokeswoman, said Curran's relationship with public broadcaster Radio New Zealand had to be transparent.

Lee asked Radio NZ chief executive Paul Thompson about it at a select committee and Thompson said it had been a chance encounter between the pair.

"Carol had been to the gym, she was getting a coffee, they bumped into each other, in a cafe and had a conversation so it was hardly a secret meeting," Thompson told the select committee. "I don't have any concern," he said at the time.

But on Sunday, Hirschfeld told Thompson the meeting had been arranged.

"I am very disappointed about what happened and it is important that I put the record straight about the circumstances of the meeting," Thompson said.

Griffin also told the select committee the meeting was not scheduled. "It was a meeting of minds in the sense that the minister walked into a cafe, saw the head of news sitting there and sat down and talked to her."

Prime Minister Ardern said today that Curran was "splitting hairs" in deciding initially to exclude the meeting under questioning from the National Party.

Curran had initially omitted the meeting with Hirschfeld from a list of meetings when she was asked about it in a Parliamentary written question in December.

She later corrected her answer to the written question to include the meeting with Hirschfeld.

Curran was defending excluding the meeting in her answer to a Parliamentary written question as recently as February 20 during Question Time in the House.

"If they did have breakfast together, as the Minister's office has confirmed, and discussed a range of issues about the future of media in New Zealand, why did she not include this extremely relevant meeting in her answer to written questions?" National's broadcasting spokeswoman Melissa Lee asked Curran during Question Time.

Curran eventually responded: "Because I didn't perceive it as an official meeting."

The Broadcasting Minister's initial failure to disclose the cafe meeting has been criticised by National, which has questioned whether the meeting was appropriate, given Hirschfeld's editorial role and the Government's intention to boost Radio NZ's funding by $38 million to create RNZ Plus.

Minister 'does not influence' RNZ

The select committee in question, the Economic Development, Science and Innovation committee, released its 2016/17 annual review of Radio NZ today, outlining the discussion about the "unplanned" meeting between Hirshfeld and Curran.

"RNZ told us that the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications, and Digital Media and Government Digital Services does not have an influence on the content it produces," the report states.

"We heard that the minister had recently had an unplanned meeting with the head of content from RNZ. RNZ said it was not concerned about this particular encounter given its context, but believed it was inappropriate.

"The protocols around meeting with ministers and political transparency have been clearly outlined to senior members of staff since the incident."

Hirshfeld was not at the select committee meeting when Melissa Lee questioned the appropriateness of the meeting.

"Radio New Zealand operates in a competitive media environment," Lee said. "The company and its competitors must be confident there is nothing going on with the Minister in charge of the sector that could screw the scrum in a particular direction."