Hard News by Russell Brown


The perils of political confidence

It seems a remarkably cocky thing to to do: invite a horde of journalists to your staged meeting with a political ally, and then have a conversation you wouldn't want everyone to hear. If anything says John Key is feeling bulletproof, it's that.

Nek minnit ...

According to Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns, the 10-minute conversation between Key and John Banks captured in the recording passed to his paper is "potentially a game-changer", but he and his colleagues and managemnt have chosen not to publish its contents. John Key declared it "bland" stuff, but has not behaved as if that were so, and would not grant permission for its publication.

This press release, issued by National's campaign chair and all-purpose fixer, Steven Joyce, is certainly not the work of a relaxed man:

"The conclusion one is left with is that the Herald on Sunday deliberately arranged the taping, in an unwelcome introduction of UK-style News of the World tabloid tactics into the New Zealand media environment, and is now deliberately seeking to distance themselves publicly.

"The paper needs to respond to these serious questions of fact," says Mr Joyce.

"New Zealanders deserve better than News of the World -style tabloid tactics. They deserve a focus on the real issues facing this country."

As Toby Manhire noted in Listener Live yesterday, one National MP, Tau Henare, went a step further: he declared it was worse than the News of the World. Toby put that in context:

Unless I misunderstand him, the National MP is here suggesting the Herald on Sunday’s alleged behaviour is worse than that of a British tabloid with an institutional culture of mendacity so endemic and rotten that it was closed down by its owners; a paper that hacked the phone of a murdered child to improve its commercial prospects. Really, Tau?

Meanwhile, Whale Oil has decided that he knows the name of the cameraman who left the radio mic on the cafe table by the two politicians and is still letting stand a reader comment listing the cameraman's phone numbers and suggesting other readers call him for a "chat". As an attempt to claim the moral high ground it leaves something to be desired.

It seems very likely that conversations between the National Party's representatives and those of the Herald on Sunday were more intense than the paper saw fit to suggest yesterday. Johns declared on Morning Report today that he chosen to go ahead and publish details of the conversation, the story would have shared the front page with the unfortunate escapes of a drunken Zac Guildford. In HoS-world it doesn't really get any bigger than that, and it's reasonable to conclude that quite some degree of pressure was applied to deter publication.

So was it a wicked plot or an innocent error? The HoS wouldn't be looking so rattled if its editors had really pre-arranged such a sting. Journalists did not know in advance that Key and Banks would seek to clear them out and have a genuinely "private" conversation while the press looked on from behind a window -- the table was apparently littered with recording device at first. And who could have formed a cunning plan on the expectation that a radio mic would be concealed in plain sight centimetres from the subjects?

On the other hand, it's a competitive world: a freelancer might well decide to try and get the drop on his competitors by capturing some sound as well as pictures of the meeting. The paper says he was prevented from retrieving the radio mic along with the other devices before the conversation. But surely if he had explained the precise problem to a DPS officer, it would have been removed. He could always have turned off the recording on his camera, or deleted it afterwards.

But a journalist who obligingly deleted such a recording isn't really a journalist. Were I an editor, I would not be at all happy with a journalist who did that -- I'd want the opportunity to make an editorial decision on the merits of publication.

It was touching to hear Johns say on the radio that the paper only had one copy of the recording -- on a flash drive or, er, somewhere. That's the kind of thing you say when perceive the possibility of seizure, but I would guess that multiple instances of the file exist in multiple locations.

Although various Kiwiblog commentators are convinced the camerman and his "communist-inspired bosses" at the HoS have broken the law and "should be hung up by the testicles in the town square (right above the protest scum would be best)", media law expert Steven Price explains that it's actually rather complicated.

Whatever the legal position, contents of the conversation seem unlikely to be the stuff of genuine political scandal -- were it so, the HoS would have just run the story. But they may be embarrassing. HoS reporter Jonathan Milne drops some hints in the course of a rather meandering column on the incident:

But it's the sheer range of comments in Key and Banks' discussion that is breathtaking - and the pair's assessment of the prospects of National, Act and NZ First.

Even if the potential for embarassment in publication was quite modest, the damage has been done. The sense of political fixing in the Epsom deal has been hugely amplified by the incident. Labour can happily hint that the recording points to a secret agenda until anyone can prove different. The National Party has entered a potentally nasty dispute with a newspaper publisher that has hardly been an enemy in recent times. And voters will, naturally, want to know what it is they haven't been told.

This is one political stunt that turned out to be too cute by half.

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