Hard News by Russell Brown


A week being a long time in politics

Any political party that can afford it conducts internal polling, especially before and during election campaigns. While the media pay for polls to be conducted to provide themselves with exclusive content -- and tease us into watching the 6pm news or buying the next day's paper -- parties need information about their status with voters on a more or less rolling basis.

They need to know not only where they stand electorally, but what voters, or certain groups of voters, are thinking and feeling. Such polling, and more discursive interviews with focus groups, were a touchstone for Helen Clark's government over three terms.

They'll certainly have played a part in the design of the two major parties' campaigns this year, with Labour virtually relegating Phil Goff and emphasising the team alongside him, and National running with the star status of John Key. (For a glimpse of how that looks on the road, take a look at Campbell Live's fascinating report on a day on the road with Key.)

It may also be the case that National's polling last week picked up a trend that prompted John Key to pull the chain and stage his very public tea-date with Act's Epsom candidate John Banks.

The results of internal polls aren't generally shared in detail; if only because if you don't share the details you've more scope to claim that your internal numbers don't tally with whatever the published polls say.

National's campaign chair, Steven Joyce, broke that rule on Morning Report today, sharing with Simon Mercep that an internal poll "asking about different issues" had asked voters for "simply two options", those being "are there more important issues to focus on" than the political furore about the recording of Key's conversation with Banks, and whether the matter is "worthwhile of futher attention."

According to Joyce, 81% agreed that there were more important issues to focus on, and only 13% said the so-called tape was worthy of further attention. This, said Joyce, was evidence that the matter was of interest only to those within the "Bowen Triangle", while the public was of a higher mind.

But if this poll is the same one conducted last night by National's polling firm, Curia, then there were actually more than two questions asked about the matter.

In the course of what a friend of mine thought to be a "very loaded" set of questions -- more so than the two or three other times he's been polled by Curia -- he was asked whether John Key should have to answer questions about "the illegal tapes". He queried the use of the word "illegal" and was assured that was the correct word.

Framing questions on the assumption that the recording was illegal -- without the decision of a judge or even a charge laid yet -- seemed fairly leading to me. I asked David Farrar, the owner of Curia, about this last night, and he assured me the actual phrase used was "so-called illegal tapes", which is a bit more neutral. (Update: I've posted some more detail about the questions in comments. Mostly pretty standard stuff, but there are a few interesting quirks.)

There's nothing wrong with Joyce sharing only the parts of his poll that suit his case, but I doubt that he'll be convincing many editors to move on by telling them to do so in this fashion:

There are one or two people in the media that need to do a little bit of self-assessment this weekend and decide what it is they’re going to be talking about.

Because while National's aggressive response may well serve its short-term interests with the public, it's storing up longer-term trouble with the press.

Senior editorial staff at APN were shocked by the tone of National's response to the Herald on Sunday's original, rather modest, story on the fateful recording. A stronger interviewer than Mercep would have invited Joyce to repeat or recant some of the more outrageous things he has said. Do you still insist, Mr Joyce, that the Herald on Sunday was lying when it said the cameraman is a freelancer? And Is it still your belief that the Herald on Sunday planned the recording in advance?

Now, Radio New Zealand will be spending taxpayers' money on legal action to try and ward off a police search that will probably involve the temporary seizure of some of its computers -- for reporting on a campaign story in an election campaign; the very job it is expected to do in a democracy.

Key's direct and surprisingly powerful connection to the public may mean now that National needs the news media less than most governing parties do. But it it has used up an awful lot of Magic JK Juice very quickly here, juice it's going need if it wants to govern successfully for another three years.

Had it not done so, Joyce would not have been on the radio today briskly telling editors what not to report.

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