A genuine news story quickly became a springboard for rumour and speculation, with one councillor at the centre of it.
Wellington mayor Tory Whanau has a problem with alcohol. She has made that public and is clearly embarrassed. Whanau’s public behaviour was first called into question in July after reports of drunkenly not paying a restaurant bill.
Being drunk in public is not in itself a political scandal, but after the incident earlier this year, Whanau said she was going to “keep certain socialising to my home”. So the fact that she was drunk (again) at a popular Wellington bar two weeks ago is arguably a breach of public trust.
Whether or not Whanau is able to satisfactorily perform the duties of mayor is worth discussing as the city deals with major infrastructure projects, ballooning costs, broken pipes and more. But the story, which broke last night, quickly became much bigger than the mayor’s drinking, due to an accompanying rumour spread online, acknowledged by early news reports and amplified by a senior councillor.
Soon after the initial story broke on Wednesday night, a number of faceless Twitter accounts began speculating that there was more to the story, specifically that there was a video from that night at Havana bar which showed the mayor doing something much more scandalous than drinking till 1am. The speculation was helped by the mention of “footage” in RNZ’s initial report.
But what footage? We could find absolutely no evidence such footage exists. Every account posting on the subject seemed to have heard it was circulating on a different platform. Those on Twitter pointed to Discord or Reddit. Those on Reddit said they’d seen it on TikTok. Nothing could be found on TikTok. There was even a suggestion it was “doing the rounds at the Viaduct”, whatever that means. Both RNZ and Stuff have apparently not seen the video, despite reporting on its supposed existence.
Whanau admits she was drunk in public at Havana Bar. But as for the rumoured incident that was supposedly filmed, she denies any such incident happened at all.
That did not stop Sean Plunket on The Platform this morning from running the entire rumour in extreme detail alongside an interview with fourth-term councillor Nicola Young.
“Nicola Young, councillor, is going to join us to talk about this later, but I just need to lay it out for you because mainstream media don’t want to tell you the story. They just want to protect the reputation of our addict mayor,” began the broadcast. Plunket then proceeded to describe, in specific detail, “the story”. The Spinoff’s editorial standards restrict the republishing of those details for both ethical and legal reasons. Plunket claimed to have his own sources for the explicit incident he outlined. More specifically, a video. Plunket had not seen the video himself but “I have heard from multiple sources in Wellington that that video is, if you like, doing the rounds”.
There are always rumours “doing the rounds” about politicians in New Zealand. Stories that could end the careers of hugely influential people if you could only get your hands on The Video or talk to The Source. Very few, if any, of those videos ever eventuate, but the rumours persist. Young will be well aware of this, having been an elected official for 10 years and coming from a political family – her father Bill and sister Annabel were both National MPs.
What is even rarer, though, is for even the existence of those rumours to be reported and included alongside known facts. That both RNZ and Stuff reported on a rumour is unusual (imagine all of the rumours we could report on!). In its breaking news story, RNZ reported that it had “learned of footage circulating and put the allegations to [Whanau’s] office”.
“Most councillors contacted by RNZ had heard the story and knew about the video in circulation, although none had seen the footage themselves and none would speak publicly,” the initial report read.
This certainly suggests there is a video to be seen, despite apparently no one having seen it. Plunket (and Young), however, went much further. After Plunket had completed his monologue on Whanau’s alleged activities (again, activities that no one has actually seen evidence of), he introduced Young on the phone and asked if she had seen this elusive video.
“I have not,” she said. “I have spoken to people about it, but I haven’t seen it.”
“The series of events as I described them, would that be what you have heard?”
“Pretty much. Yes. There are a few versions, but pretty much.”
Within 10 seconds, Young had both “confirmed” a rumour and acknowledged a slew of defamatory remarks against her colleague. “There are a few versions” is a hallmark of a rumour and yet Young has used that line to suggest that it is, in fact, true.
Towards the end of the interview, once again claiming a media coverup, Plunket asked: “Do you think the public need to know what went on?” Young responded, “I think people have got the rough idea, they don’t need to know any more. It’s all a bit tawdry.”
But people did not have a “rough idea” of “what went on” at all. They had heard a detailed and unverified rumour by Plunket, and heard Young largely endorse it.
The Spinoff spoke to Young after her interview with Plunket. She again confirmed she had not seen the video, but when asked if she believed it existed, said: “I do, because one of the people who has seen it is a very respectable Wellingtonian.” Following the interview, The Spinoff asked for the name of the respected Wellingtonian but is yet to receive any response.
When asked if it was appropriate to give a radio interview about a rumoured video that she hadn’t seen, given how potentially defamatory it was, Young said, “Well, I was asked what I thought was in it.”
Does she regret doing the interview? “I don’t think I regret much in my life.”
Does she think all the statements she made in the discussion with Sean Plunket would stand up in court in a defamation action? “I’m not a lawyer.”
And is she confident it was all accurate? “As I said, I haven’t seen it. I just spoke about what I had heard.”
The Spinoff asked every Wellington city councillor whether they thought Tory Whanau should resign or stay on. Nicola Young was the only councillor who said she should step down. “Yes, she should resign – for her sake and the sake of Wellington,” Young said.
Tory Whanau has gone on the record about her drinking problem. Addiction is a difficult and deeply personal issue, but as mayor it is still an important story for the city and warrants scrutiny. There will likely be much more reporting on this story.
But going on Sean Plunket’s media platform and circulating unfounded, potentially defamatory and clearly harmful rumours about the mayor is an important story in its own right. For that, councillor Young warrants scrutiny, too.