MURRAY McCULLY MP
National, East Coast Bays
Interviewed by SIMON DALLOW
This transcript is copyright to Front Page Ltd but may be used provided acknowledgement is given to Agenda and TVOne.
SIMON Should the government do more to make the print media accountable? That’s the question National MP Murray McCully asked this week at a Press Club in Wellington. Perhaps predictably there was a sharp reaction from some of our papers. The Herald headlined its coverage with the claim that National quote 'threatens control of our press, newspapers should be regulated by the government, says McCully' unquote. Well Mr McCully is here with me now. Is that what you said Murray?
MURRAY No it's not what I said, in fact the Herald coverage was good enough to get sent to the Press Council, what I did was observed that there was a real discrepancy as to the way in which the electronic media were accountable through a legislated Press Council – sorry a legislated Broadcasting Standards Authority as against the Press Council which is a voluntary body for the Press. I observed that if there was going to be irresponsible conduct in the media there was going to be unprofessional behaviour and the Press Council was seen to be an inadequate vehicle then it was inevitable at some point in time that parliament would revisit the issue as to whether the two elements of the media should be treated differently.
SIMON Why are there the double standards?
MURRAY Well I think it's simply an accident of history that when the electronic media came along it was very much a part of the state, the state owned television, the state owned all the radio, therefore the regulatory mechanism obviously was a state run one, but it's an accident of history and I just reminded the print media that that’s in fact the case.
SIMON So how far would you go in changing the rules?
MURRAY Well I wasn’t advocating changing the rules I was simply raising the issue, pointing to the disparity and saying to the Press Council and to the print media that one or two things of recent times had been less than professional in terms of their conduct, the Press Council in my view and the view of some of the people I work with is no longer a very effective way of dealing with these things, I mean as it put it out in my speech the complainant's most likely to be dead by the time they get to actually dealing with the complaint. It takes far too long, it's not a real remedy for anyone and it actually does nothing to solve any problems, so I think the print media have actually got some issues they need to deal with.
SIMON I read your speech and it comes across as you getting the pip over the sensationalist treatment of the Sunday Star Times comparing Don Brash to Pauline Hansen.
MURRAY I used that example and I think it is the outstanding example of recent years of the news media stepping well beyond providing information, providing new, even providing commentary, they really set themselves up as the adversaries of the National Party and of Don Brash in particular.
SIMON It all comes across though as an attempt to exert control over the media, at what point are you interfering with our free press?
MURRAY Well that’s what the newspaper proprietors are very nervous about and I'm not unhappy about that, I was simply pointing to the fact that that particular exercise on the part of the Sunday Star Times was highly unprofessional, the fact that we decided that it wasn’t worth taking to the Press Council should be seen as a significant vote of no confidence in that organisation and in that process.
SIMON So would you regulate to put the press on the same footing as the electronic media?
MURRAY No, and I wasn’t suggesting that, what I was saying was that sooner if the print media don’t take matters into their own hand someone is going to ensure that the matter does come before the parliament.
SIMON You accuse the media of being infested with political correctness, now this a phrase that’s bandied around a heck of a lot, what does political correctness mean to you?
MURRAY Well that’s a difficult question to answer, if you've got a couple of hours we could probably have a crack at that, but I was referring in particular to the reaction to the Orewa speech made by Don Brash. now you may recall and it's probably just in history now that for the week afterwards the editorials, the commentary throughout the country were adverse, negative, some were indeed savage, and I think that really reflects an ingrained attitude in the media that certain subjects around particularly the Treaty are treated in what I see as a politically correct fashion, there's a single view of these things held by many of those people which we saw on display post Orewa.
SIMON There does seem to be an element of being a bit touchy about this, as if you’re saying well you can't touch Don Brash and only on our terms.
MURRAY Well, and I think the other point I was making in the speech is that the media spend all of their waking hours running the ruler over people like myself and we get reasonably thick skinned at dealing with the analysis and the criticism that comes from that quarter. What I've discovered is that when you actually turn the attention the other way, when the boot's on the other foot you find that the media generally can dish it out but they can't take it, and I think that was worth highlighting.
SIMON So you’re waving a big stick over them, if you keep up this sort of thing we will regulate if we get in power.
MURRAY No not at all, I was invited to make the speech, I've always regarded as significant that the print media is treated differently from the electronic media, I was making that point and I was giving some specific examples that I think I was obliged to give to give some support to the speech, the fact that one or two people have drawn a rather more specific threat out of what I said is their problem not mine.
SIMON What's wrong with this widespread range of opinion though, I mean it is a free marketplace, you’re the party that pushes a free market, what's wrong with it?
MURRAY Well that’s really the point I was making that there isn't in fact a wide range of opinion. New Zealand is a small country and it does matter more here that the media behave in a professional fashion. You've got mostly one major newspaper available to people, you've got while a range of radio stations only a couple of sources of news, you've got a couple of sources of television news, the professionalism of the media arguably matters more in a small country like this than it does elsewhere, but look I don’t think it's a matter that the government's ever gonna solve, governments don’t solve many problems for us after all, what I was suggesting is that it's time that we all looked at ourselves in that respect and in this sense I was saying the media, the print media in particular needs to look at itself.
SIMON At what point would you regulate then?
MURRAY Well I'm not making that thread I was simply making an observation that they’ve got favoured treatment, they’ve got a voluntary regime of their own and they're damn lucky to have it.
SIMON You call for accountability regularly bag TVNZ's charter, isn't the charter though an example of direct accountability to the public?
MURRAY I think the charter is a complete non event, I mean what it's done is caused TVNZ to salute occasionally by making some expensive and pretty meaningless programme which drives its ratings through the floor but I think that – and it probably results in a few extra dollars being given by the government to TVNZ every year, but it's really had little significance and I think that probably both the Minister and TVNZ have just decided to salute it in passing very occasionally.
SIMON But you can't have it both ways can you, I mean the charter can inspire better journalism, hopefully this programme's an example of that, but not what you'd call bow ties and ballet tights.
MURRAY Oh look I actually don’t think that the charter has inspired anything at all, there is in fact quite a strict code that applies to the electronic media as far as news and current affairs programmes are concerned, internal complaints procedures exist within the electronic media as a consequence of that, and for the most part I think those work pretty well.
SIMON Part of your speech also you said that a non partisan appointment process is critical to the credibility of the Broadcasting Standards Authority regulating the electronic media. In power could you guarantee that appointments would be non partisan?
MURRAY I think this is a very interesting point that I was trying to make in my speech, that I was trying to be even handed about this and confess that government regulation often is not the answer because the weakness in the Broadcasting Standards Authority model is that the government can make political appointments and recently we've seen that happen, it diminishes the credibility of that organisation, diminishes its effectiveness, sends less clear signals through to the complaints procedures inside the media organisations and yes I would like to think that a future government would change that process.
SIMON That’s very non committal though.
MURRAY Well look I personally are very committed to is, I'll say that.
SIMON You can't guarantee it but you’re personally committed to see non partisan appointments.
MURRAY I'm very personally committed to it because I think that over time all political parties can only win from having non partisan appointments made to a body like that.
SIMON And TVNZ's board same thing, non partisan?
MURRAY Yeah I think so and I think while there has been the odd excursion from time to time most of those appointments generally are made on the basis of merit.
SIMON You've been highly critical of National Radio's lack of accountability, what to you is the problem and what would you do about it?
MURRAY Well here we have something that’s quite different from Television New Zealand, Television New Zealand is under the ratings meter every quarter hour and we know whether you’re providing what your audience wants, and there's the additional discipline of course that you’re advertisers look critically at those numbers and vote with their cheque books. Now Radio New Zealand has no similar constraint, they just get handed out a big cheque by the government at the beginning of every year and what I've been really disappointed about is their resistance to releasing data which tells us whether the audience is actually listening to them. Unlike the commercial stations which of course the government doesn’t own, we cannot get for Radio New Zealand those quarter hour breakdowns that tell us whether people are turning off. Now I can see from some of the evidence available that they are turning off but we don’t know how many and where, in which age groups, and I think it's to the eternal discredit of Radio New Zealand's board and management that they refuse to give us information that would be available for their commercial peers the moreso because the public of New Zealand happen to own them.
SIMON Alright let's leave the media behind now and talk about Murray McCully. Why are you in politics?
MURRAY Well, I've been in politics for quite a long time and I spose it comes down to having a view about where the country should go.
SIMON What is that view?
MURRAY Well I think, I very much subscribe to the sort of Don Brash view of the world that I've got a couple of kids, a couple of sons, and I'd like to think that this country's going to be good enough to offer them opportunities that'll keep them here and I think that really is increasingly under threat.
SIMON How close are you to Don Brash, how often do you talk with him?
MURRAY Oh not that often, Don Brash is a sort of leader who is a great emailer, uses the phone a bit less than that, and of course I see him in Wellington a fair bit, but I've known him for over 20 years, I wouldn’t regard myself as a close confidante.
SIMON You’re also parliamentary assistant to him what does that entail?
MURRAY Yes I am. Well it's an advisory role, and I'm a member of a team, we've got a Chief of Staff, Richard Long, and one or two others that work closely on the staff with people like myself and Jerry Brownlee the deputy, and we're a team, we try and operate very much as a team, and we give advice, and it's nothing more nor less than that, and it's over to the leader to decide whether it's any good or not.
SIMON You have a history of giving advice, you were a public relations practitioner of some note, what advice have you given Don Brash about how to present or conduct himself?
MURRAY Oh I haven't and I pretend to have no skills in that regard whatsoever I simply as I say am are one of a team, I happen to have some experience in parliament and so I bring that sort of experience.
SIMON So what's the nature of the advice that you give him then?
MURRAY Well if I was going to tell you the answer to that on this programme I suspect I'd cease to be the source of any advice.
SIMON Discretion I think would be the first answer there. How can National win their next election, what does it have to do?
MURRAY Well we've had quite a good start this year we've become if you like players in the polls, we're a major political party again, but let's not let that go to our heads, there's a long way to go, 12 maybe 14 months, so every day my colleagues and I are gonna have to go to the office and justify our performance and the yardstick is going to get increasingly higher, more complex, we're gonna have to measure up as an alternative government. Now we've got a whole lot of relatively new people in our caucus, they're immensely talented people and they’ve got an opportunity over 14 months to sell their abilities as an alternative government.
SIMON Who are the stars among them for the future?
MURRAY Oh well that’s really an invitation to commit suicide but I regard Simon Power and Catherine Rich as outstanding people which is why of course Don Brash has got them in very senior positions on the front bench, we've got younger people, newer people like John Key and Judith Collins who have performed with great distinction in their relatively short political lives.
SIMON You’re very conscious of polling, we're aware of that, and polling is showing weakness for National in the over 60s and with women, how do you win them back?
MURRAY Well look, I think people need to understand that Don Brash didn’t give up a half million dollar a year salary at his age and stage in life to come to parliament to be driven by a few focus groups and some slippery PR men, I mean we're driven at the end of the day by what we think is right, and Don Brash moreso than most people, and all that polls do or focus groups do is give you an opportunity to understand what the risks and opportunities might be, and yes the older folk since the early 90s have left the National Party, there's some evidence that they're coming back, we've got some issues to deal with ahead in terms of superannuation, and health policy that are important to those people, and what's going to matter to them to that segment of the community is that those are critical policies and that we mean business in putting them in place.
SIMON You said that you will do what you think is right, that ideology though is by necessity going to be compromised if you’re in coalition, how do you work with the likes of Winston Peters?
MURRAY Well that’s an interesting question, I think you've just gotta allow the public to make their decision, deal the cards and then you've gotta try and do what you can with those cards that may or may not involved working with other parties, it most likely will, and I think that there are a number of options for National other than Winston Peters who's been increasingly portraying himself as an ally of the Labour Party.
SIMON The polls seems to suggest though that he may well once again be kingmaker.
MURRAY Well that’s something the public will determine, and look I think the public are very much more shrewd than we give them credit for about these things, if you look at for example the United Future Party, it's very much a creation of the electorate in the final few days before the last election because they could see that it was going to be a Labour government, so they then addressed the next question as to what sort of checks and balances they might want to have on that Labour government, and I think if Mr Peters is going to portray himself as an ally of the Labour Party alongside the Maori Party and the Greens who are the obvious natural coalition partners for Labour as things are shaping up, then I think the public will make their own decisions about that as we get close to the time.
SIMON National MP Murray McCully thank you very much for your time.
Copyright to Front Page Ltd but may be used PROVIDED attribution is made to TVOne and Agenda