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MediaOctober 12, 2017

Me and Sean Plunket: a brief history

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Broadcaster and sometime TOP communications director Sean Plunket is back in the news thanks to a searingly bad Tweet on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which he later claimed was a ‘social experiment’. But it’s far from his first offence. The Spinoff’s editor Duncan Greive details his history with Plunket and asks if he’s the right person to be a member of the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

I was out at dinner, unaware of the fury gathering. Sean Plunket, former broadcaster and then-Communications Director for Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party, wanted to find me.

By the time I became aware of what was happening, he’d figured it out, and I had some very officious messages waiting in my DMs.

The cause of his anger was a piece we’d published earlier that day by Nicola Gaston on the Metiria Turei saga, which characterised his views on the issue thus:

“[Plunket] thinks it’s OK to ask (in a now-deleted tweet), ‘Does anyone know where the father of metiria’s baby was in all this?'”

Plunket took performative offence at this, despite it being a natural inference from his question. I replied saying, “We have now amended it very slightly to refine the meaning more precisely. But fundamentally no part of what was or is characterised within the piece is contradicted [by your tweet].”

This failed to mollify him. He left a message asking me to call him at 9.44pm, and I did not long after. We spoke for a long while, and he repeatedly threatened me with legal action should I fail to make his suggested amendments, including removing his name from the piece.

“Have you thought about the ethics of not approaching people before you publish their tweets?” he asked. His essential argument was that he had tweeted the question in his capacity as a private citizen, he insisted, not the communications director of TOP. “It has nothing to do with The Opportunities Party” and “because I wasn’t speaking for TOP it’s not relevant”.

He said, repeatedly, that he was not a journalist. I found this strange, because Plunket is undeniably and unequivocally a journalist – a former reporter for Three, former presenter on RadioLIVE, and former host of RNZ’s Morning Report. The latter might be one of the most prestigious and high profile gigs a journalist can aspire to in this country. Indeed, one of the key reasons he was hired by Morgan for the vital communications role in his startup party was his immense well of experience in the upper echelons of New Zealand’s media.

It’s also worth noting that on that Tuesday night in the winter of 2017, Plunket’s Twitter bio read “broadcaster and journalist”.

We talked for a good while. He said that I was deliberately endangering his livelihood. He persistently used legalistic phrases like “this clearly displays malice aforethought”, “that is the definition of malice” and assured me that I would be getting a letter about defamation the following morning. “I’ll just leave it in the hands of my lawyers,” he said, before warning “if I hear any mention of this conversation in public, damages will ensue.”

I recorded the call in the unlikely event that he was good as his word, but felt on balance that he was unlikely to follow through with them after a good night’s sleep.

So it proved. The next time I heard from him was a phone call at 3.15pm on the 31st of August – a week out from The Spinoff election debate. Plunket had earlier confirmed that Gareth Morgan would take part in the event, but now wanted to replace with TOP’s deputy, Geoff Simmons. Morgan now wanted to attend an event in Putāruru instead. I told him that would not be acceptable – that we had curated the event to try and assemble the most engaging candidates, and absent any compelling reason, we expected they’d stand by that commitment.

After suggesting that we were obligated to allow the substitution, on account of our having asked the deputy leaders of Labour and National onto the panel – implying TOP, National and Labour were all equivalent entities – he seemed to abruptly tire of the argument. “Fuck you Duncan. Fuck you, you cunt,” he said, before hanging up.

I tweeted the exchange, because I thought it funny, and Plunket took umbrage and it was all an entertaining sideshow in a crazy election.

Then: nothing, for a few days, until he called again. It was mid-afternoon the day before the debate, and he told me that Morgan would attend after all. We were both happy with the outcome, and there was no rancour.

This extended to the event itself. We spoke and I took a photo with him and we laughed about the earlier phone calls. I told him that I wanted to write about TOP and about Morgan, and he said he’d try to facilitate that. We parted on good terms.

A few days later, with just over a week to go to election day, he called me to set up the piece. “How are you, you fucking cunt?” was his opener. It was classic Plunket, and legitimately a very funny way to start a conversation. An hour later I was in his brother’s compact Peugeot sports car, headed for MediaWorks up the hill at the top of Mt Eden Rd. There we met Morgan and his wife Jo. Plunket and I watched behind the cameras as Morgan went through an excruciating interview on ‘The Guy Williams Show’, a segment within Jono and Ben. Plunket watched proudly as his charge creditably executed the most high profile media appearance of the late TOP campaign.

Sean Plunket watches Gareth Morgan’s ‘Guy Williams Show’ interview (Photo: Duncan Greive)

Over the next 48 hours we saw a bit of each other as I reported the feature. He gossiped about media and Morgan, and we got on well.

That Friday I wrote the feature, and published it the following morning. The election was a week away. Plunket called it a “nice bit of gonzo” on Twitter, while getting into a pitched battle on Facebook with a commenter who disliked his line about Jacinda Ardern “crying over a bunch of shoes”.

The next time I heard from him was September 20 – three days out from the election. Everyone was tight at this point, overworked and underslept. Tensions between the Greens and TOP were higher than ever – the former desperately concerned that TOP votes might prevent them sneaking past 5%, the latter resentful of the implication that only one party had a right to be environmentally concerned.

These boiled over in a minor but still quite extraordinary incident involving eminent freshwater scientist Mike Joy. TOP had apparently secured his endorsement and thus, quite understandably, made a big deal of that on social media. Someone connected to the Greens got in touch, saying there was no endorsement from Joy, that he’d been misrepresented and remained a Greens supporter. It was becoming quite the shitfight.

We suggested Joy write explaining what had happened from his own perspective. Joy agreed, and we published the piece on the afternoon of the 20th. An hour later my phone rang. It was Plunket. He was very calm, under the circumstances, but adamant that Joy had in fact endorsed TOP – and he had emails to prove it.

Some of the digital mess around the Mike Joy endorsement

I asked him to provide those, and to write by way of rebuttal. He said he would.

The emails arrived almost immediately, confirming Plunket’s account. I called the original contact, who was mortified, and then I called Joy. He admitted that he had, in fact sent the email, claiming – perhaps implausibly, though for what it’s worth I believe him – that it had slipped his mind. That he thought, in a deep irony, he was endorsing TOP policy and not party.

A couple of hours later Plunket supplied the requested piece. It was written in the third person, but when I asked if I could amend it to be in the first Plunket insisted that it remain that way. He said he considered it a press release.

I posted that, and amended Joy’s piece to make it absolutely clear he had acknowledged it to be incorrect in parts, so that no reader could come away unaware of what had changed. It might not have been a perfect response, but it seemed an adequate one to a complex situation. And at the time, Plunket seemed content with it too.

That changed on Friday morning.

He had been reading the comments of charged up TOP supporters, and demanded we delete Joy’s post entirely. I explained that it was our policy to only delete posts under exceptional circumstances – and that this did not meet that standard. I told him that it was our experience that removing pieces created a vacuum into which conspiracy theories sprang, and that no reader could consume the story without being aware of what Joy now acknowledged. Plunket told me that it was TOP’s intention to sue The Spinoff for defamation, and that further, if we did not delete the post, “on Monday, when we are in parliament and holding the balance of power, you will be blacklisted by our MPs”.

I thought this quite extreme. I was also not at all sure what form this blacklisting would take. I called Morgan to check that this was indeed something TOP planned on doing in the (then seemingly very unlikely) event that they were indeed in parliament and holding the balance of power the following Monday.

Morgan accepted my explanation about why we kept Joy’s piece up, and told me that he and TOP had no intention of blacklisting The Spinoff – he didn’t know what that would mean either – and said “I don’t go around suing journalists”.

I went into the office and re-read the piece, and the comments of TOP supporters, along with a number from “Oliver Sean Plunket”, a Facebook user I am assuming is Plunket. Following that, partly using techniques TOP supporters mentioned in the comments, I cleared Facebook’s cache of the headline so that the amended version flowed through into social feeds, and inserted a second italicised and bolded section underneath the offending sentences, to make it even more clear that he had since recanted them.

Morgan then called back to say that, upon consultation with Plunket, he had decided that he did want the story removed. We discussed it via email. “We see the piece as libellous and false and it must come down,” Morgan wrote. “Can you confirm this by return email please.”

I replied: “we have updated the piece to make it even more explicit that Joy has since recanted paragraphs two and three of the piece.

“This is all we’re prepared to do. You both know your recourses should you wish to take it further.”

We received no further correspondence, and have yet to receive any of the legal letters promised by Plunket.

(Incidentally, TOP continued to use the endorsement, and never edited their own marketing to make mention of Joy’s regret and lack of intention. To my mind this somewhat undermines their ability to claim moral superiority in this saga.)

I contemplated writing about my strange relationship with Plunket a number of times over the past few weeks. The most tempted I got was when Chris Keall reported in the NBR that Plunket had been appointed to the BSA. Based on our interactions – the threats, the language, the temperament – I felt he was absolutely not an appropriate person to be making judgements on the performance of other media.

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t because of any personal animus. My real-life engagements with him were in good spirits – he stuck around long after the Spinoff Debate, chatting, drinking and gossiping. Our phone calls were sometimes contentious, but more often a pleasure. But even if that laddish  interaction could be fun, was he really the right person to be playing media watchdog?

A brief summary of the case against. He has continually used Twitter to instigate unwanted contact with Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly, despite her asking him to stop. He made a lame attempt to skirt our (admittedly also redundant) electoral law, which resulted in a complaint to the Electoral Commission. Further back, he was himself subject of a contentious but unsuccessful BSA complaint for calling Eleanor Catton an “ungrateful hua”. Combine those incidents with our own strange history and I felt very confident that there were many better people for this BSA role.

But through it all, out of self-consciousness, a weird grudging affection for him, I decided not to write this story. Then, yesterday afternoon, he wrote this.

And I thought, “fuck it”.

Keep going!