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The Donghua Liu Affair: One Year On

15 July 2015 8 comments

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1. The Stage is Set

Just over one year ago, the NZ Herald published a series of stories relating to a then-eleven year old letter written by then-Labour leader, David Cunliffe; alleged “big donations” made to the Labour Party by migrant businssman, Donghua Liu; and other assorted (and somewhat dubious) allegations of “impropriety”.

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NZ Herald - Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party - Donghua Liu - David Cunliffe - letter for immigration nz

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NZ Herald - Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party - Donghua Liu - john armstrong - david cunliffe resignation

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NZ Herald - Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party - Donghua Liu - David Cunliffe - $100,000 bottle wine

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A time-line of events is outlined here: The Donghua Liu Affair:  Damn lies, dirty tricks, and a docile media

Judging by the activities of the office of the Minister for Immigration; TV3 journalist, Brook Sabin; NZ Herald personnel Shayne Curry, Tim Murphy,  Jared Savage,  and John Armstrong;  blogger Cameron Slater, and assorted right-wingers, it is also evident that there was a high degree of collusion between these parties.

One day before the Herald launched it’s “exclusive” that David Cunliffe had written an eleven year old letter on behalf of Donghua Liu, right-wing blogger “Barnsley Bill” (Russell Beaumont) posted this cryptic comment on blog, ‘The Dim Post‘;

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barnsley bill - russell beaumont - donghua liu - nz herald - the dim post

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Hours before Jared Savage’s story (David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid) went live on-line at 2.29PM, Twitter chatter between the Herald’s Editor, Shayne Currie, and sundry right-wing characters were gleefully anticipating the release;

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shayne-curry-twitter-nz-herald-donghua-liu-david-cunliffe-immigration-nz1

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Some Tweets have been deleted by their authors – but the screenshot above is a permanent record of  the conversation. (Acknowledgement to  co-writer, ‘Hercules’, for uncovering this part of the story.)

But the ‘clincher’ was this post, on far-right blog, ‘Whaleoil‘, published at 12.57PM – an hour and a half before the Herald published Savage’s story at 2.29PM;

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donghua liu - nz herald - whaleoil - cameron slater - jared savage - david cunliffe

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See full story revealed here: The Donghua Liu Affair: The Players Revealed

Even the Prime Minister could not resist chipping in with his own “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” reference to being privy to more information, as he stated the following morning (19 June) after Savage’s story went live. As Savage reported;

Speaking from the East Lawn at the United Nations this morning, Mr Key said he had heard rumours that Mr Liu had given more that $15,000.

“I’ve heard the rumours and we’ll see what actually comes out but I’d be very, very amazed if the amount is $15,000,” he told New Zealand reporters.

Key’s reference to “$15,000” related to allegations made by the Herald that Liu paid that amount for a book autographed by then-Labour leader, Helen Clark. On 16 June, Savage wrote;

But the Herald can reveal Liu, 53, also paid $15,000 at a Labour Party auction in 2007 for a book signed by Helen Clark, the Prime Minister at the time, according to a party source.

On 22 June, Herald journalist, Bevan Hurley, reported on the now-mythical $100,000 bottle of wine;

Millionaire businessman Donghua Liu spent more than $150,000 on the previous Labour government, including $100,000 on a bottle of wine signed by former prime minister Helen Clark at a party fundraiser.

The embarrassing revelations are contained in a signed statement from Liu, which the Herald on Sunday has obtained.

The Herald’s sole informant was migrant businessman, Donghua Liu. (More on this point later.)

2. Retractions

But only three days later, as Labour hit back demanding evidence of Liu’s claims and pressure mounted on the Herald to “put up or shut up”, a new, revised, statement appeared;

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NZ Herald - Donghua Liu's new statement on Labour donations - Donghua Liu - David Cunliffe - $100,000 bottle wine

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Savage wrote;

Liu, to whom Labour gave permanent residency against official advice, says his earlier signed statement on the wine auction was “capable of two meanings” and after repeated inquiries from the Herald he says he wants to clarify what he spent the $100,000 on.

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He said the figure was the total payments to Labour and its politicians which included the wine auctions, a $2000 donation to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club, the Yangtze River trip and anonymous donations to MPs.

“I have no reason to inflate this number. It’s as best as I can remember,” said Liu.

The Herald’s back-tracking continued when this editorial appeared on 27 June 2014;

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NZ Herald - Editorial - Cries of bias will not stop reporting - Donghua Liu - David Cunliffe - $100,000 bottle wine

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The editorial bluster continued until the un-named author came to the salient point;

“At the weekend, the Herald on Sunday reported from a signed statement by Liu in which he appeared to claim he spent $100,000 on wine at a Labour fundraiser and $50,000-$60,000 hosting former Labour MP Rick Barker in China. The paper verified the document was from Liu and put its claims to Mr Cunliffe and the Labour Party.

On Wednesday, Liu provided the Herald with another statement, after being pressed for more detail, in which he corrected his previous implication that $100,000 was paid for a bottle of wine and limited his total spend on Labour and its MPs when it was in power to “close to $100,000”.

The Herald immediately published his clarification, with prominence on our website, where it remains, and amended the Herald on Sunday story online. The Sunday paper will publish a clarification this weekend.

Liu’s mis-statement, however, has been grasped as proof of Herald complicity in a plot against Labour. The claim is risible, across the range of political coverage but also explicitly over the Herald’s investigation of National and Labour and their damaging cosiness with Donghua Liu.

We regret having reported inflated and conflated dollar figures.”

On-line public commentary following the editorial was scathing and in no mood to be mollified by this Clayton’s apology (if that is what it was intended to be). No wonder it was eventually closed down.

3. Press Council Complaint & Consequence

On 5 July 2014, I laid a complaint with the Press Council regarding the nature and content of the Herald stories.  The  complaint referred to several Herald articles omitting to mention Cunliffe’s letter being eleven years old; that no evidence had been presented to support Liu’s claim he had paid $15,000 for a book , nor $100,000 for a bottle of wine; that the Herald had not released the full text of Liu’s signed statement, and other examples of misreporting and lack of evidence.

(Full text of complaint here.)

On 21 August 2014,  the Press Council deliberations yielded it’s decision.

Despite the complaint against the Herald being dismissed by the Press Council (hardly a surprise), it is noteworthy that the Council did issue one admonishment against the paper;

We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source.

(Full text of Decision here.)

In fact, the entire series of stories emanated from just one man: Donghua Liu. Not only was the businessman’s story uncorroborated, but the Herald was reluctantly forced to concede that several of Liu’s “facts” were simply incorrect.

There is also the strange involvement of Cameron Slater, Russell Beaumont, and other sundry assorted right-wing characters, who were party to the Herald’s story.

On top of which was the even stranger fact that the Herald’s OIA request (made by Jared Savage on 16 June 2014) into Donghua Liu’s immigration was processed within 48 hours – a feat unheard of when it comes to Official Information requests.

(Full text of Immigration NZ letter here. Full story here.)

4. The Herald’s Promises of  more “evidence” and “details” to come

Part of the Herald’s defence was that the Donghua Liu investigation was on-going and more revelations were to follow. The following comments by the Herald’s then-editor-in-chief promised the following;

Tim Murphy, email to Frank Macskasy, 27 June 2014

“We are continuing to investigate the payments from Donghua Liu and the circumstances of his various migration approvals.”

Tim Murphy, email to Frank Macskasy,  4 July 2014

“We fully expect further details to come will show the  Herald’s earlier reporting to have, as we have known throughout, been accurate and soundly based.”

Murphy made similar commitments to the NZ press Council as part of their defence against complaints in the handling of Dongthua Liu’s allegations;

Tim Murphy, email, 7 July 2014 & NZ Herald statement to NZ Press Council, 15 July 2014;

“We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly.”

Tim Murphy, ibid

“You seem to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim he attended only a staff party in China.  We do not accept this and expect further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be revealed in due course.”

To date, no further evidence, nor details, have been forth-coming.

I wrote to Shayne Currie, the Herald’s recently-appointed editor, asking;

It is now one year on from the Donghua Liu Affair, which ranged from 18 June 2014, to 27 June 2014, when  several allegations were made regarding David Cunliffe, Rick Barker, and the NZ Labour Party.

At least one of those allegations (a so-called “$100,000 bottle of wine”) was retracted by your paper. Another allegation, of a so-called “$15,000 book signed by Helen Clark”, was never proven.
Two complaints to the NZ Press Council were, for the most part, not upheld, though your paper was roundly criticised for sole reliance on only one source (Donghua Liu), and not confirmed from a second source. The Press Council stated in it’s findings that this was a failure of a basic tenet of journalism.
On several occassions, the then-editor of the Herald, Tim Murphy,  stated that the investigation into this story was on-going and expected further details and evidence to emerge.
I refer you to statements made by Murphy;
[See statements above by Tim Murphy]
As it has now been exactly one year since the Donghua Liu Affair, are you able to advise me as to what further “details” and “evidence” the Herald’s “continuing investigations” have uncovered?
I will be seeking comment from other ‘players’ in this story, and felt it fair that I seek your comments as well, to present some degree of balance.
I will be happy to present any comment you wish to make, verbatim.

As this story is published, Currie has not replied to my emailed questions.

5. A response from Labour’s Mike Williams

Former Labour Party President, Mike Williams, was more forthcoming when I questioned him on the Donghua Liu Affair. On 8 July, Williams told me;

“I was incensed by this. Because if the Labour Party had picked up $150,000 I would’ve known about it.”

This was all founded on bullshit. There were no donations from Donghua Liu. Not a cent.”

Williams was scathing of the manner of the Herald’s reporting of Donghua Liu’s claims;

“This story was just total bullshit, it was front page bullshit. They kind of withdrew from it, but it did damage the Labour Party at a time when it didn’t need much damage.

There’s gotta be a withdrawal or apology, I would have thought.”

6A. Conclusion

In a previous chapter of the Donghua Liu Affair (The OIA Gambit), ‘Hercules’ and I wrote;

What appears to be an orchestrated  Beehive plot to dig dirt for throwing at Labour leader, David Cunliffe, ahead of a crucial parliamentary debate is revealed in a paper trail linking Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, and the Parliamentary Press Gallery offices of the New Zealand Herald and TV3.

Hatched in National’s anticipation of a hammering in a debate on Wednesday 18 June (note the date) prompted by the resignation of ACT leader, John Banks, the plot was pivotal on having Cunliffe first deny helping Auckland businessman Donghua Liu with his residency application – before producing an eleven-year-old letter from Immigration’s files as proof that the Opposition leader was either a liar or had suffered serious brain fade.

On its own, the letter was innocuous…

…What is certain is that the real reason for the urgent 48-hour response to the OIA requests was to ensure that the Cunliffe letter was in the public domain by midday on Wednesday 18 June.

The same day that the government was facing a torrid questioning by the Opposition after the conviction and resignation of ACT MP, John Banks. A government that desperately needed a credible diversion. Relying on another beneficiary-bashing story from Paula Bennett was simply not tenable.

This was the a Dirty Trick of the highest order, involving an eleven year old letter; complicit media looking for another  easy sensational news story; Ministers with connections to right wing bloggers; and journalists who run with the pack instead of asking questions that might yield real answers.

As they say in law enforcement circles; Motive. Means. Opportunity.

The government had all three.

This was the real story behind the Donghua Liu Affair.

However, there is more to it than that.

The motivation of the National government to smear and destroy David Cunliffe’s credibility is fairly obvious. With National facing an election later that year (2014), a resurgent Labour Party led by a new leader was the last thing they needed.

But there were two other players in this Affair…

6B. Donghua Liu

As I wrote in a previous chapter on this Affair (The impending final act and curtain-fall in this smear-campaign), the Herald came into possession of the first of two statements by Donghua Liu (neither of which have ever been released publicly, despite ongoing demands for transparency);

The date on Liu’s “signed statement” – 3 May – was only two days after Maurice Williamson’s enforced resignation after being found out attempting to influence a police investigation into Liu’s assault on two women.

The close timing of Williamson’s resignation and the date on Liu’s “signed statement” was a critical mistake on the part of those responsible for this smear campaign. It ties the two events together. I believe Key’s senior media strategist, Jason Ede, and right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater were probably involved.

The motive for the smear campaign was an act of utu, in retaliation for Labour prosecuting revelations against Maurice Williamson.

Interestingly, the Herald political reporter who wrote the Donghua Liu stories made a passing reference to Maurice Williamson as well, in an email to me dated 17 July, last year;

It all started with queries about his citizenship while the Nats were in power, against advice, specifically after Maurice Williamson writing an email in support in 2010…it eventually led to Mr Williamson’s resignation as a Minister for intervening in a police matter and the discovery that Liu was also lobbying Immigration Minister Woodhouse to change policy. –  Jared Savage, email, Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 11:27 PM

From several media reports, it seemed clear that the relationship between Donghua Liu and Maurice Williamson was more than just a formal MP-Constituent relationship. They appeared to be good friends;

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Liu, who has close ties with the minister, was arrested in December last year following a domestic violence incident…  He had previously lobbied his colleagues to grant Liu citizenship against official advice. Liu’s citizenship was approved in 2010 by then Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy. He later made a $22,000 donation to the National Party. TV3, 1 May 2014

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National MP Maurice Williamson lobbied a ministerial colleague to give New Zealand citizenship “as fast as possible” to a wealthy businessman – then conducted the ceremony himself the day after citizenship was granted against the recommendation of officials.The urgent VIP ceremony, believed to have taken place in Mr Williamson’s electoral office, is another close link between the former Minister and millionaire property developer Donghua Liu, who has donated $22,000 to the National Party previously. – NZ Herald, 1 May 2014

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He [Maurice Williamson] later revealed that Liu owned a bach next to his family’s house at Pauanui, and the MP had used the property and performed minor repair work on the house when Liu was in China.“I’m a fan of being a handyman and the house was good to be able to use while we were doing it,” he told Campbell Live.Mr Williamson recommended the neighbouring holiday home to Liu when it went on the market.  He also said he had eaten dinner with Liu as part of a group five or six times. – Otago Daily Times, 2 May 2014

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When Williamson resigned his ministerial portfolio on 1 May 2014,  Donghua Liu no doubt noticed his friend’s misfortune, and conveniently  supplied his statement to the NZ Herald three days later.

Donghua Liu could not have been too happy at the downfall of his ‘mate’, and was eager to exact revenge against the Labour leader, David Cunliffe.

One of the few remaining questions is; who put him (Liu) up to it? Who could have prompted a migrant businessman, with poor command of the english language, to make a formal statement, and ensure it made it’s way to the Herald’s offices?

It had to be someone well-connected with the National government; who had experience with ‘dirty tricks’; links with media; and who has/had a working relationship with right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater (who, don’t forget, published Jared Savage’s Donghua Liu story on Whaleoil one and a half hours before it appeared on the Herald’s own website!).

I think we all know who fits that ‘job description‘.

6C. NZ Herald

If, as evidence indicates, the Donghua Liu story was a cunningly concocted smear-campaign run by the National Party to discredit David Cunliffe, they needed someone – a willing ‘patsy’ –  to make the allegations of “hidden donations”. That man was Donghua Liu, loyal friend of disgraced Minister, Maurice Williamson.

They also needed a compliant media outlet who could be ‘tipped’ off about Cunliffe’s 2003 letter on behalf of Donghua Liu. That media outlet would be the NZ Herald. More specifically, Jared Savage, who has admitted to regular contact with right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater.

How did Herald Reporter, Jared Savage, know to lodge an OIA request on 16 June 2014 with Immigration Minister Woodhouse’s office, seeking, “Any correspondence, including emails, letters or queries, from any Members of Parliament in regards to Donghua Liu’s immigration status prior to 2005″.

Why was Savage’s OIA request granted within 48 hours – a feat unheard off when it come to this government responding to OIA requests by journalists, bloggers, members of the public, etc. (See:  The OIA Gambit)?

Was the Herald knowingly complicit in a smear campaign against David Cunliffe?

This blogger thinks not.

In which case, what was the Herald’s involvement?

Simply put, National’s “black ops” team  manufactured a story against Cunliffe using a twelve year old letter, and a bogus statement (note; it was not a signed, witnessed affidavit, which has greater legal standing than simply a signed statement) by a friend of Maurice Williamson – Donghua Liu.

Through Jared Savage, the Herald was offered an “exclusive”,  despite having no corroborating evidence nor a second source to back up Liu’s claims – a fact pointed out by the Press Council as a critical mistake. Remember that the NZ Press Council, in it’s decision (see:  The Press Council’s decision) on complaints laid against the Herald, stated;

While they were entitled to rely on such a statement [from Liu] as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source.

There could be no “second source”. Because it was all a concocted lie.

Whether or not the Herald’s editor at the time (Tim Murphy), Shayne Currie, or Jared Savage suspected that the Donghua Liu story was a pack of lies is moot.

What is indisputable is that the Herald was handed – on a plate – an exclusive story that ultimately aided in the destruction of David Cunliffe’s political career.

For the NZ Herald, that was the “pay off”; an exclusive story. They were not going to turn away from such a sensational story – especially when a competitor such as TV3 could run with it.

Shayne Currie and Tim Murphy may have been aware that Liu’s claims were bogus, but they were willing to sacrifice their journalistic integrity to throw caution to the wintry winds of Wellington’s politics and run with it anyway.

The fact that the Herald’s current editor, Shayne Currie, has not made any form of reply to my email indicates that the Donghua Liu Affair  is a story that they would rather quietly ‘went away’.

It is a unusual when a media outlet will not defend it’s own and one has to ask the obvious question – why?

Because the Donghua Liu Affair, as reported by the Herald in June and July last year, was a fabrication from beginning to end.

Otherwise, where is the new ‘evidence’ and ‘details’ promised by then-editor, Tim Murphy? Like Liu’s claims, Murphy’s promises were empty.

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Addendum1

Tim Murphy was given an opportunity to answer questions relating to the Donghua Liu Affair. A near-identical email to the one sent to Shayne Currie has not been responded to.

Addendum2

On 16 June this year – nearly the exact anniversary of the Herald publishing it’s first Donghua Liu story on 18 June 2014 – all domestic violence charges were dropped against Mr Liu.

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References

NZ Herald: David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid

NZ Herald: John Armstrong: Cunliffe’s resignation may be in order

NZ Herald: Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party

The Dim Post: June Polls – Barnsley Bill

Twitter: Shayne Currie @ShayneCurrieNZH

Whaleoil: BREAKING – David Cunliffe’s career, such as it was, is over [ UPDATED ]

NZ Herald: Key on Liu-Labour Link – More to come

NZ Herald: Under-fire donor gave to Labour too

NZ Herald: Donghua Liu’s new statement on Labour donations

TV3: Maurice Williamson resigns as minister

NZ Herald: Maurice Williamson conducted citizenship ceremony himself

Otago Daily Times: Williamson used Liu’s holiday home

NZ Herald: Editorial – Ministers and immigration shouldn’t mix

Fairfax media: Jason Ede still has Beehive access

NZ Herald: Jason Ede resigns from the National Party after Dirty Politics scandal

NZ Herald: Collins resigns – Jared Savage and Fran O’Sullivan respond

NZ Herald: Domestic violence charges against millionaire businessman dropped

Previous related blogposts

The Donghua Liu Affair:  Damn lies, dirty tricks, and a docile media

The Donghua Liu Affair threatens to unravel – PM and NZ Herald caught up in a dirty trick campaign?

The Donghua Liu Affair: the impending final act and curtain-fall in this smear-campaign

The Donghua Liu Affair: The first step to a complaint to the Press Council

The Donghua Liu Affair: responses from NZ Herald and Prime Minister’s Office – Is the PM’s office fudging?

The Donghua Liu Affair: Evidence of Collusion between the NZ Herald and Immigration NZ?

The Donghua Liu Affair: the Press Council’s decision

The Donghua Liu Affair: The OIA Gambit

The Donghua Liu Affair:  The Players Revealed

The Donghua Liu Affair: One Year On

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Dirt Unit.

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 10 July 2015.

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The Donghua Liu Affair: the Press Council’s decision

5 September 2014 8 comments

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1. Prologue

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The Donghua Liu Affair hit  the headlines on 18 June, with allegations that David Cunliffe wrote a letter in 2003,  on  behalf of  business migrant, Donghua Liu.

Four days later, on Sunday 22 June, the Herald ran stories alleging  massive donations to the Labour Party by Liu. Tabloid- style stories of  $100,000 paid for a bottle of wine and $15,000 for a book, along with a $50,000-$60,000 dinner party hosted for then Labour minister, Rick Barker, and a donation to a rowing club, raged for several days.

By Wednesday, on 25 June,  the Herald was forced to retract  Liu’s claims. The “new” story was that Liu’s  “donation” was,

… close to $100,000 and that is my closing comment in my statement…that is how much I believe I have donated in total to Labour and some of their MPs during their last term in Government.”

The so-called Yangtze River boat “dinner for Rick Barker” turned out to be some sort of staff function that Liu had invited the Labour minister to attend.

Only Liu’s donation – of $2,000 – to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club, was confirmed.  Considering that any “link” between the NZ Labour Party and Hawkes Bay Rowing Club is tenuous at best (Barker’s daughter was a member of the club), the value of this aspect of the Liu Affair is dubious, to put it mildly.

Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003 letter was far from “avocating on Liu’s behalf”. Instead, the eleven year old letter turned out to be a stock-standard inquiry sent to Immigration NZ with the rather banal request ,

I am aware of the difficulties facing the Business Migration Branch of New Zealand Immigration Services in coping with the overwhelming numbers of applicants that have applied for consideration under these categories and the time taken to verify documents. However it would be very helpful to Mr Liu to be advised of an estimated period of time period [sic] in which he could expect a decision on his case.

Requesting “an estimated period of time period” seems a stretch to describe it as advocating.

Accordingly, this blogger lodged a formal complaint with the Herald’s editor-in-Chief, NZ Press Council; and OIAs lodged with Deputy PM,  Bill English; Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, and the Office of the Prime Minister.

A letter seeking clarification was also emailed to Herald journalist, Jared Savage, which he has responded to. A further letter, emailed on 21 August was sent, requesting further details to his initial response. No reply has been received at this date.

On 21 August, the Press Council released their decision on my complaint – embargoed until 29 August, to allow both parties to respond (which I according did so on 28 August).

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2. The Complaint

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My complaint to the Press Council, lodged on 5 July this year, related to a series of article published in the NZ Herald, predominantly by staff reporter, Jared Savage. The articles ran from 18 June to around 26 June. The  complaint fell into six main categories;

  1. That the date on David Cunliffe’s letter to Immigration NZ (11 April 2003), regarding Donghua Liu’s application for residency under the business migrant policy, was not consistently applied to subsequent Herald articles – thereby giving some readers the impression that it was a recent document – and not eleven years old. I provided examples of five stories that omitted the crucial date.
  2. Donghua Liu claimed that he paid $15,000 for a book at a Labour Party fundraising event. Liu has not provided a single item of evidence to back up this claim, and the Labour Party  categorically denied that any such fundraising event has ever taken place on the date that Liu has given. That has not prevented the Herald from presenting Liu’s claim as a fact.
  3. Donghua Liu claimed that he paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine at a Labour  Party fundraising event. Liu has not provided a single item of evidence to back up this claim, and the Labour Party  categorically denied that any such fundraising event has ever taken place on the date that Liu has given. That has not prevented the Herald from presenting Liu’s claim as a fact.
  4. On 22 June, Bevan Hurley wrote in the NZ Herald that the paper had obtained a copy of Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” which made several claims. The text of that “signed statement” has never been released to the public. I submit that it is manifestly unfair, unreasonable, and unconscionable that the Herald has not released, in full and verbatim, Liu’s “signed statement” as it did with David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.
  5. On 18 June, the Herald’s chief political commentator, John Armstrong,  wrote a column that was highly condemnatory of David Cunliffe, and called for his resignation. Again, Armstrong failed to mention that Cunliffe’s letter to Immigration NZ was eleven years old;  secondly, that in failing to mention that salient fact, was able to infer that Cunliffe was lying; and thirdly, failed to mention Cunliffe’s explanation that because of the age of the letter, any reasonable person would have accepted his subsequent explanation.
  6. That the Herald misrepresented ex-Labour Minister, Rick Barker’s attendance on a Yangtze River boat trip and Donghua Liu’s $2,000 donation to the Hawke’s Bay Rowing Club, and, by innuendo, was able to ‘spin’ both events in a negative light.

(Full text of complaint here.)

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3. The Herald’s editor responds

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In an email dated 4 July, Herald editor Tim Murphy responded to my complaint;

1.       The date of the letter was prominently publicised at the time we
broke the story and indeed we published the letter online.  The residency
application by Liu was in the mid-2000s and that was referenced numerous
times in our coverage.  We do not list all dates and facts in all subsequent
references.

2.       We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further
‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly.

3.       It is clear that the $100,000 for a bottle of wine was misreported,
and was corrected as soon as further information became available from Liu.
We clarified this on all our channels and in the subsequent Herald on Sunday
and explained the error in an editorial in the New Zealand Herald.

4.       We do not automatically make public documents which we obtain as
part of ongoing journalistic inquiries.  There are many reasons for this,
including the conditions upon which they were obtained from whatever source
and the need for us to pursue further matters contained within.  While there
seems to be an expectation that journalistic inquiry must be ‘open source’
this ignores these conditions and also the competitive nature of news
gathering.  The Cunliffe letter was obtained under the Official Information
Act and was released to all media, so is thus automatically a public
document.

5.       You seem to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim
he attended only a staff party in China.  We do not accept this and expect
further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be
revealed in due course.

6.       It would be wilfully naïve to assume that the donation to the
rowing club associated with an MP, the day after that MP has hosted Liu in
the region, is unconnected to that MP.  The donation was made and Liu made
it with the intent of it being in favour of the MP.

It is worthwhile noting several points from Mr Murphy’s 4 July email;

Whilst the Herald did not “list all dates and facts in all subsequent  references” – that did not stop them from continuous reporting of a “$100,000 bottle of wine”, a “$15,000 book”,  a boat trip, and a donation to a rowing club. These matters were repeated ad nauseum. But not the date of a letter that put matters into some perspective.

Tim Murphy stated that he stood by the “report that a book was purchased and expect further  ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly”. After nearly two months, no such ‘evidence has been forthcoming.

Tim Murphy admitted that the “$100,000 bottle of wine” was misreported. What else in Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” is a fabrication?

Tim Murphy makes no reasonable explanation why Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” (and subsequent “clarification” has been kept secret, except that they can. I did not believe this to be a suitable explanation and made my thoughts clear to the Press Council on this point.

In a subsequent response to the Council, Tim Murphy wrote,

“While there seems to be an expectation that journalistic inquiry must be ‘open source’ this ignores these conditions and also the competitive nature of news gathering. The Cunliffe letter was obtained under the Official Information Act and was released to all media, so is thus automatically a public document.”
I replied that Mr Murphy had not provided solid grounds for with-holding Mr Liu “signed statement” except reference tothe competitive nature of news gathering”. This, to me, was wholly inadequate and gave only a one-sided view to this story. The public were therefore  unable to determine for themselves precisely what it was that Mr Liu has stated.

Tim Murphy stated, that I seemed “to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim he attended only a staff party in China”. He further stated that   “we do not accept this and expect  further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be revealed in due course”. Again, after nearly two months no further details of this “hospitality for him and others” has been forthcoming.

Tim Murphy accused me of being “wilfully naïve to assume that the donation to the  rowing club associated with an MP, the day after that MP has hosted Liu in the region, is unconnected to that MP”. That can be turned on it’s head; just because a wealthy businessman tries to “curry favour” with a politician by making a donation to a third party is not a reason to believe that attempt was in any way successful.

If I made a donation to a sporting club attended by the Prime Minister’s children – would the Herald assume that I had “curried favour” with the PM? Or merely attempted to curry favour?

The Herald seems to have made a leap of faith that Donghua Liu’s attempt to curry favour had been successful.

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4. The Council’s decision

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On 21 August, a representative from the Press Council emailed the  Council’s adjudication on my complaint against the NZ Herald.  The email stated that “the decision [was] confidential to the parties until Friday 29 August“.

Upon further questioning why the necessity for a week-long embargo, the representative from the Press Council replied on 22 August,

“We allow a week post-release  so that either party can, if necessary, take up any error of fact in the Council’s decision before it is published to a wider audience.”

Thank you for telling me. (Note sarcasm.)

The Council’s deliberations yielded the following decision;

It is apparent that the Herald publications carried out an in-depth and ongoing investigation of the relationships between National and Labour and Mr Liu.

At the heart of Mr Macskasy’s complaint is the failure of the Herald in later articles to continue to repeat the date of Mr Cunliffe’s letter. The Herald has provided us with the full series of articles, which make it plain that the date was published, and a link to the full letter provided. It was a public document. We are satisfied that readers of these publications, in context, would be aware of the timing of the application for residency and the fact that Mr Cunliffe’s letter was published some time earlier. The publication of the letter only followed Mr Cunliffe’s denial of having anything to do with Mr Liu. We are not satisfied a reader would have been misled. As we have said previously where there is a series of linked stories it is not necessary in subsequent articles to repeat every detail. In any event the date of the letter and the fact it was written 11 years previously was repeated in a number of articles.

We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source. As a result the reporting about which Mrs Lyons is complaining was incorrect. We accept the statement was ambiguous and could have been read to mean Mr Liu had paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine when in fact he was attempting to convey he had spent $100,000 in total for various matters relating to the Labour Party and Mr Barker. But if a second source had been sought to confirm the story the error would not have occurred.
However, we accept that the Herald assiduously pursued Mr Liu for clarification and when it came immediately published a correction. A number of subsequent articles repeated the correction.

Principle 12 reads: “A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.” Here it was the Herald’s enquiries that revealed the error. It was corrected promptly with fair prominence and the correction was repeated. In those circumstances the Council does not uphold the complaint.

Neither complaint is upheld.

(Full text of Decision here.)

To say that I was flabbergasted at the decision and the rationalistion behind their decision, would be a wholly accurate assessment.

The Press Council’s admission – a statement which appears to conflate two semi-related issues – of the Herald’s faulty reporting is outlined with clarity;

We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source…

[…]

… But if a second source had been sought to confirm the story the error would not have occurred. “

Which is part of the nub of the issue: that the Herald relied on the uncorrobrated and unproven allegations of just one individual.

Such reliance on one person’s unsubstantiated allegations would be bad enough in normal circumstances.

But the series of articles in the Herald focused on the Leader of a major political party during a critical election year campaign. It could not have been more damaging if it had been deliberately planned for maximum damage.

After a week of collecting my thoughts, I gave my response to the Press Council, and will close with the statement I emailed to them on 28 August;

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With regards to the Press Council’s decision (2390/2391) to my complaint, the following is my response;

The PC Decision states: “At the heart of Mr Macskasy’s complaint is the failure of the Herald in later articles to continue to repeat the date of Mr Cunliffe’s letter.”

My response: Incorrect. The date of David Cunliffe’s letter was referenced twice out of six main points within my complaint. It was not the “heart of… the complaint”.

The PC Decision states: “As we have said previously where there is a series of linked stories it is not necessary in subsequent articles to repeat every detail.”

My response: The Herald repeated certain details when it came to “$100,000 bottles of wine”, “$15,000 books”, “Yangtze river boat trips”, and “rowing club donations”. It strikes me as not unreasonable to place a similar emphasis on the eleven year old provenance of a letter.

The PC Decision states “However, we accept that the Herald assiduously pursued Mr Liu for clarification and when it came immediately published a correction. A number of subsequent articles repeated the correction. “

My response: The corrections were made as one editorial and one online (?) article. I submit that this was manifestly inadequate.

It would have taken full page corrections on the front page of the Herald to undo the damage to Mr Cunliffe’s political reputation and public perception of the Labour Party during a critical election year.

I also maintain that, by then, the sensationalised headlines of “$100,000 bottles of wine”, “$15,000 books”, “Yangtze river boat trips”, and “rowing club donations” made any correction(s) almost meaningless. The damage had been done to one man’s public reputation.

The PC Decision states: “We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source”

My response: The Council conflates two semi-related issues in that statement.

Firstly, failure to publish Mr Liu’s statement in full, as the Herald did with David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.

The question remains unanswered; what is the Herald hiding? Why will they not release the text of both of Mr Liu’s statements? In the interests of full disclosures and giving the public full information – what possible justification can there be to keep these documents secrets.

The Herald’s sole justification has been: ‘because we can’.

Suspicions of selective use of Mr Liu’s statements will remain for as long as the Herald relies on secrecy. The Press Council is inexplicably enabling this secrecy.

Secondly, reliance on one one uncorroborated and unproven allegations.

The Herald’s entire “story” was based on My Liu’s lone “signed statement”, and latter a “correction”. Whilst some minor events were proven – a Yangtze Rive boat trip and rowing club donation – those two in themselves did not prove the overall points that Mr Liu made. In fact, the main, substantive allegations have never been substantiated.

It is worthwhile to remind the Council that the Herald editor, Tim Murphy, stated on 4 July, ” We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly”.

Similar comments have been made elsewhere that more “evidence” will be “revealed”. It is nearly three months since Mr Murphy made that statement.

To date, no further stories on the Donghua Liu Affair have been published. Mr Murphy’s claims of “more to come” have not materialised.

This is a point that the Press Council has not taken into full consideration: where is the new evidence?

Not only was the Liu Affair based on one man’s uncorroborated allegations; not only was the Herald forced to retract part’s of Mr Liu’s allegations; but the story appears to have “run out of steam” for lack of evidence.

The Principles of the Press Council states in part,”An independent press plays a vital role in a democracy. The proper fulfilment of that role requires a fundamental responsibility to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance and public faith in those standards.”

How can “high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance” be maintained when,

* information is with-held from the public,

* unproven and uncorroborated allegations from just one individual are presented as fact,

* there is minimal attempt at balance,

* only lip-service is made to correct inaccuracies

* the media concerned makes no effort to publish an apology

* the media concerned insists that there is “more to come” – but no further evidence has been forthcoming

And worse still, though the Press Council gave a ‘nod’ to wrong-doing by stating that “we accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement” – it was not prepared to pursue the matter further by making enacting the basic principles of journalism to find out WHY the Herald did what it did.

When I considered laying a complaint with the Council, I had an understanding from other sources that it was an ineffectual organisation that was more concerned with preserving the status quo than challenging it.

Having read the Council’s decision, I see nothing to change that perception.

The Press Council refers to “public faith in those standards”.

I submit that public faith is sorely tested when poor reporting and management decisions trump sound investigative journalism.

I further submit that the raison d’etre for the Press Council is under-mined when it fails to carry our it’s core responsibilities;

“Editors have the ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications, and for adherence to the standards of ethical journalism which the Council upholds”

Regards,
-Frank Macskasy

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5. Conclusion

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Despite Tim Murphy’s  insistence of “further evidence” and “further revelations”, no such “evidence” or “revelations” have materialised.

It is now two and a half months since the first “story” broke on 18 June. No subsequent new facts have emerged since the Herald was forced to retract, on 25 June,  it’s claims of a $100,00 bottle of wine.

It is fair to say that, despite the Press Council’s “collective wisdom”, that the Donghua Liu saga has proven to be miserable failure for the NZ Herald.

To be continued: The Donghua Liu Affair: OIA Responses from the PM; Deputy PM; the Immigration Minister, and next steps

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References

NZ Herald: David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid

NZ Herald: Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party

NZ Herald: Donghua Liu’s new statement on Labour donations

Frankly Speaking Archives: Complaint to NZ Press Council 5 July 2014

Press Council: Full text of Decision

Previous related blogposts

The Donghua Liu Affair – Damn lies, dirty tricks, and a docile media

The Donghua Liu Affair threatens to unravel – PM and NZ Herald caught up in a dirty trick campaign?

The Donghua Liu Affair – the impending final act and curtain-fall in this smear-campaign

The Donghua Liu Affair: The first step to a complaint to the Press Council

The Donghua Liu Affair: responses from NZ Herald and Prime Minister’s Office – Is the PM’s office fudging?

The Donghua Liu Affair: Evidence of Collusion between the NZ Herald and Immigration NZ?


 

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Forgot eleven year old letter

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 30 August 2014

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NZ Herald mis-represents Green Party spokesperson on synthetic ‘highs’

21 June 2013 3 comments

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Legal highs linked to deaths - coroner

Acknowledgment: NZ herald – Legal highs linked to deaths – coroner

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In a shocking piece of misleading journalism, the NZ Herald yesterday (14 June) mis-quoted Kevin Hague, the Green spokesperson on Health issues.

Herald journalist Kurt Bayer claimed that the Greens supported using animals for testing “party pills” (also known as synthetic ‘highs’).  Bayer wrote,

The SPCA and Greens today finally agreed that some animal testing of party pills was necessary for the sake of keeping young people safe.”

Source: Legal highs linked to deaths – coroner

This was shown to be wrong when the Greens posted their actual media release on-line on their website. The release stated,

The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf

The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf

“The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee…”

Source: Bill a win for communities and animals

Bill a win for communities and animals
Bill a win for communities and animals

The Green Party statement went on to specifically state their opposition to animal testing,

“However, we will still be putting forward our amendment to rule out the use of data from animal testing being used as proof of safety.

“Our amendment is much simpler and more practical to enforce than the Minister’s amendment and doesn’t allow any animal testing.

We have not seen any evidence that we need to allow animal testing of recreational drugs. In fact, the evidence we have seen is that all the proposed animal tests can be replaced with modern and effective non-animal tests,” said Ms Mathers.”

Source: IBID

The Green Party statement was in stark contrast to the story penned by Bayer and published online at 3:15 PM on Friday Jun 14. The offending portion stated,

 The SPCA and Greens today finally agreed that some animal testing of party pills was necessary for the sake of keeping young people safe.

An amendment limiting animal testing has now been included in the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

“This bill is a necessary and practical step to end the harm caused by allowing untested drugs to be the market,” said Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague.

“We support strong regulation for party pills and legal highs – we can’t continue to put our communities at risk.”

The third and fourth paragraphs appear to indicate Green support for the first paragraph, which is erroneous.

The Green Party position was more accurately reported on Radio NZ’s website,

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Animal testing must be last resort in legal highs tests

Acknowledgment: Radio NZ – Animal testing must be last resort in legal highs tests

The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf
The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf
The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf
The Green Party welcomes the Psychoactive Substances Bill as it is reported back to the House today, and is delighted that an amendment limiting animal testing has finally been included, despite the submissions on animal testing being rejected by the chair of the Select Committee. – See more at: http://www.greens.org.nz/press-releases/bill-win-communities-and-animals#sthash.JM62c6sB.dpuf

This issue was brought to this bloggers attention by Facebook user Jeanette Wilkinson who, at first, took the Herald story at face-value. Ms Wilkinson wrote on the DiscussioNZ page,

“I am extremely disappointed with the Green Party right now…in fact your credibility has taken a huge dive in my eyes upon reading this article below …especially where it mentions the Green Party finally deciding that SOME animal testing is required on animals for vile dangerous and totally unnecessary evil party pills and substances … I thought the Green Party would have some common sense and not support this at all and be inclined to have unnatural and dangerous chemical highs banned completely!”

When the actual Green Party policy was brought to Ms Wilkinson’s attention she accepted that the Green Party’s actual position had been mis-represented,  and also added,

” I also believe that synthetic highs should be illegal and banned then none of this controversy would be happening and wouldn’t that be a much better result for all moreso our young people?”

In a series of tweets by this blogger, I brought  Kurt Bayer’s attention to the mis-reporting of Green Party policy on animal testing, and asked for his response,

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Kurt Bayer twitter profile

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@KurtBayerAPNZ Hi Kurt. Your story “Legal highs linked to deaths-coroner” appears to have misquoted Green policy. http://tinyurl.com/mq6k6gx

@KurtBayerAPNZ Will you be publishing a correction? Note, I am in process of blogging this story.

@KurtBayerAPNZ I can email you my draft blogpost for you to comment on. Would like your response on the record.

As at midnight on Saturday, no response had been received from Bayer.

It will be interesting to see if the Green Party pursues this matter through the Press Council.

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 16 June 2013.

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References

Green Party:  Bill a win for communities and animals (14 June 2013)

Bill a win for communities and animals

NZ Herald: Legal highs linked to deaths – coroner (14 June 2013)

Facebook link: Discussion NZ

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