Nathan Cowie, MPH.
Cowie Research and Communications
Disclosure: The author has previously undertaken paid employment for Centre for Tobacco Control Research, University of Auckland, and Action on Smoking and Health New Zealand.
Investigative journalist Nicky Hager released a book in August 2014 on the seamier side of New Zealand politics. Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment is based on the hacked (and subsequently leaked to Hager) emails and Facebook messages of Cameron Slater, who runs the right wing Whale Oil Beef Hooked blog website, and other figures related to the currently governing National party.
One such figure is public relations consultant and former British American Tobacco (NZ) corporate affairs manager Carrick Graham. The book alleges that Graham fed Slater a large amount of material, often attacks on scientists and advocates in the public health field working on tobacco, alcohol and obesity issues. Slater would schedule the posts unedited according to Graham’s instructions and with no indication that an external party supplied the posts. For this service, it is alleged that Graham paid Slater NZD$6555 per month.
The book did not include direct evidence of Graham’s clients, however the correspondence between Slater and Graham does implicate Katherine Rich, who is both the chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council (FGC, representing companies selling alcohol, soft drinks, confectionery, tobacco), and a board member of the government’s Health Promotion Agency (HPA, informing health promoting policy and practice). A series of ‘hits’ was coordinated to defend the interests of FGC members:
Acting on behalf of the FGC, Rich has made public submissions to parliamentary committees and ministerial consultations opposed to tobacco control policies. In January 2011, the FGC opposed legislation to ban the retail display of tobacco products. In October 2012, March and May of 2014, her name was attached to submissions from the FGC opposing plain packaging of tobacco products. On each occasion, Rich deployed stock standard tobacco industry/front group arguments.
Rich is facing renewed criticism and questions of about conflict of interests between her industry role and her service on the HPA board from the Green, New Zealand First, and Labour parties. Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague has said that her role is no longer tenable “Katherine Rich, Carrick Graham and Cameron Slater have all been involved in a systematic undermining of health promotion in New Zealand. She cannot tenably remain on the board of that organisation.”
Dr Barrie Gordon, senior lecturer in health and physical education at Victoria University said that the government had been either naïve or staggeringly cynical when it appointed Ms Rich to the HPA board. “Now that it’s been exposed what she’s been up to, and the conflicts, I assume she will resign” he told Radio New Zealand.
Prime Minister John Key was reluctant to say whether it was appropriate for Rich to receive public money through the HPA. “I wouldn’t want to offer a view on it, unless I could see all the facts,” he said.
Health Minister Tony Ryall however told Radio New Zealand that he was confident Rich could manage any conflicts appropriately.
An Official Information Act request has recently been made by Stuart Yeates for conflict of interest statements from all HPA board members past and present. The response is due on or before 17 September 2014.
Concerns had been raised in the past by addiction specialist Professor Doug Sellman about the suitability of Rich to serve on the HPA board. Sellman was subsequently a frequent target of the Whaleoil blog.
The hacker Rawshark, who leaked the messages between Slater and others that form the basis of Dirty Politics had been leaking selected correspondence via the twitter account @Whaledump. Material released so far includes screenshots of correspondence between Rich, Graham, and Slater. While Rich does not directly implicate herself in the source material, there is substantial correspondence between Graham and Slater, with Graham coordinating the ‘hits’ labelled ‘KR’ for Katherine Rich, and in line with FGC interests. Other correspondence released includes Graham advising Slater of payment for $6,555, and a confidential proposal to FGC member Nestle from Graham for public relations services.
The day after the release of the above material, Twitter suspended the @whaledump account. Slater confirmed he had made a complaint to Twitter about the @whaledump account, and would do so again if required. Hours later a new account (@whaledump2), and at least two false accounts, were created.
The relationship between Rich, Graham, and Slater is just one story continuing to unfold in a scandal that has upset a lot of interests, and already led to the resignation of a senior cabinet minister, just weeks before a general election. How the Dirty Politics affair will affect the tenability of Rich’s service on the HPA board, remains to be seen.
Food & Grocery Council submissions on tobacco control policies: