Top cop’s media gag


Otago and Southland’s top cop is muzzling officers over media phone calls.

While officers at crime and incident scenes can comment, and there’s still a daily face-to-face Queenstown media briefing, southern district police commander superintendent Mike Pannett has ordered officers not to take media phone calls.

“If you are contacted by media, especially printed media, please do not make verbal comment on any matters over the phone,” Pannett said in a staff ‘advisory bulletin’ on March 7.

“Please simply ask that all questions are put in an email and then sent to you. You can give the undertaking that someone will reply to those questions in due course.”

Pannett’s email was released to Mountain Scene after an Official Information Act request.

Earlier this year, police scrapped the district’s sole media liaison job in Dunedin, held by Nic Barclay.

Barclay now works in a national communications hub in Wellington, which opened last month.

Pannett’s bulletin says police were having “challenges” dealing with local media outlets, “in particular printed media”, who were calling individual staff members outside their normal working hours.

The email says: “While it is important we maintain a good working relationship with the local media, it is also important that we provide accurate, professional and well-researched answers to questions.”

Asked for further comment, Pannett says - in an emailed statement, of course – his staff were taking a “growing number” of media calls at home, late at night, and on issues they often knew nothing about.

This situation’s improved since the national media centre began operating, he says.

“At this stage no further changes are envisaged.”

He adds: “There are no plans to change the daily media briefing at Queenstown.”

Otago Lakes-Central area boss inspector Olaf Jensen, who’s Queenstown-based, discussed Pannett’s directive at a leadership meeting on March 10.

However, OIA gatekeeper Chris Kelley, who’s based in Dunedin, says: ”No action points arose from the discussion and no meeting notes exist in relation to the media.”

Massey University associate professor of journalism Grant Hannis says while it may be useful for comms staff to direct media in large organisations, using spin doctors blunts direct relationships between reporters and local authorities, including police.

Important stories are broken through networking and contacts, he says.

“To stage-manage the whole process there would be a real danger that it’s going to lead to bland, non-committal comments that take a long time to get back to reporters and it is an erosion of that basic accountability of authorities to the Fourth Estate.”

On Tuesday, the Otago Daily Times broke news that southern cops had been told to remain tight-lipped over the nationality of drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Last year, Queenstown police kicked their weekday briefings up , instead of rank and file cops, and weekend calls to its Dunedin-based southern district command centre.