Behind the scenes with a media spin-doctor

01:43, Jan 31 2009

A DRAG queen once broke into Glenda Hughes' apartment in the red-light district. The former weightlifter was in bed at the time. "I sat up and said, `Whoever's in my lounge, you weren't invited and I suggest you get out in a hurry."' The burglar took off and Hughes, who had seen her, called the cops. A police line-up later identified the transvestite as "caught on the premises of Glenda Hughes". "The sergeant said to the burglar, `Well, you're lucky to be alive,"' says Hughes, laughing.

Hughes is big and built - she was once a champion shot-putter - and surprisingly soft. She has always been drawn to oddballs and marginal types. She "loves" living in Wellington's Vivian St, where criminals, prostitutes, artists, bohemians, students, eccentrics and nutters cluster thickly. She knows everyone here. The burglar was a well-known local drag queen with advanced computer skills, she remarks. The trannies and street girls liked Hughes when she was a local cop. She "looked out for us", says transsexual former MP Georgina Beyer.

The big woman stands in her enormous office giving advice over the phone to someone who sounds important. Famous names are dropped. On the front of the grey reception desk is a carving by the son of her partner, musician and builder Simon Witoko. On the walls are pictures of her famous sporting clients - Bernice, Tana, Danyon... there's the great Australian Olympic sprinter, Cathy Freeman. Some of her clients are not public favourites: she's helped Tony Veitch and the Parnell Panther, rapist Mark Stephens. The one-time National parliamentary candidate happens to disagree with her old party's tough line on law and order.

Glenda Hughes is the person you go to if you've got a media problem. All kinds of people have one of these, which explains the wild array of her clientele. The hand of Hughes is everywhere, hefty and often invisible. Her name is known to nearly everyone who helps run the country, although not necessarily her face. A good PR and lobbyist does not put herself in the spotlight. Still, Hughes has her critics. As the ultimate PR and fix-it woman, some say, she solves problems just by burying them, shutting her client up till the media tornado departs.

So who is she and what is she up to, this power behind so many thrones?

One of her most notorious cases was that of Olympic equestrian Mark Todd, target in 2000 of some sensational allegations by the English tabloid Sunday Mirror. Hughes handled the case and set up an interview with Paul Holmes where Todd responded to the vital question with his celebrated response: "That's a curly one." But Todd didn't confirm or deny the allegations. Isn't this just stonewalling and spin?

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No, says Hughes, this was Todd's private business. "There's no need for you to know," she says pleasantly. She doesn't know herself whether the allegations were true, and she didn't ask: it wasn't her business either. Sportspeople, she argued in her 2003 book Looking for Trouble: Behind the scenes of the New Zealand media, are not paid by the public and are not accountable to it in the way politicians are. In her line of work, she says, she often hears things about people "that are probably not nice". But think of the price that is paid when gossip about someone's drug taking or other flaws becomes public.

"Now my view is that doesn't... add to society, destroying human beings and taking them out of the system because they're slightly flawed or flawed. [That] in my opinion is destroying New Zealand. I'm really concerned that the penalty for people who have made mistakes - especially historical ones - far outweighs [the offence]."

But aren't sportspeople role models? And so if a footballer trashes a hotel room or thumps someone in a drunken frenzy, don't they deserve the public's blame? "The reality is they are role models," she concedes. "The other reality is they are kids that are growing up that are going to make mistakes. And it's probably the role of people like me... to try and minimise the impact of the mistakes they make on the way through."

In fact, she says, she always tells the person to front up and explain themselves. She doesn't tell them just to shut up and wait for the journalists to go away, although there is often an issue of timing. She does tell them to keep quiet if there is an official investigation under way. "Noise" just gets in the way of the proper inquiry.

She advised the young Auckland woman who complained of being raped by members of the visiting English rugby team. Hughes did not charge for her advice. "She wouldn't have been able to pay for me," Hughes explains. "I'm a community-based person. I don't want to be patted on the back for it, but a lot of my stuff is for free."

Former All Black captain Tana Umaga is also a client. Umaga prefers to keep a low profile and not give too many interviews, but that, says Hughes, is his personal preference. When he does front up he is "very open", as she likes all her clients to be.

Hughes won't take on just anybody. She refused a request recently - "I would hate to name them" - because "they won't take my instruction, they certainly won't like the instruction and I personally feel what's happened to them is deserved. So I couldn't possibly act on their behalf."

So why did she act for Tony Veitch? Because "I personally believe that Tony Veitch has been wronged," she replies.

She does not believe the reports that Veitch's girlfriend's back was broken in four places and that she was confined to a wheelchair. Hughes says she knows from other sources that she "was walking and visiting people" not long after leaving hospital. If the injuries were as serious as the reports said, how come Kristin Dunne-Powell wasn't taken to the specialist spinal unit in Burwood?

"Now I'm not saying she may not have some fractures in her back or whatever. She might have some. I certainly know I have. I have mistreated my back horribly and I do know."

Hughes says she would never sanction a man hitting a woman. "But I do accept, having dealt with lots of domestics in my time, that you can be driven to actions, that violence is not always about physicality...

"As far as I'm concerned violence is not OK, and I've always said that. I do accept that all of us have different levels of tolerance and I also accept that people can be driven way beyond what is their normal behaviour."

And Veitch had paid a penalty that far outweighed "whatever may have happened".

"We've got massive loss of income. We've got a payment that is 10 times the fine. We've got human stress and we've got a life that could be completely destroyed, and I personally don't believe that's acceptable. I don't think that anybody deserves what happened to Tony Veitch."

 

HUGHES' BELOVED parents, Lois and Norman, taught her that all human beings deserved to be treated with dignity and that everybody must be given the chance to redeem themselves. "Dad was very strong that revenge is a waste of energy," she says. He was big on tolerance and the need not to judge others. "I can remember going down the street and making a rude comment about someone, and my father turned around and said, `That will be somebody's mother."'

Hughes took "extremely literally" her parents' advice about treating everyone with respect. When she was 17 she took home the brother of the famous Wellington drag queen Carmen. Later, she was involved in the rehabilitation of the Parnell Panther, and took him to their house for afternoon tea. They were very nice to both guests "because that's the type of people they were".

She was "very difficult" as a child. "Oh yes, I tested everything." Her father was upset when as a 15-year-old she was found consorting with the drag queens, lesbians, sailors and criminals at the notorious Bistro Bar in the Royal Oak Hotel in central Wellington. "He said it probably wasn't good for my future reputation."

She was "a nightmare" at Wellington Girls' College, although she had a very good teacher at primary who "understood the way I thought, which was unconventional. Instead of `tick the box' - I hate templates and things - he would say, `What do you think about that? And do you want to come up with the solution yourself?"' She did. She does.

Hughes got involved in the case of Coral-Ellen Burrows, the six-year-old murdered by her stepfather, Steven Williams. She knew Williams' mother "from a former life" and "I wouldn't want to take the full responsibility, but I was certainly involved in ensuring that there wasn't a drawn-out court case that would have put a whole lot of human beings through hell." Williams "chose to take the right path, which was to plead guilty".

Hughes hates the political exploitation of crime. The Sensible Sentencing Trust's use of Rita Croskery, mother of Michael Choy, killed by 12-year-old Bailey Junior Kurariki and others, is "disgusting". Every time the trust brings her forward to talk about the case "they are preventing her from recovering... She should be allowed to let go, and I'm not going to say it's going to be easy". Croskery had strong feelings of her own about the case, of course, but the trust was pushing them.

And she hates the way politicians try to outbid one another in getting tough on crime. The former cop would like to see a cross-party accord taking law and order out of the political arena. Too often, people become "permanent offenders" because of their harsh treatment: stigmatised and hounded, they never get the chance to reform themselves. "I mean, I worry about Kurariki. There were six offenders in that murder, weren't there? Can you name the others?"

If this is the liberal side of Hughes, there is also the tough political operator. The best-paying side of her business is lobbying, she says, and lately she has been acting for the Real Estate Institute in its battle with the government over legislation to crack down on errant estate agents. The government's draconian approach has changed, she notes, and the institute's approach to the media has become much more cooperative.

Journalists tend to think of PR people as paid liars, lords of the dark arts. Hughes says she tells her clients never to lie and never lies herself. She does not script their public performances. She merely helps them to express themselves as well as they can. Also, she feels cynical about "some" of the media. There are some journalists she refuses to deal with. Journalists know themselves that some of their colleagues are no good. Journalist A is malicious; B is a fool; C is politically twisted; D is a hack who reduces everything to banality.

On the other hand, says Hughes, there are enough good journalists for her to rely on. She paints a picture of the ideal media encounter: the honest PR agent, helping the client towards clarity, and their intelligent conversation with a well-meaning reporter who in turn conveys a complex truth to the world.

It's certainly a great picture. And one rarely seen.

Sunday Star Times