It’s an interesting relationship, the bond between Australia and New Zealand. Some say it’s never really recovered from the infamous 1981 underarm cricket incident. That it’s a bit like a sibling relationship, where Australia is often accused of being the arrogant big brother.

So what happens when Australian journalists flock to the land of the long white cloud for an international breaking news event? Well, relations can get a little strained, if you take the behavior of some Aussie hacks as an example.

All the big outlets were in Greymouth, New Zealand this week to cover the Pike River coal mine disaster, which broke after a giant explosion rocked the mine last weekend. As the rescue crew waited for the all clear to be able to go into the mine and search for survivors, some sections of the media began to lose patience. Well, the Australian journos did anyway.

Here’s an initial question from a Channel Seven journalist to Pike River Coal Mine CEO Peter Whittal:

“Can you imagine New York firefighters standing around the World Trade Centre waiting to be told whether they should go in or not if there are lives in the balance?”

Unsurprisingly, Whittal refused to speculate on the hypothetical, despite the insistence of the reporter. Then there was this question from The Australian‘s Ean Higgins after receiving the latest update from Superintendent Gary Knowles, the Tasman area police commander in charge of the rescue operation:

“Superintendent Knowles, that leads to another question, there have been comments today by a variety of sources by Laurie Drew, by other members of the families, by Andrew Vickers, a mining unionist in Australia and by an Australian mining expert. If this was happening in Australia, the people that would be in charge would be the mining manager, and with the assistance of the union and technical support and was put — the people that actually know what’s going on.

“And the question was asked by all of these people, why are they not making the decisions? Why are they not calling the shots? Why is it the local country cop chief doing it? To use their words.”

Fellow journalists present at the press conference groaned, while Knowles responded to the question with a straight bat. But, in a diplomatic foray that echoed ex-PM Robert Muldoon describing the underarm stoush as “the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket”, NZ politicians rounded on Higgins. Energy minister Gerry Brownlee labelled him “boorish” and an “utter tosspot”, while Police Minister Judith Collins said it was “disgraceful” and that Higgins was “cheapening the work of other journalists”.

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Minister Brownlee also took issue with another of Higgins’ stories, where he wrote that “rescuers waiting desperately to enter New Zealand’s Pike River mine are pinning their hopes on the possibility that four men may be alive”. Brownlee said the story was incorrect and that it was “distressing for the families”.

It’s not the first time Higgins has come under fire for his behaviour. In 2008 he was accused on Media Watch of entering a private wake after a funeral and eating snacks paid for by the deseased’s mother. In another story in 2004, he “infiltrated” (law media expert Richard Ackland’s words) NSW Supreme Court judge Jeff Shaw’s room at The Sydney Clinic:

“Unchallenged by nurses, this reporter knocked on the door of his room, was invited to come in, and found Mr Shaw sitting on his bed, wearing a grey narrow-check jacket.

“‘How did you get in here?’ he asked, with what developed rapidly from a look of astonishment into amusement.”

Crikey is all for free and fearful questioning of public figures. But when you’re dealing with a tragedy like this, where 29 people are trapped underground in a foreign country, perhaps it’s sometimes best to leave it to the locals.

Peter Fray

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