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Grant Duncan Opinion: Storm in a teacup turns to a tornado

Opinion: Storm in a teacup turns to a tornado

by Grant Duncan

Students of New Zealand politics may look back at the 2011 election and see the so-called teapot tape as the political turning point.

Election campaigns often have discernable moments when fortunes change. In 2002 Helen Clark's opportunity of winning an absolute majority crumbled after the publication of Nicky Hager's Seeds of Distrust book, which alleged that the Government kept secret the accidental release of GE crops.

In 2005 Don Brash's momentum was lost when it was revealed he had secret backing from the Exclusive Brethren, who in turn were mounting anonymous attacks on the Green Party.

This time around it's the political hot-seat of Epsom, where John Key's attempt to steer National voters towards his preferred coalition partner, ACT, has turned from a publicity stunt into an all-out war between the National Party and the news media.

First, let’s recall that it’s an embarrassing, but not uncommon, blunder for a politician to be recorded unawares on a stray microphone while saying something injudicious, thinking he was speaking in private. Obama and Sarkozy did it recently. Gordon Brown has done it. The best strategy is just to tough it out and say as little as possible, except an apology if necessary.

With hindsight, I wonder if the Herald on Sunday would not have done the PM a favour if they had just published the tape's content last weekend without asking anyone’s permission. By now, it might be all over with, and we’d be back to “the issues that really matter".

But what happened instead?

After the Herald on Sunday revealed it had the tape, National's campaign chair Steven Joyce went online in attack mode. The paper had “deliberately arranged the taping, in an unwelcome introduction of UK-style News of the World tabloid tactics", he alleged. This pre-judged the issue as a conflict between the party and the newspaper and it introduced the now-discredited comparison with the phone-hacking scandal in Britain. More seriously, Joyce leapt to the conclusion that the taping was “illegal”, a serious criminal allegation that has yet to be tested in court.

Key tried repeating these lines, but they weren’t convincing anyone except his most loyal supporters. He claimed the moral high ground, saying he was only trying to draw a line in the sand so that reporters wouldn’t think they could get away with “tabloid-style” tactics in future. Allowing the tape's contents to be published would be “rewarding” such undesirable behaviour.

In doing so, he impugned the whole profession of journalism in this country by effectively ignoring the fact that reporters and editors do have ethical standards and are overseen by the Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

Next, he offended families who have lost a loved-one due to suicide, by musing about what would happen if a reporter recorded a private conversation between two high-profile parents whose child was suicidal. As if that were a relevant comparison!

He described the taped conversation as “bland” but still wouldn’t publish it. Then he pretended that he didn’t have to answer any more questions on the matter, to the point of turning his back on reporters.

What’s more, to whip this storm-in-a-tea-cup into a tornado, he complained to the police. They began executing search warrants on news media organisations. I am sure that the officers involved have conducted the searches with the utmost integrity, but to the outside observer, this is a very bad look. One week before the election we have police apparently “raiding” media offices due to a complaint by an angry Prime Minister. No doubt the police will have in the backs of their minds the silly and somewhat insulting comment that Key made about them having spare time to conduct the investigation.

The police investigation – now the focus of international media interest – places New Zealand at risk of a democratic credit rating downgrade to “banana republic” B-minus.

The whole issue could have been put to rest by now, if the National Party’s campaign management had taken the “honesty and transparency” line from the start.

Now the tea-party story is out of their control (much to the glee of Winston Peters and the dismay of John Banks), and everyone’s election campaign is in disarray.

And yet we have still to hear the tapes themselves! So far all we have had is a prolonged game of charades, hinting at the contents of the conversation. Once we see the whole transcript (maybe on Wikileaks!) then there will only be further gossip and scandal.

Key should sack his campaign managers and send them off to study Politics 101.

I can’t predict how this will end, or what effect it will have on the big poll next Saturday. But, assuming John Key is still PM after that date, he has set himself up for a miserable three-year term of sniping from all sides by the media.

No more Mr Nice Guy!

Dr Grant Duncan is an Associate Professor, Politics and Public Policy, at Massey University’s Albany campus.

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