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Off the hook

datePosted on 19:29, March 27th, 2011 by Lew

On Red Alert, Clare Curran has a hapless pro-forma whinge about the standard of media coverage in New Zealand vis-a-vis in the UK, where a quarter million people are presently engaging in running battles with police; compared with here, where the media are obsessed with Darren Hughes.

Excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but the fundamental issue here isn’t exactly uncharted territory, and the fact that Clare has a lower opinion of the media than I do should make it easier to accept my advice, which is this: If you want the media to talk about something, Clare, give them a reason to talk about it. Make a stink, cause a scene, do something which makes not talking about it impossible. As a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says: write a book, or do something worth writing a book about.

If you don’t give the media a compelling reason to care, don’t be surprised if they don’t. If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time. In the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the scorpion stings the frog. Why? To do so is in its nature. Frogs, while unable to prevent scorpions from stinging, would at least be wise to deny them the opportunity.

With that in mind, some of the following in this case might also have helped:

  • Have frontbench MPs not do stupid stuff which appeals to the public (not the media) sense of scandalous voyeurism;
  • Have your party leader do more than the absolute minimum possible in response to said scandal;
  • In doing more than the absolute minimum, have the party leader respond in just one move rather than in several successive ineffectual steps which maximise the coverage across several news cycles, including a weekend leading into a Parliamentary recess when political news is going to be thin on the ground anyway;
  • Ensure the party president is sufficiently apprised of said scandal that he finds out about it by some means other than reading the papers;
  • Even in the incredibly unlikely event that you can’t do the preceding, at least have your party leader and president sit down together for long enough to agree on a unified position, so as not to give credence to rumours of a leadership challenge.

It’s not that Labour didn’t give the media something to cover, so the media covered the Darren Hughes scandal by default: it’s that Labour gave the media the Darren Hughes scandal to cover, covered in juicy scandal juice, and then didn’t give them anything more compelling to cover instead. (As if there is something more compelling than a sexual investigation into a male frontbench MP’s alleged dalliance with a teenaged male youth MP in the house of the deputy leader after a Parliamentary function, which was covered up for two weeks by the party leader.)

Let me be crystal clear: the issue here is not about right and wrong, or about justice. Perhaps it should be, but electoral politics is not about what should be; it’s about what is. If you choose to privilege ‘justice’ over ‘politics’, as Phil Goff claimed on Q+A this morning, there’s a political cost to doing so; a political cost which, while it might be regrettable, isn’t something to whinge about. After all: if you made the choice you’re presumably better off than if you’d chosen differently. To behave as if it were otherwise, and to blame the media for their role in exacting that price is to blame the scorpion for having a sting in its tail.

Anyone to whom this dynamic isn’t clear has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government. As long as Labour continue to fail at this, one of the most basic tasks of politics, the phone will remain off the hook.


19 Responses to “Off the hook”

  1. Arthur (AmeriNZ) on March 27th, 2011 at 20:01

    If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time.

    So true, Lew. The newsmedia love scandal, the more salacious the better. It seems to me that if this story was already in the rumour-mill, then it becoming public was inevitable and the nature of the newsmedia meant they’d run hard and fast with it. If Labour had handled it all better at the very beginning, even before it became public, they could have softened the impact a bit. Instead, they made themselves look, to borrow your word, hapless.

    There are no winners in this story (well, apart from National, maybe), but it would be good if Labour at least learned something. Do you think they can?

  2. SPC on March 27th, 2011 at 21:29

    The story would have been run whatever else was going on at the time.

    The (false) idea that one can manage the news coverage with some bigger story to occupy the media – that can only be done if the timing of the release is made by the party. You don’t think the media would work that out and make that the story?

    Compromising a police investigation to manage the news would have created a breach of trust with the public and media both.

    I do agree Goff should ahve simply said something once and stick to it (no further comment while this is under investigation) – taken positions off Hughes until the police investigation concluded.

    He would have had to explain – that this could not have done before the matter went public – because there would have been questions as to why.

    But the bottom line is there is no right way to handle/manage these events, just survive them.

    In this case, it was to cite the first priority being justice and secondly, if necessary, cutting someone lose for political and personal reasons (the media had shown it was prepared to compromise the police investigation by running eye witness reports, and probably rumours about the MP’s private life). That open season on someone’s life and natural justice is a genuine standard of media issue – and that has little to do with political parties and how they operate.

  3. Psycho Milt on March 27th, 2011 at 21:43

    The (false) idea that one can manage the news coverage with some bigger story to occupy the media – that can only be done if the timing of the release is made by the party. You don’t think the media would work that out and make that the story?

    I don’t. The Hughes story has knocked National’s black budget out of the news; the sources of the leak to the media are almost certainly National Party ones; have you noticed the media working that out and making that the story?

    Admittedly, Labour seem to have been doing everything remotely possible to assist with keeping the media concentrated on Hughes rather than the budget, so it’s probably an untypical example.

  4. Lew on March 27th, 2011 at 22:00

    SPC, yeah — there’s no way to win an event like this, the best you can do is mitigate — but Labour haven’t even come close to doing so. It was always going to be front-page news; but it could have been front-page news for a day or two a couple of weeks ago, with the Marine & Coastal Area Act knocking it off the top spot. As it stands it’s been four days, dovetailed with rumours of the leadership challenge, and with no parliament next week it’ll easily be another four.

    I disagree that keeping this quiet was ever a principled position, also. While it is the subject of a police investigation and that means there is a natural justice issue, the investigation of a senior MP for allegations of this sort is itself in the public interest. Not so much the sexual aspects, and not the homosexual aspect at all, but the possibility that a senior MP abused his position of authority to take advantage of a young guest of Parliament to whom he had a duty of care. Even alleged abuses of this nature are a matter of great public interest. The prurient interest in Darren Hughes’ private life and the is-he-or-isn’t-he whispers about his supposed homosexuality aren’t very relevant, but other details of the case are. The media aren’t doing wrong by investigating those aspects — they’re doing their job (albeit with a lot of the other stuff thrown in, but that’s the scorpion thing).

    This is the other thing that saddens me about the Labour response. An earlier post by Clare on Red Alert talks about ‘grieving’. That’s a fair enough personal response, and understandable — Darren Hughes was by all accounts a top guy, well liked within the party, and an extremely competent performer. He was my local Labour candidate and I think he stood a good chance of beating Nathan Guy (also very effective). But the response suggests to me that that all these allegations against Darren were previously unknown to the caucus — that the leadership kept the information from the caucus as well as from the party president. If so, it shows colossally bad faith between those who knew and those who didn’t, since even a cursory survey of the undisputed facts makes it pretty clear that Hughes was going to have to resign. So more than just sitting on the information and keeping it from the electorate for a couple of weeks, if Goff and King (remembering that the events alleged happened at King’s house) have let the timer tick under this without having told the party, it speaks to frightening dysfunction and almost unbelievable incompetence on the part of the leadership. To follow such leaders into an electoral battle seems extremely foolhardy, and as dessicated as Labour’s ranks are, I don’t think they’re yet so far gone as to not realise that.


  5. Lew on March 27th, 2011 at 22:06

    Arthur, I guess the last par of that comment answers your question, as well. Maybe there will be some good to come out of this. After all, they say, if you’re going to fail — fail big, and let the lessons be unavoidable. A fiery self-destruction followed by thorough reinvigoration, as I’ve written about before, could be the best thing to happen to Labour.

    Milt, as I say, it’s genuine news; it gets covered as of right. The evils of the budget isn’t: Labour has to make it news. They’re not. They’re blaming others for their own incompetence instead. So far, so 2008.


  6. Pablo on March 27th, 2011 at 22:14

    Although I agree with Lew’s take on things I must say that from the perspective of someone who studies international ad comparative politics, the amount of press dedicated to the fallout from one MP’s sad drunken sexual antics is yet another illustration of the provincialism that was supposed to have been overcome by (media) globalisation. Lew’s deconstruction of the cluster***k that is Labour’s response just shows that some of the brightest media minds can get sucked into this navel (or genital) -gazing exercise.

    Among all of the other major global issues that are left untouched or superficially untouched, why is it that the NZ media do not focus in on the fact that National signed a deal with the Qaddafi regime last October to have it send its hand-picked students for tertiary education in NZ (with no security vetting on them, as is currently the case with Saudi, Pakistani and UAE students granted visas under deals signed by the 5th Labour govt), and that this deal may have something to do with NZ’s slow response to condemning Qaddafi and supporting the international effort, under the R2P doctrine that NZ is a vocal champion of, to prevent him from slaughtering unarmed civilians held culpable by Qaddafi for supporting his armed opponents.

    Now THAT is a local tie-in to global events that would be worth pursuing.

  7. Phil Sage on March 27th, 2011 at 22:37

    Pablo – My simple response would be the Egypt army training in the US parallel. By exposing sons of the Libyan regime to our values we would seek to influence their behaviour. Later correspondence between friends would provide a moderating influence. There is no scandal there.

  8. Pablo on March 27th, 2011 at 23:09

    Good point Phil, except that there is no evidence that any of the Saudi, UAE or Pakistani students learned anything other than that Western wimin are loose and that money can buy favour, including from the police (I have some knowledge of this). You are right about that “sons” remark–other than the UAE, which sends its less than able daughters to NZ because they are too stupid to go anywhere else in the English speaking world with merit-based entry level standards. Otherwise all of the students are male.

    Labour was wrong to start this bandwagon, but given National’s chickenhawk rhetoric they are worse. Apropos the post, this sort of stuff should be a media focus but alas it is not.

  9. Danyl Mclauchlan on March 28th, 2011 at 07:45

    the sources of the leak to the media are almost certainly National Party ones; have you noticed the media working that out and making that the story?

    That’s not a story. When a naked man flees from your chief whip’s house and flags down a police car, and your political enemies find out about it then they get to tell the media, at a time and in a manner of their choosing. That’s why a properly run party would pre-empt their enemies and get the story out there first.

  10. Pascal's bookie on March 28th, 2011 at 10:30

    … if Goff and King (remembering that the events alleged happened at King’s house) have let the timer tick under this without having told the party, it speaks to frightening dysfunction and almost unbelievable incompetence on the part of the leadership. To follow such leaders into an electoral battle seems extremely foolhardy, and as dessicated as Labour’s ranks are, I don’t think they’re yet so far gone as to not realise that.

    For me this is the killer. talking to the Mother-out-law over the weekend we decided that this is pretty much what happened. King Goff and Hughes knew this would be horrid if it came out, and decided not to tell the caucus. That left caucus, and the party pres swinging in the wind when the PM, the police minister and others were saying they knew about it for over a week.

    It was a huge and stupid gamble on the part of the Leader and Deputy leader, and it didn’t come off. If caucus don’t make both of them pay the price then they are as useless as the leadership.

  11. Chris Trotter on March 28th, 2011 at 14:03

    On this issue, Lew, you and I are not only singing from the same song-sheet, we’re doing so in two-part harmony.

    Your post is magisterial – and if Labour lacks the ears to hear what you’re saying, then I fear their days an effective political party are numbered.

  12. SPC on March 28th, 2011 at 14:34

    A leadership challenge, or the undermining of Goff’s leadership as preparation for post election moves is just what National want.

    If National can make this a game about popularity of parties and their leadership rather than the policy alternatives being offered this year, they win and their agenda can be implemented.

  13. Lew on March 28th, 2011 at 14:35

    Chris, thank you. We are indeed. Porcine aviation-spotters must be getting excited.

    I thought of you this morning when the mischievous Matthew Hooton was on the wireless suggesting that Wainuiomata Man, not too distant from Waitakere Man, was what Labour needed now. That argument’ll come soon enough, but we can at least enjoy these few moments of comity.


  14. Chris Trotter on March 28th, 2011 at 14:50

    Waitakere Man and Woman are lost now, I fear, Lew.

    If, come November, Labour can hold on to the voters it currently has, it will be luckier than it deserves.

  15. The Left on Goff | Kiwiblog on March 28th, 2011 at 15:02

    […] think he can lead them to victoryMatt McCarten says Goff’s performancee has been appallingLew at Kiwipolitico says that anyone who failed to understand the politics (like Goff did) of what happened “has […]

  16. pollywog on March 28th, 2011 at 16:22

    If Cunliffe doesn’t put his hand up and show he’s got a pair worth backing now, then he’ll have no credibility if he does go for a leadership challenge after Labour get their arses handed to them in shreds at the election.

    It’ll be exactly like Goff firing Hughes after backing him while it was out of the public eye. The only thing changed will be time has passed.

    Surely no one in caucus truly believes Goff is the best option to lead Labour into the election. By remaining silent and letting him bumble along merely shows the gutlessness and lack of ruthlessness needed by any of them to take on Key and co on the front foot.

    So if they lack testicular fortitude now, they’ll lack it post election, only then they’ll have a ‘legitimate’ reason for dumping Goff…the people will have spoken.

    But if you listen to what the people are saying NOW and via the polls, Labour could show they have a ruthless streak, are listneing to the people, have a sense of timing and show they have a leader who’s prepared to stand up and be counted.

    it’s now or never…

  17. ak on March 28th, 2011 at 17:33

    ..Labour could show they have a ruthless streak..

    Yep, way to show how fair-minded, inclusive and concerned for the less well-off you are – ruthlessly stab your own leader in the back.

    And way to show how politically savvy you are – by expecting the same media who crucified Hels for sitting in the back of a car and signing a painting for charity, to miraculously start giving fair and balanced political coverage. All because you put the knife into one of your own.

    The day Labour depends on its leader’s “personality” to win is the day it’s already lost. And become NACT.

    The day its noisy peripherals eschew vicious, self-important panic-pants infighting and actually get off their arses and demonstrate a genuine concern for others (including its own), is the day it can win.

  18. just saying on March 28th, 2011 at 18:26

    Yep, way to show how fair-minded, inclusive and concerned for the less well-off you are – ruthlessly stab your own leader in the back.

    God forbid how cruel. We must continue with a leader who is a national joke, who has difficulty getting through a single sentence without putting his foot in his mouth. AND worst of all we must continue having a TORY leading the party or else…….

    Phil will be forced to retire to wealth and comfort on his lifestyle block with a few ludicrously lucrative sinecures for *pin-money*.

    No, far better to continue to betray ordinary New Zealanders, and to throw the poorest, sickest under the bus. That’s values.

  19. Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Like a fox? on March 29th, 2011 at 21:02

    […] lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s […]

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