Wednesday, 12 January 2011


The Magic of Proximity: Winston Peters' under-the-radar rallies are currently attracting hundreds, by November he'll be addressing thousands. News media, or no news media, it's showtime!

IS IT POSSIBLE to win an election without the support of the news media? Most political scientists would say: ‘No.’ They’d point out that contemporary society is so saturated with communications media of every kind that any attempt to escape its influence is doomed to fail. A politician can no more do without the news media than a fish can do without water.

I’m not so sure. Media saturation is not an unambiguously positive thing. If it were, our loved ones could leave us and not be missed.

Through the marvels of Facebook, Twitter and Skype; through instant phone-calls, texts and e-mails; and although thousands of kilometres may separate sender from receiver; personal contact need never be lost. Before you’ve so much as unpacked your suitcases, technology allows your family back in New Zealand to enjoy the view from your London hotel-room. Twitter lets your friends know what you’re having for breakfast long before you’ve finished that bowl of cereal.

But, it’s just not the same as being there.

And what is true of the new social media is also true of the news media. Concision – as every "Tweeter" understands – comes at a cost.

A ten-second television sound-bite cannot do justice to a forty-minute speech. And unless you’re Abraham Lincoln or Ernest Hemingway, it’s extremely difficult to do justice to a political experience in less than 350 words.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of the revolution in communications technology that even as it multiplies the means of individual expression, it reduces the editorial resources available for collective enlightenment. The concentrated advertising revenues of the past, which had made investigative journalism a viable economic proposition, are now spread much more thinly across a multitude of competing media "platforms". This makes it much harder for the news media to perform its crucial democratic duties.

Politicians are rapidly adapting themselves to these new realities – most significantly by shortening and simplifying their communications with the voters. But, as any student who’s ever relied on Cole’s Notes to get them through an English examination knows to their cost, reading the summary of a novel is no substitute for reading the novel itself. And while Twitter’s 140-character limitation enforces simple political messages, it can just as easily make a politician sound simple-minded.

I suspect the reason so many people turn away from modern politicians has a lot to do with their almost total reliance on the news media to convey their party’s political messages. This dependency on cash-strapped and understaffed newspapers and networks makes it virtually impossible to say anything requiring a generous allocation of either time or column-centimetres. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it doesn’t make for a very well-informed electorate.

Nor is it a substitute for the sort of face-to-face connection that makes close personal relationships so indispensable to our happiness. Catching brief glimpses of our politicians on the six o’clock news, or reading occasional snippets of policy in the morning papers, is no more satisfying than receiving e-mail or text-messages from an absent spouse. All that’s conveyed, emotionally, is the reality of our separation.

If, as Aristotle insisted, Man is a "political animal", the solution to energising the electorate is not to be found in the techniques of marketing. Political parties cannot be "re-branded" or "re-framed" into popularity. In politics – as in music – nothing beats the live performance.

It is only in the political meeting that the innate human desire to participate in the articulation and reaffirmation of social and cultural meaning can take place. Only in the visceral connection between the person on the stage and the people on the floor are lasting political allegiances forged.

The printed word cannot adequately convey this relationship, and even live radio and television broadcasts carry but a little of its extraordinary power. Indeed, the only reliable vessel for its communication is the eye-witness. It is in the face-to-face report, the passionate personal endorsement, that the seeds of conviction take root and grow. As any advertising guru will tell you: "Nothing beats word-of-mouth."

Rob Muldoon understood this, and so did Bob Jones. David Lange’s soaring rhetoric charmed even his enemies. Helen Clark and John Key, by no means great orators, nevertheless understood the critical importance of putting themselves in front of flesh-and-blood human-beings; making the all-important connections; and then allowing their converts to spread the word.

In this election year, however, it will be Winston Peters who makes the best use of the political meeting. His below-the-radar rallies already attract hundreds. By November he’ll be addressing thousands.

Pundits shake their heads at NZ First’s rising popularity – but they simply don’t understand the magic that’s unleashed when the electorate’s inchoate yearnings become emotionally connected to a politician capable of giving them voice.

At such moments – news media or no news media – it’s showtime!

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 January 2011.


Anonymous said...

And he will go with National

chris73 said...

Just wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions

Gut feeling, do you think WP will win an electorate seat or hit 5% and if so what will this mean for the next govt?

Anonymous said...

too much nonsense for too long at too big a scale. System is coming apart, not the capitalist system - the real system. And it's happening world wide, and no one can do anything about it.
It's at the level that the climate is now involved in rejecting the system, annual record breaking cold winter after record breaking cold winter. There will be much bigger concessions made than a Winston Peter's in New Zealand as time goes on & it won't change the underlying shift. Greenisms in society will be the first big bye bye & that shows under the surface including whatever can be manufactured in the short term, the extent that this entire system & mode is at the coda of its days.

David said...

Coverage of politics has shrunk in line with diversity of the parties. Not a lot changed under Helen and little has changed under Key, the free market and individual choice won the debate. Socialism is now confined to the USA and Venezuela.
The petty arguments that politicians have are of very little interest to your average punter. Take the 90 day law that has labour pollies trying to curry favour with their union bosses.I like my boss he is not a bad joker and if he employed some idiot who was a slacker and disrupts our workplace I would want him fired and someone decent put in his place. Its not the boss that suffers its us, conversely I have an 18 year old son who is just about priced out of the market but needs a benevolent boss who will take a risk and put the effort in. Thanks to the 90 day law he is working (on probation).

Anonymous said...

Chris, keep an eye out for New Zealand First's growing usage of digital technologies and online media. They've already set up at Winston Peters Facebook Page, which is doing quite well (, plus a page for New Zealand First members and stronger supporters (

Anonymous said...

Rob Muldoon understood this, and so did Bob Jones.....the critical importance of putting themselves in front of flesh-and-blood human-beings...

Ae. The Live Gig rules, and it always has. So why has it failed the Left?

Because it relies on Bums on Seats.
And as any impressario knows, the most ample Bums on Seats come from Word of Mouth.
Thus reliant on mouths; literally.

And the Words of Mouths have been mute since the 60s. Till now.

Karl had it sussed when he fingered technology - the "seeds of their own destruction". But he failed to mention the weeds.

Back to Mouths: what's been the biggest leap in communication technology since Karl's day (i.e. the political watershed of the ages)? Ask anyone over 70. Stroll through provincial NZ and natter with our real historians and befuddled chroniclers of social demise.


TV, TV, TV. Bye-bye flicks, clubs, and town hall debate; hooray reading, writing, gossip and imagination. Hello shallow. Mellow mesmerism, owned by the marketeers. Welcome neoliberalism, shiftwork and regression.

And owned too, the political opinion of the crucial, Coro-st watching swinging voter: stroked, poked, tested, sampled, pampered, pandered, provoked, flattered, buttered-up, sucked-up - and ultimately, triennially, delivered the manufactured desires.

From the grainy, amateurish Dancing Cossacks of 1975 to the blitzkreig saturation Winniebango and Smiley-Helen-sans-testosterone vignettes of 08, it's been the reign of the 6 o'clock soundbite and its advertising-dependent creators.

Until now. As those seeds sprout into glorious true technicolour mass media. The second comms coming of the ages: interweb, tweeter, skypeface, yourspace and mytube: the Words of a billion Mouths tapping rapping and chatting through hyperspace daily. The demise of the manipulators at the hands of full, free, flowing information and constant, instant, budget-friendly keyboard-to-kanohi communication.

And thus, most recently and significantly, contra the predictions of pollsters and journalstic bolsters: Mining, Mt Albert, and the nationwide Lenslide; Loughner and the demise of Fox News; the latest Horizon poll; and internal turmoil in Brighter Future heaven to a backdrop of shrill, Keylargo sibilance.

And as you so correctly predict, my dear Chris, coming soon to a town hall near you: "WinnieUtu: revenge of the wronged". Spread the word.


pyGrant said...

"Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it doesn’t make for a very well-informed electorate." - well put Chris!

Anonymous said...

ak has something there - radio and TV, and Tweeting do not make an informed electorate, just a satiated one. Thinking is hard work, and few Kiwis seem to relish it, sadly.

Which is why we face the supposed rise of Winnie, still offering warmed over Keynesian capitalism. Mind you, his nationalism is the only real economic alternative offered right now to the uniform liberal capitalism of ACT, National, Labour, and even the Greens! (Russel Norman saving capitalism from itself - sheesh!)

Pity none of the minor parties see their own self-interest (and ours) in ganging up on Labour and National, and demanding the urgent repeal of the 5% MMP threshold, which would let more diverse parties and views into the political scene...

WAKE UP said...

Right now, America has a President that was effectively elected BY the media.