National MP and candidate Melissa Lee's ethics called into question

Melissa Lee is both a National Party list MP and the National Party's candidate in the upcoming Mt Albert by-election.

She also owns the television production company that makes Asia Downunder for TVNZ.

Asia Downunder is funded by New Zealand On Air - taxpayer money.

A Campbell Live investigation has discovered some of that money was spent on an election special prominently featuring fellow National Party MP Pansy Wong.

Asia Downunder staff told Campbell Live that even after Ms Lee began campaigning for Parliament, she took inappropriate editorial control of programme content despite staff protests.

There is also evidence that Ms Lee's publicly-funded company produced a National Party campaign ad.

Ms Lee used to present and produce Asia Downunder, and still is a majority shareholder.

When asked if she thought it was appropriate the company that the company receives Government funding, she replied: "It has for 13 years, I don't see why it's an issue now."

It is an issue now because she is no longer an ordinary citizen.

It is a convention in New Zealand that people who have had positions of influence in the media sever those ties if they decide to run for election. Hone Harawira and Pam Corkery ditched their radio jobs as soon as they announced their candidacy.

"People will say there's potential for editorial bias," says Jim Tully, head of the School of Political Science and Communication at the University of Canterbury, "especially when it's a Government-funded outlet."

In August last year Ms Lee announced she was standing for National. In October her company was awarded $1.2 million of New Zealand On Air funding. Trevor Mallard was Broadcasting Minister at the time.

"It's my understanding that she didn't declare the fact," says Mr Mallard. "It's a gross breach of ethics."

Ms Lee claims Prime Minister John Key knows all about her involvement in Asia Downunder, and he does not have a problem with it.

But Mr Tully does, saying, "One would hope that she would never become Minister of Broadcasting."

Jesse Guruanathan used to be a presenter and reporter on Asia Downunder. She is the first to admit she has had many disagreements with Ms Lee. Her contract with the company has not been renewed.

"Professional and ethical lines were blurred during that time," says Ms Guruanathan.

She is talking about the time just before the election when they were working on an election special. Ms Lee told Campbell Live she removed herself from editorial input.

"I had nothing to do with the election special," she says. "I removed myself because I thought it was a conflict of interest. TVNZ gave us an independent producer, I had nothing to do with that election coverage."

Staff Campbell Live spoke to say that is not the case. Ahead of the election, Asia Downunder ran a story about the battle in the Botany seat between Ms Wong and ACT candidate Kenneth Wang.

"I was tweaking a specific grab from Pansy, and it was quite funny," says Ms Guruanathan, "and Melissa came in and was standing over my shoulder watching the whole process. We suddenly went from loud and fun to dead and silent because it was so awkward - I mean, I couldn't help but feel I'm editing something about Pansy Wong who is not only a personal friend of Melissa's, but also a colleague within the National Party.

"I just felt awkward."

Ms Guruanathan continues: "I said to her, I'm a little bit confused - are you allowed to be here? Just because I thought this was totally separate.'

"She got quite defensive and said, you know, she was the boss here and she has the right to be where she wants."

Ms Guruanathan says Ms Lee had final approval on the election story.

"John Key I think needs to look at standing Melissa Lee down," says Mr Mallard.

Then there is a campaign video made for Asian members of the National Party that can be found on the National Party website.

Staff told us it was made using Asia Downunder equipment and staff, funded by New Zealand On Air.

"There were a lot of incidents during the day where some of the other staff who had basic camera and editing experience would go with her and film things," says Ms Guruanathan, "with the equipment from work, and edit them for her."

"It was tense - none of us knew who was going to have jobs. What if they win? Will we have jobs?

"I do remember discussions with us saying why that had to be happening during work hours, [with work equipment] and with work employees."

Ms Guruanathan adds that Asia Downunder editing machines were also used on the campaign ad.

Ms Lee pulled out of an agreed interview with Campbell Live today.

source: newshub archive