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Punch-drunk: Commentators' take on the GCSB debate

Punch-drunk: Commentators' take on the GCSB debate

Mainstream media commentators were keen to paint the Campbell – Key confrontation as the heavy-weight punch-up of the season, with Key the winner. In doing so, they managed to seriously distort the picture and miss the point.

Key was very carefully prepared to bull his way through the interview. He was not out to have a conversation. He was there to steamroll and stonewall. Consider how he operated.

He gave his prepared message no matter what was happening at the time, insisting on tracking back to a previous sentence if need be to make his point.

He refused to answer key questions (XKeyscore, Prism).

He misleadingly said he would come back to certain issues (Dotcom; the Law Society; how the Bill affects NZers), but didn't.

He claimed "Campbell's experts" got it wrong, without detailing how.

He invented false leads like the malware/virus distraction.

And all with great conviction, in a bravura performance. But that's where it remained – a performance.

Media commentators got it wrong by constructing the event as a prize-fight and then confusing that frame with the ability to make a case. So Audrey Young concluded her piece by deciding, "If Key had front-footed the bill from the start, fewer people would have had concerns," and that seems to have worked with some of her readers: "could not agree more with your comments"; "the PM made a lot of good points well."

There's very little informative, meaningful debate in NZ on significant social and political issues. This interview was one chance, but both the PM and subsequently the media commentators simply saw it as a stoush. What we really needed, especially on a matter as important as this one, was a critical discussion, examining issues with care, openness, and a willingness to inquire – critical thinking in the social sphere. Instead we got a performance.

Given the urgency of the situation, I don't blame Campbell for posing demanding questions. If those 18 minutes were the last and only chance for a real debate with the PM on watershed legislation that will fundamentally change NZ society, Campbell would have been remiss not to challenge the PM. It's true he interrupted at times, as do Kim Hill, Mary Wilson and even the good cop Geoff Robinson. But Campbell as host also stepped back when Key insisted, and let him make his point, showing some respect for his guest and for the media platform itself. And sometimes the flow of prepared message needs interruption to question the focus.

There is pressing context to the interview, beyond Key's defiant dismissal of Rebecca Wright on TV3 two days earlier. Throughout the last year, on vital items like the GCSB bill and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, Key has basically treated the public with contempt. He simply won't divulge information and he answers dishonestly, and that means he's got things to hide. On the TPPA, for instance, we won't even learn the contents of the Agreement until four years after it's enacted. And the response to Rebecca Wright was a clear mark of his disdain for media and the public.

The interview was a chance to deal with some principles, both then and subsequently. Too bad so many of the media are wrapped up in TV as spectacle.


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