A long chain of communication between the author of a contentious new Jacinda Ardern biography and the PM’s staff has revealed the convoluted efforts the author made to bag an exclusive interview.
Author Supriya Vani courted controversy this year when she published a biography of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, co authored with Carl A. Harte.
The book raised eyebrows when its publishers said it contained “exclusive interviews” with Ardern, which was contrary to Ardern’s policy of not doing interviews for biographies.
It later emerged that Vani interviewed Ardern as part of a book on political leadership, which would include many other leaders. Soon after the book was published, Ardern said she was “misled” about the nature of the book when Vani first approached her for an interview.
“I generally have a bit of a policy of not really engaging in any efforts to write anything specifically of that nature – about me,” Ardern said.
Emails released under the Official Information Act show a long chain of communication between Vani and staffers in Ardern’s office. The emails also reveal that Ardern’s office was informed earlier this year that Vani’s project had narrowed from a book about women in leadership to a biography of Ardern herself.
Ardern’s office said it “did not register the change in author’s focus at the time”.
The office was told in three separate emails earlier this year that Vani’s book had changed to a biography of Ardern.
Vani first approached Ardern’s team in January 2019, saying she “would humbly like to request” an interview with Ardern for a book that would include interviews with women leaders like then British Prime Minister Theresa May, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Vani said she was “yearning to spread the message of universal peace” through the book, which at that point was titled Roaring Feminism – Women Presidents and Prime Ministers.
Ardern’s office agreed to the interview, and liaised with Vani over scheduling.
Vani appeared excited. As the interview approached, she wrote to Ardern’s office saying, “I am running out of words to express my deep admiration for Madam Prime Minister, she is definitely a role model for the entire world.
“I personally feel the world needs more empathetic leaders like Jacinda Ardern so that this planet can be made a place of peaceful co-existence where innocence prevails and bliss becomes all-pervasive and disease, poverty, fear, discrimination, exploitation get vanished; where intra and inter state conflicts disappear, where remnants of wars are kept in museums for the posterity [sic],” she wrote.
The interview took place over Skype in April 2019, and appears to have gone well.
Shortly afterwards, an effusive Vani emailed Ardern’s office saying she was “infinitely indebted” to Ardern.
“I instantly realized that she effortlessly allows everyone to have deep insight of her whole persona.”
“I realise that whereas Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King were heroes of the twentieth century, Jacinda Ardern would go in annals of twenty-first century [sic],” she said.
But the praise ended with a request. Vani’s interview had apparently been cut short by some “emergent work [sic]” to which Ardern had to attend. Needing more information for her book, Vani sent Ardern a series of written questions to fill in some gaps from the interview.
But the additional written questions were in fact long, occasionally confusing, statements.
One question read: “Q. That the building which is going to be built would be huge and magnificent is known when the very first stone of the foundation is laid. Likewise, I feel you had laid down the foundation of your personal larger than life image when you had instantly empathised in your own childhood with the ‘children on the streets of New Zealand without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch’.
“How far do you think this statement is true?”
Another question praised Ardern for her role in the aftermath of the March 15 attack.
“You have established a very high bench mark in the realm of empathy for suffering fellow human beings transcending all barriers of religion. It requires a heart of purest ray serene and Edenic innocence. You have become world’s iconic figure. Kindly share your message for world peace? [sic]” Vani asked.
A year later, Vani again got in touch with Ardern’s office. Saying that she was “incredibly moved” by Ardern’s recollection of her childhood memories in their first interview. She said that Ardern’s commitment to children “have touched [her] soul so deeply” that she wanted to write another book – this time a picture book for children.
The book would have a chapter on Ardern’s childhood. Vani asked for another 20-minute interview “to discuss more about her vision of gender equality and world peace”.
This interview request, however, was turned down, with Ardern’s office citing the Prime Minister’s busy schedule. This was early March 2020, and Ardern’s office was gearing up to fight Covid-19.
On 28 January 2021, Vani once again got in touch with Ardern’s office, saying that her book had changed course – it would now be wholly dedicated to Ardern.
“I personally felt that Jacinda Ardern’s incredible story couldn’t be summarised in one chapter, that’s why I decided to dedicate the whole book to her,” Vani wrote.
She said the book would “send a message all over the world especially to the parents to not clip the wings of their daughters [sic]”.
Vani’s email also came with a request for the right to reproduce certain images of Ardern in the book.
Before receiving a reply, Vani emailed Ardern’s office again on February 1, with another request to use an image of Ardern.
“Can you please give me the permission to use the attached image of Jacinda Ardern?” Vani asked.
“I need a high resolution picture for the book. Please, please grant me the permission to use it. It shows the purity of her soul,” she wrote, urging haste as her publisher needed the pictures in just eight days.
Ardern’s office had disappointing news. A day later, a staffer replied sayingthey did not have the rights to use many of the images Vani had requested. Instead, they offered up two alternative images: one of Ardern in the aftermath of the March 15 attacks, and another of her at Waitangi Day commemorations.
One thing Vani’s emails stressed is that the focus of her book had changed from focusing on many women leaders to focusing solely on Ardern – Vani even gave the office a heads up about the book’s title, Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy. Vani said she would share images of the different covers the book would have in the Australian, British, and North American markets.
Ardern’s office seems not to have registered the change. Even after the book became public knowledge, Ardern appeared not to be aware her office had been tipped off the focus of the book had changed.
A staffer, whose name was redacted from the emails, wished Vani best of luck for the future publication.
Vani was approached for comment through her publisher.
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