Hard News by Russell Brown


Presentation and Reality

The New Zealand Herald's decision to go full front-page nutso on TV star Robyn Malcolm's "savage" and "vitriolic" attack on Prime Minister John Key was, as Craig has already pointed out today, a bit silly. She's a citizen and it's an election campaign. End of story.

But when Malcolm delivered this line …

"We have a leader who seems to be more interested in talking about his cats on the radio, being seen at the rugby and getting on the cover of the Woman's Weekly. I thought that was my job."

She was voicing a popular perception about John Key: that while Key dodges the hard interviews, he's always available for public appearances and "soft" press that plays to his strengths.

Ironically, to the general astonishment of Twitter, the Prime Minister made himself available for interview on Morning Report today. Whether what transpired was a "hard" interview is a matter of opinion (I had an Ally McBeal fantasy of Sean Plunket breaking into the studio, banging everyone's heads together and going mad-dog just for old-times' sake), but it is true that soft press has been a significant component of the PM's media strategy since before he was even elected. It has been part of his branding as the everyman un-politician.

There is nothing particularly wrong with that. Helen Clark was elected only after she got to grips with the presentational elements of the job. I interviewed her once and watched as she made a brisk chore of putting on some slap for the photographs. It was, she readily explained, tiresome but necessary.

It's not even clear whether Key has done more Woman's Weekly-style stories than his predecessor, but that's something we'll try and determine for this week's Media7 show.

The first part of the show itself will be a discussion with The Listener's liveblogger Toby Manhire and Metro editor Simon Wilson of the presentational aspects of the campaign -- and whether they've come at the cost of substance.

We'll talk about the Auckland Central race, which, although nothing in particular hangs on it -- in comparison to, say, Epsom -- is the most media-friendly race in the country. The incumbent, Nikki Kaye, and her challenger, Jacinda Ardern write head-to-head columns for the Herald every week. They're interviewed together by Wilson in this month's Metro -- naturally, in a bar on Ponsonby Road. They're both smart and appealing.

And they were joined by two other smart, appealing candidates for last week's noisy, successful Back Benches show. David Seymour is what you kind of want an Act candidate to be -- young, intelligent, a bit arrogant (yes, we heard, you wrote a book) -- and the Greens' Denise Roche will have done her own profile no harm at all by merrily cleaning up the trivia quiz. Compared to your average week on Back Benches, it was positively glamorous.

This dynamic has also, of course, given rise to the risible "Battle of the Babes" meme, coined by the Herald on Sunday's Jonathan Milne and now manifesting in lazy, contemptuous "news" reports like this one.

We'll also look at the debates: from the over-formatted ADD effort on TV One to the unrestrained argument staged by The Press, which became the vehicle for Key's big line: "Show me the money!"

It seems an oddly long time ago now that Key was emphatically on the wrong side of the contest when National, Labour and the Greens offered up their opening broadcasts.

And yes, we will be looking outside Auckland in a later show.

The second part of this week's show will also be worth catching. Sarah Daniell interviews sociologist and former fashion model Ashley Mears on how the media fawn over fashionistas and miss the real, more troubling, stories in the industry.

If you'd like to join us, we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance at TVNZ tomorrow, from 5.15pm and before 5.40.

We'll also be recording a special show for the Spada conference on Friday. I'll let you know about that recording once a couple of details have been finalised.

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