The Australian journalist who fled New Zealand after being labelled a "boorish tosspot" by National minister Gerry Brownlee for his insensitive approach to the Pike River mine disaster has declared it the finest moment of his career.
Brownlee, however, has told the Sunday Star-Times that Ean Higgins remained a tosser, but had also proven himself a fantasist and an "obnoxious twerp".
Higgins, who works for the The Australian newspaper, claims he was "effectively expelled" by the New Zealand Government after asking the head of the Pike rescue operation, police commander Gary Knowles, why a "country cop" was in charge, instead of the mining union, as is the Australian system.
The question brought gasps from other media, criticism from Brownlee and Justice Minister Judith Collins, and Higgins was brought home by his editor.
But last Monday, as part of a series celebrating The Australian's 50th anniversary in which journalists revisited their finest hours, Higgins wrote a piece celebrating the incident, saying he was subsequently proven right for asking the tough questions local media wouldn't.
That has only angered those who dealt with Higgins at Pike River.
Brownlee, the minister responsible for Pike River affairs, at the time called Higgins "boorish" and "an utter tosspot" and demanded an explanation from Australian editor Chris Mitchell.
Now he's even more angry: "It would seem, from Mr Higgins' version of events, that aside from being a fantasist, he's also still a tosser." He said Higgins was more interested in making a spectacle of himself and, "bizarrely now thinks it's something worthy of dining out on".
Collins, who at the time said Higgins "cheapened the work" of other journalists, had disrespected Greymouth locals and asked a "disgraceful" question, said Higgins had "once again stuck the boot into New Zealand".
"Mr Higgins is a disgraceful ambassador for his country and I believe, not an accurate representation of the Australian people," Collins told the Star-Times. "He has no one to blame for having to leave but himself."
Knowles said that Higgins' comments had backfired on him: he received 3000 emails and letters of support from the public after the exchange and approaches from journalists who refused to collaborate with Higgins in protest at his actions. "I think he was trying to be provocative, but it was crass," said Knowles.
Knowles said he'd had many dealings with Kiwi media and Higgins was wrong about them and it was "inappropriate" that four years on he would revisit the issue.
But, he says, he didn't let Higgins offend him: "It was never about me, it was about 29 men who died."
Greymouth locals were also not amused. Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk recalled being "quite shocked" when he first heard of Higgins' line of questioning but dismissed it from his mind to focus on son Michael, still inside the mine.
Monk said Higgins should take little triumph from the Royal Commission's findings about the handling of the tragedy by police, whom he said had done "the best under the circumstances".
Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn described Higgins as "insensitive" and said the journalist had "thrown a spanner in the works" for a leadership group trying to keep the situation stable.
Higgins' self-congratulatory essay about his brief Pike River coverage was certainly inflammatory.
He called New Zealand "a small, meek and mild democracy" and said: "The New Zealand journalists didn't ask any uncomfortable questions, being happy to accept whatever the police, the company and the miners' rescue people told them . . . the Australian journalists, coming from a more robust tradition . . . did ask the tough questions".
He describes the two groups of journalists dining separately in "the only good restaurant" in Greymouth and the Aussies deciding "we were really going to get stuck into the company and the authorities and show the Kiwis real journalism and workshopped a few really brutal questions".
But Brownlee said Higgins "cut a lonely figure in Greymouth, and I'm staggered to learn he had dinner with anyone. Perhaps someone will put their hand up and identify themselves, if only to be given the respect they so richly deserve for their charity."
After Higgins asked his question, he claimed "the Kiwi inferiority complex kicked in" and he was brought home by his editor "for his own safety". However, Higgins claims the subsequent Royal Commission inquiry into the Pike River tragedy meant he was proven right, giving the incident a "delicious postscript".
He says he was interviewed on Kiwi radio and was "of course exceedingly modest" but his paper wrote a story headlined: "Who's the tosspot now?"
- Sunday Star Times
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