In July 2018, kauri dieback reached crisis point.

Stuff reported the fatal disease was nearing the country’s largest remaining kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta, which has stood in Northland’s Waipoua forest for more than 2000 years.

The iconic native tree, a big pull for Northland’s tourism industry, could be infected within a year, the story warned. Scientist Amanda Black accused Ministry for Primary Industries of mishandling the issue and muzzling scientists. (MPI replied that the recovery process had been agreed and research findings and other reports had been made available to the public.)

Stuff journalist and former TV anchor Alison Mau, who wrote the story, subsequently asked the Department of Conservation for permission to film in Waipoua forest, using a drone. But she received conflicting information and was told the application would take time to process.

After some to-and-fro, she was given permission to film from the track by Northern North Island operations director Sue Reed-Thomas.

In a piece-to-camera for her follow-up, Mau outlined what was at stake: “Ten metres in this direction a tree that’s showing clear signs of kauri dieback disease. And 50 metres further on, Tāne Mahuta. The problem now is that nobody knows how far Tāne’s roots stretch through the forest.”

(The disease, caused by a tiny fungus-like organism called Phytopthora agathidicida, lives in soil and infects kauri trees via the roots. There’s no known cure and nearly all infected trees die.)

While the thrust of the article was whether Waipoua should be closed to protect kauri, the behind-the-scenes situation led to unintended consequences.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show Mau complained to DoC director-general Lou Sanson about the permissions process, and before her second piece was published, deputy director-general of operations Mike Slater ordered a review of media access guidelines. (Two years later the pair would deny knowledge of the resulting permitting regime.)

Initially, the review’s focus was to “remove uncertainty” about permit guidelines for “breaking news media filming”, but that narrow mandate was quickly broadened.

Tāne Mahuta is under threat from kauri dieback. Photo: itravelNZ/Creative Commons

An October 2018 report by Luisa Kliman, acting manager of national support and advice, said a formal media access policy couldn’t be found. Section 17O of the Conservation Act apparently requires media to obtain authorisation to access conservation land. An “exception-based assessment” of media access was rejected, Kliman said.

The recommended approach was to shunt “expedited” applications – via phone or email, for “improved customer experience” – through the department’s media and communication team (MCT).

“MCT holds substantial relationships with many media outlets and understands the nuances of media needs within this space.” (A later document notes the team is “accountable for relationships”.)

What constitutes “media” would be decided by the communications team. (Not social media influencers or long-form documentary makers that on-sell their product, it’s later clarified.)

One subjective assessment in the new permit document, “Mainstream Media Record of Process”, is headed “List relevant information relating to the applicant’s ability to carry out the proposed activity”.

The requests themselves must relate to matters that are “topical, timely and in the public interest”. This might involve reputational issues for DoC – “we would want to make sure DoC could respond in a transparent and timely fashion, given our role as public servants”.

Kliman wrote: “While media requests do not comprise a substantial number of authorisation requests, they do pose reputational risks (as evidenced by Mau’s request).” (It can also “quickly tie up significant senior leadership time to resolve”, a later document says.)

A single “clear entry point” will “deliver better risk management (through uniform messaging and dedicated relationship management)”, she wrote.

If endorsed, the application would be sent to the relevant district office for a “merit-based assessment” by the operations manager. The “shortened” process would end if further iwi consultation or environmental assessments are required.

While there’s no cost, “this may be subject to further review”, Kliman wrote.

Marie Long, director of planning, permissions and land, approved the new policy in February 2019.

The issue remained dormant until last October when New Zealand Geographic was required to apply for a permit, causing surprise and disappointment, and the Media Freedom Committee became involved. After all, the media hadn’t been consulted.

“Committee members are concerned that this permit process is an unnecessary impediment to legitimate news-gathering activities on the conservation estate.” – Geoff Collett

DoC’s director of planning, permissions and land Natasha Hayward briefs her bosses on the media access policy late last year.

Media permits had been “gaining more traction across districts in recent months”, she writes. While it’s more work for the communications team, it involves less paperwork and is less time-consuming for operations staff, compared to one-off permits.

“However, there is still pushback from districts who say they can’t turn it around in 48 hours because of their current workload (ie. they don’t prioritise this work). Another tension for some districts is the need for iwi consultation because there is a perception that the mainstream media process is shortening or bypassing this step.”

Appended to Hayward’s report are letters to DoC director-general Sanson from NZ Geographic publisher James Frankham and Media Freedom Committee member Geoff Collett.

“Committee members are concerned that this permit process is an unnecessary impediment to legitimate news-gathering activities on the conservation estate,” writes Collett. Some journalists who have been subjected to the permit regime suspect DoC has used the process to prevent unfavourable coverage.

“The lack of consultation ahead of the permit programme being introduced, the time-consuming processes it requires, the lack of transparency and consistency it is applied with, the obstacles it may place in the path of journalists attempting to do their work, and the absence of any obvious justification for it are all matters of concern.”

The system is “unproven and unnecessary”, Collett says.

Frankham, of NZ Geographic, says the “flawed” system stalls journalism, which, necessarily, is a process of discovery. “Having to define in advance what we expect to find, who we expect to talk to and where we expect to go is completely inconsistent with best practice, like asking a scientist to simply write up their hypothesis without testing and proving it.”

Until recently, the magazine has enjoyed the same ready access as the public, he says, furthering the public’s understanding and connection to the country, and public appreciation of DoC’s role. “A very quick tally of the value of our coverage of DoC operations against our regular custom-publishing rate card comes to $132,000 for the past year alone, so the benefit cuts both ways… but not that it matters, because this letter largely concerns the public’s right to know about the state and management of some of their most treasured sites.”

There may also be constitutional considerations, he says, and asks to see DoC’s legal advice. Frankham is also worried about DoC communications staff deciding whether a media story is in the public interest – “this is clearly outrageous” – and the potential for permits to be used to monitor or control media coverage. “DoC has on a small number of occasions attempted to scuttle or manipulate NZ Geographic’s coverage of sensitive conservation stories.”

‘Questionable and confusing’

After DoC’s decision to review its policy, a heartened Collett writes to Hayward in late October. However, he’s concerned there’s no indication DoC intends to consult media directly, and no mention of a timeframe.

“With complete respect for the experience and professionalism of the DoC staff who will contribute, we believe that any review cannot be fair and comprehensive if it fails to engage with the people it most impacts; particularly given the potentially significant ramifications it has for our work (and is already having for some individual journalists, based on reports to date).”

The committee also challenges the idea news reporting is commercial, pointing out this model doesn’t apply to RNZ, or to state-funded Local Democracy Reporters. The assumption of commerciality is “questionable and confusing”, Collett writes.

“In short, we don’t accept that it is a clear-cut situation and we don’t believe that DoC has taken a well-informed approach to understanding how we operate.”

It’s telling, Collett writes, that DoC promises to provide images with press releases or get its staff to accompany journalists while reporting.

“Such scenarios are only going to apply in cases where DoC is a willing party to news reporting; it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the policy allows the department to intervene in and even frustrate reporting requiring access to the conservation estate where it is unhappy about the nature of the story being pursued.”

Collett’s letter has the desired effect. A day later, Hayward writes to Frankham about the media access policy review, which will have input from various DoC units and “key media stakeholders”.

In his emailed reply, Frankham seeks clarification about whether the permit applies to journalists and photojournalists alike. Hayward responds: “You have identified a further grey area which will be considered as part of the review.”

DoC’s sudden U-turn to involve the media in its review is underlined by Hayward’s Official Information Act response to Newsroom.

“The purpose of the review is to ensure that we are supporting the media appropriately within the legislation. We are engaging with the Media Freedom Committee and key representatives of the media to ensure that we understand the role of the media and the range of their functions.”

Pursued with urgency

Hayward’s response was received on February 1, almost 11 weeks after Newsroom made its request. Two documents were withheld to protect “free and frank expression of opinions” and to maintain legal privilege. Hayward only provided a “high-level summary” of her own emails about media permits throughout October.

One interesting aspect of the department’s poor handling of the situation is director-general Sanson’s emailed response to the Media Freedom Committee’s letter.

“Thanks for sending this,” Sanson writes to Collett. “We highly value our relationship with media and finding out what has happened here. Neither Mike Slater or I knew of this so we will get to the bottom of issue [sic] and right [sic] back to you.”

This narrative of ignorance echoed through to the Media Freedom Committee. Last October, chair Miriyana Alexander, of NZME, told Newsroom: “There was no consultation with media ahead of the permit programme being introduced, and as we understand it, senior DoC management were not aware it had been introduced.”

Yet, as we now know, it was Slater who ordered the 2018 review, after a complaint to Sanson by Stuff journalist Mau. Merely two years later, this appears to be forgotten.

After his exchange with Collett last October, Sanson dashes an email to some senior managers, including Slater, Hayward, and communications team boss Bronwyn Saunders. When he first started at DoC, it brought in a media permissions policy for major international media like BBC, CNN and Discovery Channel, which wanted free access to places like Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island, and the Subantarctic Islands.

“It was never intention [sic] to capture NZ Geographic (our shop window) or media profiling our work,” Sanson writes. “Can we sort this asap.”

Hayward responds to her boss within half an hour, saying there’ll be a “team process” to “test our current approaches”, and a briefing will go to Sanson and Slater shortly. “We are treating this ‘media permit’ matter with urgency given all the concern and interest at present.”

That was October 20 last year. The result of the review is still unknown.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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