Media Minister Melissa Lee asks for 'please explain' from officials over handling of NZ On Air board member Andrew Shaw's resignation

The new minister responsible for media is making her expectations clear with officials after she says she wasn't given a 'no surprises' heads-up about the resignation of NZ On Air board member Andrew Shaw.  

Only a day into the job, Melissa Lee is asking for a 'please explain' over the handling of Shaw's resignation, which came about on Tuesday afternoon after he posted criticism of deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters on social media.  

"Winston Peters attack's independence of media [sic]," said Shaw. "He's not truthful. He's not accurate. He's malicious and he is here on behalf of international tobacco. His return is the worst of this gang of thugs."      

Following questions by Newshub about the appropriateness of the post - Crown entity board members are meant to be politically impartial - the post was deleted and NZ On Air confirmed Shaw had apologised and had tendered his resignation.  

Speaking to Newshub later, Lee, the Media and Communications Minister, said she wasn't alerted by officials to the events on Tuesday afternoon.  

She has now spoken to the chief executive of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) to ask, "what's happened that I have to find out from somebody else".  

"Under the no surprises rule, I would expect the responsible Government department to alert me to it. In this instance, I didn't know about it and I have found out."  

Lee said she would be meeting with the department chief executive on Thursday.   

"I will be sending out clear expectations that there should be no surprises and that I expect that this won't ever happen again."  

Government departments are meant to take a 'no surprises' approach to issues that may be discussed in the public arena or may require a ministerial response. It means ministers are kept in the loop.  

The MCH supports NZ On Air, a Crown entity.   

The ministry's website says: "The Ministry manages the Crown relationship with NZ On Air (Broadcasting Commission), administering its funding and Board appointments, monitoring its reporting and performance measures."  

Lee said that in her conversation with the ministry's chief executive, she had asked for a "please explain".    

"They are the responsible Government department responsible for NZOA"  

The new minister said she had just been appointed and hadn't had a chance yet to have meetings with her departments.  

She described it as "rather unfortunate timing".  

Asked if she would be accepting Shaw's resignation, Lee said: "I don't think there's a responsibility for me to accept or not, he's resigned".   

Lee said she would hope that board members would already understand the need for political impartiality.  

"I think anyone who's actually serving in any Government boards, regardless of the hue of the politics, I think they have to remember that they have to be politically neutral.   

"Just because, a Labour government has actually appointed the board members does not mean that when there's a National Government, you know, all of them can't work at the board. It's just that they have to remember their responsibility to the Crown and the people of New Zealand, and work hard to basically do their jobs."

A spokesperson for the MCH said: "We are aware Mr Shaw has apologised for his online comments and resigned from the Board. We are looking forward to meeting with Minister Lee at our first scheduled meeting on Thursday."

Melissa Lee.
Melissa Lee. Photo credit: Getty Images.

In a statement to Newshub, Shaw said he "unreservedly" apologised for his comments.  

"Mr Shaw accepts it was absolutely the wrong thing to publish his personal political views and has tendered his resignation immediately."  

A spokesperson for NZ On Air said: "The views expressed in the post are those of Andrew Shaw and are not a reflection of the agency’s views. We are a non-partisan agency that has worked constructively with Governments of all hues for 34 years.   

"Board appointments are made by the Minister’s office."   

Shaw made the comment after Peters incorrectly claimed on Monday that the former Government had bribed the media through money allocated via the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIFJ). The fund was kickstarted during the COVID-19 pandemic to support newsrooms with roles, projects and industry development, and funding ended in June this year.  

Board members of Crown entities must follow the code of conduct issued by the Public Service Commissioner.  One of the responsibilities listed in the code is about political impartiality.      

"We act in a politically impartial manner," it says.      

"Irrespective of our political interests, we conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future Governments. We do not make political statements or engage in political activity in relation to the functions of the Crown entity.     

"When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public's trust in the entity. We discuss with the Chair any proposal to make political comment or to undertake any significant political activity."  

Shaw, a former top television executive, isn't the first person this year to get in trouble over public comments made while sitting on a board.   

The most notable was that of then-Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell, who the then-Health Minister fired this year following comments he made critical of a National Party policy. She said she didn't have confidence in his ability to be politically neutral.  

Campbell said he had "no regret" about his comment, but apologised for any difficulty he had caused the minister. He believed he could speak out in a private capacity.       

Others to raise eyebrows for political comments include Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) deputy chair Ruth Dyson and Pharmac chair Steve Maharey. While both were criticised for their remarks, neither lost their job.  

RNZ board member Jason Ake resigned in July after criticism of comments he made on Facebook about then-Cabinet member Kiri Allan.