Helen Clark, John Campbell and a stalk of potentially genetically modified corn (Image: Archi Banal / Photos: Supplied)
Helen Clark, John Campbell and a stalk of potentially genetically modified corn (Image: Archi Banal / Photos: Supplied)

PoliticsJuly 8, 2022

Helen Clark vs John Campbell: the Corngate interview, 20 years on

Helen Clark, John Campbell and a stalk of potentially genetically modified corn (Image: Archi Banal / Photos: Supplied)
Helen Clark, John Campbell and a stalk of potentially genetically modified corn (Image: Archi Banal / Photos: Supplied)

It was the election interview that gripped the nation, taking the then white-hot issue of genetically modified food and turning it into incredible political TV drama. Duncan Greive reflects on ‘Corngate’ – an epochal moment in our media history.

The first thing that strikes you is the staging – the studio is pitch dark, with bright spotlights on Helen Clark and John Campbell. He is rounding into the early era of his cult status as a probing, fearless interviewer; she is at the height of her power and influence as prime minister.

Clark looks fierce, Campbell locked in. He’s holding his clipboard and unleashing a volley of very heated statements. “Did you mislead the Royal Commission?” he asks, and later, “It’s about whether or not we can trust you,” repeating it for emphasis. “Feel free to shoot the messenger,” he says toward the end.

Clark was not told about the specifics of the interview, and is clearly furious as a result, responding to Campbell’s questions with relentless real-time media criticism: “You may think this is a really smart way to set up the prime minister,” she says at one point. “The more this interview goes on, the more offended I am,” she says later. “It’s simply preposterous to carry on.”

Every moment of it is extraordinary. The original tape seems to have essentially vanished, with Three not responding to requests for the archive and only a grainy six-minute clip available on NZ On Screen (Update, July 9: Three has now responded and surfaced the full interview from their archives!). Still, you can feel the heat even after all these years.

Given the challenges we confront today, it’s head-spinning to think all this arose over some delicious corn. The core of the issue was whether, during a time of a major debate about the safety of genetically modified crops, GM corn was accidentally released into New Zealand’s food supply. Campbell had been given an advance copy of Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust, which alleged that a field of GM corn was mistakenly grown and distributed to consumers here, and furthermore, that cabinet had known and conspired with officials from the Ministry for Agriculture to cover it up.

The interview became known as Corngate and was one of the defining flashpoints of the decade, accurately described by a contemporary report as “a bomb”, dropped right into late stages of the 2002 election period. It derailed Labour’s campaign, pitted them bitterly against the Greens, caused a lasting rift between TV3 and Clark, and played a role in making genetic engineering a politically untouchable subject to this day.

A momentous interview

The idea that a television interview could have such impact speaks to the era in which it aired. Twenty years ago TV news presenters were figures of huge socio-cultural power, and sometimes major newsmakers in their own right.

John Hawkesby received a $5.2m payout after his ill-fated three-week stint presenting the 6pm news on One. A few years later, Paul Holmes resigned from TVNZ in a fury over what he perceived as an insulting contract offer, and for a brief, glorious moment we had an impossible bounty of current affairs in primetime: Close Up on One, Campbell Live on TV3 and Paul Holmes (the show) on Prime – all competing with the juggernaut that was mid-2000s Shortland Street.

This was the absolute apex of television as the agenda-setting centre of our lives, and TV3, playing David to TVNZ’s Goliath, had a pair of white-hot young stars reading the 6pm news in Carol Hirschfeld and John Campbell. The channel had become a beloved challenger to state-owned monolith TVNZ, innovating on style and form. Hirschfeld and Campbell had come to embody the network – young, sharp and fearless. Campbell was a brilliant interviewer, smart yet with a rare ability to emotionally connect with the audience.

He had been inserting live political interviews into bulletins for some years, yet Corngate represented a massive escalation. It was a major break from the schedule – TV3 was still years away from elevating Campbell to his own show in Campbell Live, and had settled on syndicated airings of broad American sitcoms like Home Improvement as its best weapon to confront TVNZ’s Holmes and Shortland Street at 7pm. The very fact of the interview breaking that 7pm routine gave it a huge sense of occasion.

TV3 news presenters Carol Hirschfeld and John Campbell, circa 2002.

A bomb dropped into a strange campaign

It came towards the end of an oddly discombobulated election campaign. National was at its lowest ebb, careening toward its worst-ever election result under the leadership of a baby-faced Bill English, who barely warranted the withering stare of Clark. She was a prime minister of immense force of will and personality, probably our most imposing since Rob Muldoon. But with the capitulation of the right, the chaos of a divided left bloc became the focal point of the election.

Labour had governed its first term in coalition with the Alliance, which became a cautionary tale for minor parties thereafter, collapsing to a less than 2% share of the party vote in 2002. In their stead came a thicket of smaller players that collectively amassed an MMP record 37% of the vote, with NZ First, Act, United Future and the Greens all attracting over 6.5% of the electorate’s support.

It was the latter party that became Clark and Labour’s biggest headache, resulting in some memorable lines, including the prime minister referring to the Greens as “goths and anarcho-feminists” in the days before the Corngate interview. That this has not become the Greens’ official slogan is one of the enduring mysteries of our politics.

The focal point of much of this rancour was genetic modification (GM), a relatively new form of science that relied on gene editing to produce novel or altered organisms. It has applications across medicine and industry, but its use in agriculture drew the most attention. Proponents saw the potential for higher-yielding or more drought-resistant crops, or livestock that was less prone to particular forms of disease. The science has subsequently essentially settled in favour of GM, but it was highly contentious in our politics at the time, and had been subject to a Royal Commission in 2000.

The commission came back with a cautious endorsement of the technology, saying, “New Zealand should keep its options open. It would be unwise to turn our back on the potential advantages on offer.” It did little to resolve divisions over the issue, which saw the country split into two camps. Broadly speaking, business and the agricultural sector saw GM as a science crucial to growth, while much of the environmentally minded left saw it as dangerous, unproven practice that risked our clean, green reputation. Following the commission’s report, a two-year moratorium preventing applications for the release of genetically modified organisms was put in place in 2001.

As the country rounded into the 2002 election, investigative journalist Nicky Hager was working on his third book. Seeds of Distrust examined the accidental release of GM corn, the potential for contamination of other crops and the decision not to notify the public of the incident. He scheduled it for publication on July 10 – less than three weeks before the general election on July 27.

Author Nicky Hager, photographed in 2014, and his 2002 book Seeds of Distrust (Photo: Supplied)

Before Dirty Politics, there was Seeds of Distrust

Campbell had worked with Hager twice before, fronting major stories accompanying both Secret Power, which covered the Waihōpai spy base and its links to international espionage networks, and Secrets and Lies, which exposed the infiltration of West Coast environmental groups. The pair had become close, and Hager sent Campbell the manuscript for Seeds of Distrust, which emerged on a gigantic roll of fax paper. Campbell pored over it for weeks, recalls Hirschfeld, with the support of news editors Mark Jennings and Mike Brockie. (Jennings did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

The team knew that this was a big story, but had to approach it carefully. TV3 went to Clark’s office with an innocuous cover, suggesting a general conversation about genetic engineering rather than a laser focus on the decision not to publicise the potential release of the GM corn in November 2000. The fateful interview took place in-studio, but 20 years on, Hirschfeld says the infamous spotlit aesthetic was not an attempt to dial up the drama. It instead had a much more banal explanation. “What was the thinking? We had no money,” she laughs.

They recorded enough footage for that electric half hour of television, cutting only around five minutes, which Campbell says was an attempt to give viewers the whole context. Afterwards, Clark left in a hurry, but not before telling Campbell exactly what she thought of him. She used the word “treachery”, Campbell recalls, while Hirschfeld remembers “you traitor”. Clark declined to be interviewed for this story, but has in the aftermath made her view of the interview abundantly clear.

TV3 cut it together into the half-hour special and aired it the following evening, July 9, 2002. It began with an opening segment in which Campbell interviewed Hager and travelled to the location of the alleged leak of the corn; the final two segments were dominated by that extraordinary interview with Clark. It was an immediate sensation, deeply uncomfortable yet incredibly compelling TV.

“It was almost unbearable to watch,” says Hager now. Writing for the NZ Herald, Jeremy Rees described it as “a study of outrage and anger”. In the days that followed, media reporting of the special tended to side with Clark, with Russell Brown typifying the criticism on his Hard News segment on bFM, saying that “the way it did emerge – dropped like a bomb on the election campaign – was simply wrong”.

Clark certainly thought so. She labelled Campbell a “sanctimonious little creep”, and interrupted her campaign to respond with a fusillade delivered from the lectern at a hastily arranged press conference. There she made it clear she blamed the Greens, and leader Jeanette Fitzsimons. “I am going to sing from the rooftops that this is a very dirty campaign where the Greens and their supporters have descended to the gutter of the National Party.”

Fitzsimons did not deter that impression when she issued a press release saying she was “deeply distressed that the prime minister apparently decided to let this contaminated crop be grown, harvested, eaten and possibly exported in 2000/2001, and that the government participated in efforts to keep the truth from the public”. Similarly, the fact Seeds of Distrust was published by Craig Potton, a former Greens candidate, made it easy for Clark and Labour to frame it as an orchestrated hit – though Hager is adamant there was no collusion, and says the Green Party was privately furious with him for distracting from its policy agenda.

The interview became the defining moment of the campaign, and while it didn’t impact the result, the bitter taste lingered, and reared up again a year later.

Greenpeace anti-GM protesters greet prime minister Helen Clark on her campaign trail at Westfield Mall in Manukau on July 20, 2002. (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

The BSA weighs in

The Broadcasting Standards Authority received numerous complaints about the episode, including one from Mike Munro, the prime minister’s chief press secretary, on behalf of himself and Clark. The regulator ultimately released a highly publicised ruling in July 2003. It ran to 92 pages and broadly vindicated the complainants, saying that standards were breached on multiple counts around balance and fairness. It faulted the tenor of the interview with Hager versus that with Clark as “neither impartial nor objective”, and the fact that Clark was “not advised of the source of the allegations”.

By BSA standards it was damning, but not unequivocal, and allowed for TV3 to issue a press release that quoted Jennings as saying “we knew the story was right, we knew we had done our homework and the BSA ruling largely validates that view”.

Russell Brown wrote a reflective response for Public Address afterwards in which he acknowledged that many parties got consumed by the heat of the moment and overdid their reactions, himself included, but faulted TV3 for only preserving the raw footage of the Clark interview, and not that of Hager. Brown says this left the unavoidable impression that it had treated Hager’s allegations far more credulously than it did Clark’s response.

Campbell disputes that characterisation today, saying he asked for and received the primary materials on which the book was based, and Hirschfeld says Campbell spent weeks on the story. “There were endless sessions going over the details,” she says. “I’ve never seen him so prepared.”

Clark herself was clearly completely blindsided, and spent much of the interview underlining that fact through gritted teeth. “It is simply not acceptable to set up the prime minister on something which happened a long time back in the term of government, that she was not the minister responsible for,” she says at one point. Campbell was unconvinced of this then – “I think you do remember what happened,” he says at one point – and remains so today. “She had a forensic rigour about her… she was across the detail of all the portfolios,” he says.

While it ultimately had little obvious effect on the election outcome, it had a huge impact on the journalists involved, coming up against a popular PM at the height of her influence. Hirschfeld recalls Campbell so spaced out after it aired that he was nearly run down on Ponsonby Road while getting out of a car. Hager remains frustrated by what happened, and the way the furore completely overwhelmed the book upon which it was based. “I couldn’t bear to look at it for years afterwards,” he says, also believing that Clark has never forgiven him.

Campbell got it most personally, though, with one incident still seared into his memory. One night, not long after the special aired, he was out walking his one-year-old daughter through Three Lamps in Ponsonby, near his home. A woman he describes as having a patrician bearing approached him, and bent down to peer into the buggy. “‘I pity you, having him for a father’,” Campbell recalls her saying. His relationship with the prime minister was also seriously damaged by the incident. “It took years to recover.”

The long shadow of Corngate

Clark’s fury dimmed but did not pass, and Hirschfeld remembers TV3 being pointedly left until dead last for an interview as late as the 2005 election campaign. But by that stage their lives had changed, and in some ways Corngate, for all its complexity as an incident, had helped them grow.

Hirschfeld went on to become the producer of Campbell Live, a full-time 7pm current affairs show that cemented Campbell as a star. The fearlessness of that 2002 interview was present in his live interviews as he supplanted Holmes to become the emblematic broadcaster of the era. Hager moved on, too. During the next election he picked up the threads of what was to become The Hollow Men, his book about National’s 2005 campaign, and the one he considers his best.

As for Clark, she would go on to win a third term, and leave the rancour of Corngate to bulldoze through future controversies, from anti-smacking legislation to the pain of the Foreshore and Seabed Bill. Perhaps the most lasting scar of the era is a political circumspection around genetic modification issues that lingers to this day, with Greens food policy embodying a tension in stressing affordability while confining GM to the lab.

Despite the BSA ruling, Campbell remains proud of the work. “To me, it wasn’t a GM story, it was a political story.” At a time of huge public interest in – and fear about – genetic modification, did bureaucrats and politicians combine to cover up the release of GM material into the environment? Hager and Campbell both remain convinced that they did. Campbell’s only regret is that his team were not more candid about the topic of the interview, but isn’t sure whether the prime minister would have fronted had they been more direct. “Was it the best of all the shitty options? I don’t know,” he says.

Twenty years on, our politics and media have changed immeasurably, and Hirschfeld expresses a sadness that such an interview has no place in primetime today. Watching it now it’s obvious why it had such an impact. “It was enormous,” says Hirschfeld, and it was – immensely compelling television that still retains its power to this day.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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