Graeme Wheeler (right) during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
Graeme Wheeler (right) during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

OPINIONMediaMay 10, 2016

Graeme Wheeler can’t do his own job – why stop Newshub reporters from doing theirs?

Graeme Wheeler (right) during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
Graeme Wheeler (right) during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

A junior Newshub reporter made an error at a Reserve Bank lockup in February. There were bound to be consequences, but now Governor Graeme Wheeler is just being a dick about it, says former MediaWorks head of news Mark Jennings.

It takes a lot to shock or shake a Newshub reporter these days. 

The Weldon era, which itself came to a sudden and abrupt end last week, produced plenty of seismic activity. Stunned or subdued execs could often be seen in the corridors of TV3’s Flower Street headquarters and MediaWork’s radio buildings in Ponsonby.

Rapid change had become the norm, but when the Reserve Bank Governor, Graeme Wheeler, announced he was banning Newshub reporters from his media conferences, a new sort of shockwave swept the newsroom.

The punishment for an unfortunate breach of the RBNZ’s embargoed decision to cut interest rates was exceptionally severe. The Governor showed himself to be a man of little sympathy and perhaps, too narrow an outlook on life.

Graeme Wheeler has tough job – few would doubt that. The Reserve Bank Governor is supposed to keep New Zealand’s inflation rate at around 2 percent, the mid-point of the Policy Target Agreement’s one to three per cent range.

If we were being harsh, we could describe the Guv as a dismal failure – annual inflation is currently 0.4 percent. The last time inflation was above 2 percent was in the September quarter of 2011. Wheeler himself acknowledges it’s unlikely to surpass two per cent until 2018!  

This is despite the Prime Minister ticking him off just over a year ago, when Key said that two percent had been calculated as the “right level” for New Zealand. 

Graeme Wheeler (right) during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)
Graeme Wheeler (right) pictured during a rare moment of good humour (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

Now, most of us have been prepared to cut Wheeler some slack here. If he whacks interest rates down to push inflation up, he risks pouring a dangerous amount of petrol on the raging bush fire that is the Auckland housing market. Dairy farmers, who would love the exchange rate drop that would almost certainly follow a decent interest rate cut, stay silent and suffer.

So too the homeowners outside of Auckland who stand to save thousands of dollars on lower mortgage rates. Given that most of the country is in a forgiving mood for Wheeler’s problematic monetary policy, you might think The Guv should be in one too?

No way.  

Last Friday he came down on Newshub like the proverbial ton of bricks, banning its reporters from attending his media conference this week. This draconian measure is, of course, the response to a right royal stuff up by Newshub.

A young reporter misguidedly sent information on February’s interest rate cut to the newsroom while in the Reserve bank lock up. A radio producer overhead this news of a cut and, not realising it was embargoed, passed the information on to a blogger.

It was messy, and CEO Mark Weldon and Acting Head of News Richard Sutherland both gave sincere (some might say grovelling) apologies. There will be no one in Newshub who doesn’t understand the gravity of what happened; or other newsrooms round the country for that matter.

The reporter was young and should’ve been given better guidance – no question of that.

But given there was no evidence of market trading based on the leaked information, most expected that would be the end of the saga. But no, The Guv reaches for the sledgehammer and brings it down on the heads of those trying to simply do their jobs. Not only has he ended the long-standing lockups, but he has banned Newshub from all Reserve Bank press conferences

The first one after the ban happens tomorrow. The opportunity for reporters to question Wheeler at the conference is more important this time round, because it follows his six monthly report on the stability of the country’s financial system.

Who does this benefit?  Not the viewers or listeners, and – if you accept that the apologies are genuine – not the Reserve Bank either.

It’s interesting to contrast Graeme Wheelers approach with that of our judiciary. Under the enlightened leadership of Justice Raynor Asher and other judges like Justice Helen Winkelmann, the Judiciary has sought not to punish reporters for their mistakes but to educate them. Justice Asher and his fellow judges have looked to understand the tremendous change going on in the media as it adapts to new business models and lower levels of staffing.

The media, in turn, has listened to the judges. Senior news execs now have a good handle on the issues and the workload pressures facing the judiciary. The result has been a positive, healthy relationship – one which is good for New Zealand.

Whereas Wheeler has issued two draconian punishments, one collective to all media, the other specific to MediaWorks. Which, given that he’s been failing to do his job properly for years on end, seems a little rich.

Keep going!