The Government pissed off journalists at a bad time

Journalists and media have largely been supportive of Government efforts to deal with Covid-19, but as the general population gets restless under Level 3 restrictions and want to get back closer to normal living, journalists seem to have also changed their approach to coverage.

This shift was given a big boost with the Friday dump of Covid information, along with a leaked email telling Ministers to not give interviews or answer questions apart from using dished out patsy phrases.

The Government has two big challenges this coming week, trying to keep the population on-side with lockdown restrictions, and delivering a budget in extraordinary times. And they head into this period  with a suddenly more sceptical media openly questioning Government arrogance.

Derek Cheng (NZH): The gagging order from Jacinda Ardern’s office – cynical, arrogant and unnecessary

Controlling the message is critical, especially at a time of crisis, and the PM’s office has clearly tried to continue its tight control over the Government messaging.

It is a common communications strategy to release bad news late on a Friday, when newsrooms are emptier and people are more focused on weekend plans rather than the news.

With the gagging order, there is virtually no chance to ask a minister about anything in the documents for three days, and by the time Jacinda Ardern fronts on Monday afternoon, the nation will be firmly focused on whether we are moving to alert level 2.

And it’s not just the cynical timing. The “no real need to defend … we can dismiss” reeks of arrogance – the subtext is “we are above scrutiny” – and blatantly flouts Ardern’s cultivated reputation for openness and transparency.

It also undermines the access provided in the almost-daily press conferences that have taken place during alert levels 3 and 4.

Even if the information drop could not have happened before yesterday afternoon, ministers should be able to front.

The shackles should be discarded and ministers should be open to scrutiny. If they can’t be trusted to answer questions about their portfolios, they shouldn’t be ministers.

Tracy Watkins (Stuff):  Are these the first signs of third term arrogance from a first term government?

Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s budget this week will loom over generations to come; it’s no exaggeration to say its the most important budget in decades.

There will be intense debate about whether he has got it right; so it’s unfortunate that as we head into budget week the government is exhibiting premature signs of the affliction known as third-termitis.

That was most evident in the emergence of a leaked memo this week in which ministers’ offices were advised not to waste any time defending themselves to the media – not because they had anything much to hide but because (to paraphrase) people love us anyway, so why bother?

It’s the assumption behind that advice that is so alarming; it speaks of supreme confidence at the moment that this government can do no wrong in the eyes of the public.

So will this confidence and arrogance come out in the budget with opportunistic major changes in direction? There has been a lot of lobbying from idealists wanting to change the economic and political systems, and there has even been suggestions that Jacinda Ardern can change the world.

And Friday’s dump and email were not isolated reasons for media discord.

Given the scale of this crisis, and the extent to which it has touched every life, that is more important now than ever. The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, for instance, says 20,000 operations were cancelled and 60,000 specialist appointments parked. It will take more than a year to catch up, they say. Yet questions about how the Government will deal with this have largely been fobbed off.

There was another disturbing sight this week when Attorney General David Parker refused media interviews on the legality of the Covid lockdown, preferring instead to interview himself in a 42 minute long livestream on Facebook.

Did Parker take a leaf out of Trump’s playbook?

Facebook has become this government’s best friend; its shoulder shrug in response to questions about transparency and accessibility. But of course it’s also about controlling not just the message, but image, and the news agenda.

But as we come out of lock-down, and face up to the huge recovery mission ahead, fronting up to hard questions should not be optional.

If the Government tries to use the huge current economic and social disruption plus their current popularity after initially being widely seen to handle Covid-19 well here to lurch towards some sort of revolution they could find themselves quickly off-side with a public seemingly intent on getting back to normal ahead of the lowering of lockdown restrictions.

An obvious risk of a sudden rise to popularity on the back of unprecedented social and economic disruption is that that can become a fall just as quickly if the Government gets out of step with public sentiment.

One might think that Winston Peters would act as a check on starting a revolution via the budget (unless superannuants benefit). But it may be too late. He seems to have been sidelined by the big decision making clique now calling the shots in Government, and may have been already pressured into supporting changes due to popular support for the Government.

The confidence and arrogance of the Prime Minister and Ministers seems to be actively shutting themselves off from public contact via the media, and they already look to be rapidly getting out of touch.

The public supported them because the wanted the disruptions due to Covid to stop, and saw drastic action as necessary.

But now the public wants disruptions and changes to their normal ways of life to dissipate.

If the Government have decided to take some revolutionary steps in the budget next week they may find that the media are not so supportive as they have been over the past couple of months, and the public could easily rebel (there’s a mini-rebellion already happening against the restrictive level 3 lockdown).

Emergency measures in a crisis are generally supported. But using an emergency to undemocratically impose major changes may turn the tide against support for the current Government, and even Ardern.

A change in approach by political media?

Here’s a sign of at least recognition that political media coverage should improve.

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): The election is nearly here – let’s strip it back to what really matters

So what’s the moral of the story? That so much of the political discourse these days is seen to be more focused on the game playing and the sport of politics, rather than the substance. And that is contributing to the sense that politicians are increasingly out of touch with voters.

We in the media can cop some of the blame. In our drive to explain the “why” and “how” of politics it can look like we’re focusing on personalities rather than policies.

It’s also no secret that there is a voracious appetite for personality-driven political coverage, while the appetite for policy-driven stories is more niche.

Is there really a “voracious appetite” for personality-driven political coverage? It is very click driven, but that is often through misleading and inaccurate headlines.

I don’t condemn that; to an extent, I’ve always believed that we vote for our politicians as much on character or judgement as the policies they hawk.

Their credibility is central to whether we believe in their promises.

But in the hot house of Parliament – where politicians and the media collide regularly on the chaotic weekly caucus run, or “on the tiles”, which is where MPs stop for journalists on their way into the House – it’s all too easy to lose perspective.

It’s also a chicken and egg thing. Politicians pay armies of spin doctors to churn out policy positions in soundbites, and the leaders spend hours being coached by their media minders on how to answer questions.

If this was all about enabling a substantive policy debate, or holding their opponents to account, fair enough.

But that’s not it, of course. It’s mostly about framing the narrative, and staying on message. It’s about winning the game in other words.

But does it win the game? I think that many people are unimpressed by PR framing and words that don’t match action s and behaviour, some to the extent of being turned off the politician, party or politics in general.

The stakes are high so it’s not surprising they play the game this way.

It surprises me. I think that substance and delivering is far more important than PR claptrap that may be perceived by analysts to win small battles of words, but loses the war of credibility and leadership.

Winning power means getting to bend an economy and a people to suit their vision.

But that’s also why we deserve much better.

So once Ardern names the date, let’s all pledge to strip this election back to its essentials, and focus on he story behind the personalities and the soundbites.

We do deserve better, from politicians and from media. Tracy Watkins has at least started the year recognising they need to do better, but once the playground begins will anything change? It’s very easy to get dragged into the PR game playing.

Tracy Watkins on Jacinda Ardern

Tracy Watkins, in her last column as Stuff’s political editor, on Jacinda Ardern:

As for Ardern, her legacy is still unfolding, and so far hers has been the most extraordinary story so far. Labour’s unprecedented, 11th-hour resurrection under her leadership; and her incredible international reach, set her apart from any other leader in recent times.

That presents huge opportunities – and big risks.

The opportunities lie in Ardern’s huge reservoir of political capital, and her supporters are looking to her to use that to lead a truly transformative government.

The risk lies in failing to deliver on those expectations, and they may be unrealistically high – not just domestically, but among her admirers globally.

It’s tempting to think that Ardern’s legacy is already written.

But politics moves so fast these days that crystal-ball gazing is turning into a mug’s game.

Despite the hissing and spitting at Kiwblog and Whale Oil, Ardern has shown some real leadership on some things, most notably the Christchurch mosque massacres, and her follow up in Paris this week.

But she does have to prove she can live up to her ‘transformative’ rhetoric and deliver some significant transformations this year, A lot is likely to depend on the budget due next week.

She will also be hoping some of her ministers learn enough and improve enough to start delivering more.

And she will be hoping that the scandal waiting to happen NZ First manage to survive the term not just without any major embarrassments, but also that they survive the next election.

And also that the Greens survive the next election.

Arden has done a lot well, most notably turning round a failing Labour around in the last election camp, and negotiating governing arrangements with NZ First and Greens.

She has done remarkably well, and still looks strong, but her fate as Prime Minister may be in the hands of her two support parties as much as anyone’s.


Tracy Watkins on John Key

Tracy Watkins, in her last column as Stuff’s political editor, on John Key:

The Opposition worked hard to make it an issue of character but in the end Clark’s undoubted competence overrode that in the minds of most voters.

It was the same for John Key after National won in 2008 and he stepped into Clark’s shoes; Labour tried to chuck everything at diminishing his character in the eyes of voters.  Not much of it stuck – though like Clark, the accumulated baggage over time wore down his popularity.

And like Clark, Key also had his “scandal-gates” – ponytail-gate, where he joked around with a young waitress and pulled her hair, was probably the most damaging, because it shifted perceptions.

The hair pulling was weird, especially for a Prime Minister. Key was probably trying to be seen as an ordinary bloke sort of leader, which he often managed well, but this was out of line and yes, it was probably damaging.

I only caught the tailend of the Bolger era and Jenny Shipley’s brief reign as prime minister, but Helen Clark was a phenomenon – gritty, driven, determined, and hugely intelligent. She had an incredible grasp of detail and an amazing ability to weigh up an issue as she spoke.

Key had the same razor-sharp ability to think on his feet, and he and Clark were more similar than you might think in other ways; both were pragmatists who had an uncanny ability to sense when they were getting too far ahead of the electorate.

But Key’s humour was a welcome antidote to the increasing dourness of the Clark years; a man for the times as the dark clouds of the global financial crisis bore down on us.

Behind the humour and optimism was a sharp financial brain, coupled with an unparalleled ability to put politics and the economy in the context of the every-day voter.

Key’s legacy was shifting some of the blue-collar vote and the battling classes in the middle from Labour to National and it is one that continues today.

Key was a very successful leader, leading National to three election wins with high levels of support for a single party under MMP.

The main negative was probably due to his success – National lost potential support parties. When he stood down in 2016 National were still getting very good levels of support, but even though Blil English was seen as capable and ran a fairly good campaign, the single ACT MP, and an unwillingness to give too much to NZ First was not enough to compete with the surge in Labour support under new leader Jacinda Ardern, Greens keen to have their first shot in Government, and NZ First’s ability to take advantage of Labour’s and Green’s give up what it took to get into power.

The left left didn’t like and would never like Key no matter what he did because he was a right wing-ish politician. The Standard could only see Key’s negatives, and amplified them as much as the Kiwblog community who vilified the very capable and ver successful Helen Clark.

I saw Key speak in person once, and he came across very well, interesting, engaging, entertaining. I have also seen Helen Clark speak in person (after she left politics) and also came across very well. I haven’t seen that in person in any other leader, not that I have seen many. I went to a NZ First conference to listen to Winston Peters and he had the crowd buzzing, but it was inspiring tired old repeats of ‘jokes’; and rhetoric.

Key was a very good leader, who had the unusual ability to be on top of most policy and  most issues, but to connect with many ordinary people. He was also pragmatic, which annoyed some of the more uncompromising right wingers, but it worked well.

Political awards

I’m not going to dish out political award – like that vast majority of New Zealanders I have no idea how our MP’s actually work beneath the vanity veneer of PR and the fog of media wars.

Journalists have been somewhat distracted this month with actual political news to deal with but some have managed to review the year.

Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small: Didn’t see that coming: A year of political bombshells

It was the year no-one saw coming. A year when everything we thought we knew about politics was tipped on its head. Brexit. Donald Trump.

No one sees what’s coming, but Brexit and Trump certainly went against most predictions.

Brexit means major changes for the UK and for Europe.

Trump looks like meaning major changes for the US and potentially for the world.

John Key quitting. So much for a quiet year between elections.  There wasn’t a Beehive staffer or Press Gallery journo who wasn’t wilting in the final week before Christmas.

While Key’s resignation excited the local pundits in what is usually a wind down period it is not anywhere near being in the same league.

So far the only changes are a few tweaks to Government under a Prime Minister who was already a major influence, and a few tweaks to ministerial responsibilities that most people won’t notice.

It perhaps opens up next year’s election a bit, but despite Labour’s glee it may not end up making much difference in what was already regarded as an uncertain election. Everyone is still predicting Winston will be ‘king maker’ – and even that’s no change from the last couple of elections.

Watkins and Small name Key as Politician of the Year – for resigning?

Apart from that it was a fairly uneventful and unremarkable year for Key. Most notable was his lack of success in changing the flag and despite getting the TPP over the line it now looks to be dead in the US  water. I wouldn’t say that Key had an award winning year.

They dish out a number of corny awards, but there is one that looks to be a deserved mention:

Backbencher of the year. National MP Mark Mitchell. He chaired the Foreign Affairs and Trade select committee through the divisive Trans Pacific Partnership legislation and helped turned hearings from being fractious to respectful, and even good-natured. On top of that he seems to have earned a reputation as an all-round nice guy, even from his political opponents, and got his reward with a ministerial promotion.

Most of the public probably haven’t heard of Mark Mitchell let alone are aware of his quiet achievements in Parliament.

There are 121 MPs in Parliament most of whom (if not all) are working hard and doing their best. Voters get to see little of this – all we usually see is a few attention seekers granted coverage by media who tend to accentuate the absurd and exaggerate a few issues and events.

If I was to do any award it would be not singling out a single person, it would be for the quiet achievers in Parliament who make a difference without being noticed by most of the people most of the time.

These MPs are the unsung backbone of our democracy.

Late Labour unspinning

Again Labour have launched policy proposals without any apparent plan to manage the publicity nor the reaction.

The Universal Basic Income idea is worth discussing (this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth implementing) but Labour seemed to quickly lose control of the narrative, with focus on the Gareth Morgan suggested $211 per week level of payment and the overall potential cost.

A couple of days ago:

Mar 21
Who is in charge of strategy?
Mar 21

Apparently Rob Salmond, mostly. Matt McCarten is said to have little influence these days.

It was Salmond who popped up yesterday to try to put out UBI fires and to complain about the media not doing Labour’s job, with Home-spun non-truths at Public Address.

Versus David Farrar who was quick off the mark for National:

Enter David Farrar. Yesterday he decided he can put a cost figure on this policy, despite nobody having said what the policy is. Here’s his headline:

Labour’s $38 billion bribe!

Ohmigod! $38 billion! That headline sounds massively expensive. But it’s also utterly, hopelessly dishonest.

Versus NBR:

Somehow the editorial staff at the NBR missed this obvious dishonesty, and reposted Farrar’s article on its website, screaming headline and all. That’s shoddy journalism.

 Versus Tracey Watkins:

So what happens when one of these not-true-home-truths becomes ingrained? Well, a small corner of Tracy Watkins’ weekend column provides a clue. In this post I’m not taking any particular issue with Tracy’s assessment of Labour’s performance last week – certainly it was a tricky wee period. I’m taking issue an important, but false, asserted fact:

“Labour used to have a stranglehold on the ethnic vote. No more. “

 Salmond closed his post:

I’ve learned to expect this kind of manufactured-made-up-trope from David Farrar and Cam Slater and other tools of National’s publicity machine. But it shouldn’t take someone like me to point out when its been making it up. That’s the fourth estate’s job, too, yeah?

Is it the fourth estate’s responsibility to manage Labour’s PR?

Surely it’s up to Labour to at least manage the launch of a major policy discussion and have prepared and prompt reactions. Labour’s PR machine should have been all over MSM and social media if they wanted to have some control of the narrative.

It should have been very predictable that the potential cost of a UBI would become a major talking point and target of attack.

Complaining about the media a day or two after initiating a major discussion is not good party communications.

Is Salmond in charge of strategy? Or does he step in because no one else is managing things competently?

And where does Little fit in to this? Is he being pulled in different directions? Or is he leaving communications to his team and being let down?

Little appears to be struggling and so does Labour.

One thing’s for sure, Farrar and the media won’t do their job for them.

Coming in late trying to unspin predictable reactions is not a smart strategy.

Comeback Collins

Judith Collins was down and shown the way out of Parliament last year – sent to the office known as the departure lounge. But she has demonstrated resolve and determination, and will be back in Cabinet next week.

Tracy Watkins at Stuff writes about this in Judith Collins – ‘exonerated, vindicated’ and on the comeback trail:

With the political comeback from the brink complete, Judith Collins is in no mood to waste the opportunity.

Last year Collins was relentlessly hounded over her association with Oravida in a trip to China, to the extent that I think both Phil Goff and Winston Peters jetted to China to try to find dirt. Some aspects of that didn’t look flash for Collins but no smoking gun was found.

Then she became embroiled in the ‘Dirty Politics’ election campaign distraction due to her friendship and association with Camerson Slater, involving a campaign of attack on the Serious Fraud Office head.

That was too close for John Key that close to an election so Collins resigned. But a later inquiry there was “no probative evidence that Ms Collins undermined or attempted to undermine Mr Feeley”.

What Collins was accused of doing was undermining the then head of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley, in collusion with Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.

An inquiry by retired High Court judge Lester Chisholm later found there was “no probative evidence that Ms Collins undermined or attempted to undermine Mr Feeley”.

Chisholm concluded: “The implication that she was so involved is untenable.”

Chisholm trawled through six years worth of Collins’ emails and phone records.

It was, says Collins, an incredibly invasive process.

“Not only going through my work emails, and my phone records, but all my personal emails, my computers… I had to hand in my passwords, everything.”

The upshot of all that, says Collins, is that she feels “pretty damn vindicated, frankly”.

The blame was mostly put on Slater, who admitted ’embellish’ statements in private emails:

He attacked the media saying it used “private banter” in emails as if it were court documents and denied he was responsible for Collin’s downfall with his email.

“I can say whatever I want to in private emails,” he said.

He didn’t regret writing the email, saying he “doesn’t regret anything he writes”.

He said the sentence in the email “Collins is gunning for Feeley” wasn’t a lie but “embellishing is a good word.”

Slater, lies, embellished banter, whatever.

Slater had quickly become politically toxic, especially for Collins. For her to revive her political career she needed to at least publicly and politically distance herself from Slater. She appears to have successfully managed this.

So a mixture of doing what was necessary to prove she could be relied on and trusted back in Cabinet, along with her reputation (ignoring the left wing wailing) of being a strong and capable Minister, has resulted in John Key bringing Collins back into Cabinet.

Next week Collins will be Minister of Police and Minister of Corrections, the latter a portfolio desperately needing a strong hand and some serious tidying up after the Serco Mt Eden debacle.

Watkins writes an interesting profile of Collins.

“When I was a little girl, I remember my mother saying to me – I was about eight – she said ‘you’re so determined Judith’. And she was saying it as though it was a bad thing. I guess that’s it. I’m just determined.”

Obviously determined.

Husband David Wong-Tung probably took it harder, Collins admits. But they’ve been through tougher things as a couple. Wong-Tung is half-Samoan, and that caused heartache for the dairy farmer’s daughter and her new boyfriend back in the day.

“My father and some of my family were opposed to a mixed-race marriage, so we had six years of my father being extraordinarily unhelpful and very difficult.”

That’s very sad. It was back in the late seventies, early eighties. Wong-Tung had migrated to New Zealand from Samoa as a child.

Back to being determined.

There was no way she was going to quit over the allegations that forced her resignation from Cabinet in the white hot heat of the election campaign last year.

“Never. Never. Definitely not,” says Collins.

And so she is back

 – apparently over the objections of some of her Cabinet colleagues, though they publicly deny that. Does that mean she has scores to settle maybe?

“Never,” laughs Collins.

“Can’t be bothered. It’s like, why? Why bother? Just get on and do the job.”

That’s quite different to what Slaster said on her resignation from Cabinet last year:

Slater was then asked what he would do about Collins’ resignation. He said: “I always give back double” and “Judith always gives back double.”

More banter embellishment perhaps. There’s been no sign of revenge (from Collins) over the last eighteen months, just determination to succeed again.

But isn’t that the legend she’s cultivated? Crusher Collins, hard as nails?

Nah, that’s not even very real, says Collins.

“I’ve encouraged all that just for fun, really. I’ve got a very wicked sense of humour and sometimes I just get a bit carried away with it.”

And besides, the only person whose opinion she has to worry about is the prime minister. It’s his call, and his alone, says Collins.

His call has been to reinstate Collins as a Minister. If she’s learned well from her mistakes and from dealing with sustained attacks and remains determined she may be a better Cabinet Minister than before.

I’m certainly prepered to give her a chance to redeem herself.

She had been regarded as a potential leadership contender. There is no vacancy at present, and she will have her hands full sorting out Corrections and dealing with Police.

After Key? Paula Bennett is one who seems to be being groomed for a top role. Collins seems determined to rise again on her own merits.

Will this lead to a clash? Possibly.

But what about a Collins-Bennett or Bennett-Collins leadership team? Combining their contrasting, complimentary styles could be formidable.

And it could do the historically male-dominated National Party some good too.


Major media problems looming for Key’s Government

The shoddy Henry inquiry and the access of journalist and MP data is growing into a major problem for John Key’s government, at a very awkward time. This has significant implications for Keyu’s GCSB bill.

Call for Speaker to act as watchdog on reporters’ records

Fairfax Media’s political editor says decisions on Press Gallery journalists’ private information need to be made only by Parliament’s Speaker, not low-level bureaucrats.

The political editor at Fairfax Media, Tracy Watkins, says the release puts Press Gallery reporters’ confidence in their own privacy at risk and the handling of their information needs to be better managed.

“It really cuts to the heart of our ability to operate around Parliament and talk to MPs and bureaucrats as well and be confident that that’s not going to be somehow tracked for the purposes of finding out who our sources are,” she told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report programme.

Ms Watkins says there must be firm protocols and clear understanding that decisions no records are made at a level lower than the Speaker.

“If for instance we were asked would we ever hand over details that might in any way compromise a source, we would never do that. So we need a watchdog in place to make sure our rights are protected, and that needs to be the Speaker, ultimately.”

The chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Clare Trevett, says the ability of journalists to do their job should be sacrosanct and says she was shocked that the phone records were released.

Media Freedom Committee chair Tim Murphy says the wider issue in the release of phone records to the ministerial inquiry is that different arms of the state seem to think they can get information any way they wish. He says the fact a contractor decided to pass along the records, which were not requested, defies rational belief.

John Key needs to address this quickly and thoroughly, or things could turn from incredulous to sour, on tnhis issue and with the media in general.

But Prime Minister John Key says the Government has enormous respect for the fourth estate. He says he doesn’t think journalists should be subject to surveillance, and they are not.

Then he needs to demonstarate that respect by taking decisive action on addressing this. Sureveillance data has been used and with the rapidly changing excuses there is a serious lack of credibilility and major doubrs about how much data has been accessed and passed on – and to whom?

And it will make the passage of his GCSB bill much more difficult.