Tuesday 22 November 2011

Human, All-Too-Human

The Eyes Have It: If "Cuppagate" fails to put an end to the people's trust, John Key will have the general reluctance of human-beings to surrender their most cherished illusions to thank for his re-election.

RIGHT NOW there’s nothing more important than Bradley Ambrose’s recording. Those who lament the salience of “Cuppagate” in the current campaign simply don’t understand the nature of electoral politics. General Elections are a bloodless form of warfare, waged with symbolic weapons. Like it or not, the disputed digital recording of the Key-Banks conversation in Café Urban has become the most potent weapon in the struggle between those who want to keep John Key in office and those who want to remove him.

Team Key need their man to be seen as the victim of a media conspiracy. That’s why they have cast him as the public’s champion, barring the way to the slippery slope down which unethical journalists are preparing to toss the whole nation. That is why he’s had to resist every call to authorise release of the recording. Because if he relented then nobody would be safe. Invoking the memory of Milly Dowler, the Prime Minister’s ranged himself alongside Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant. Like them, he’s standing in front of an out-of-control media juggernaut and crying “Halt!”

The news media cannot quite get its head around Mr Key’s tactics. Most of the time politicians are extremely wary of journalists and their vast audiences. Spin doctors take great care to cultivate the most important media players and do everything they can to ensure that their employer’s messages reach the public without too much in the way of unhelpful journalistic interpretation. But, on those rare occasions when the media sets itself against a beloved leader, a helpless individual and/or a trusted institution, none of this applies. When the media allows its own conduct to become the focus of public attention the result is seldom pretty.

The American networks’ coverage of the police riot outside the Democratic Party Convention in 1968 is the most famous illustration of this phenomenon. News reporters and TV anchors were deeply shocked at the violence meted out, not simply to young anti-war protesters, but to many of the Convention delegates themselves. Images of berserk Chicago cops beating defenceless citizens were broadcast to the nation and the authorities condemned for allowing such violence to take place.

For more than a generation, America’s leading journalists had felt supremely confident they were speaking for the vast majority of decent Americans. But they weren’t. Following these historic news broadcasts, tens-of-thousands of phone calls, telegrams and letters flooded the TV networks. And these messages, far from condemning the Police violence, condemned the journalists for defending the protesters and criticising the authorities.

The US news media’s moral confidence never fully recovered from this experience. Deeply disillusioned, journalists were forced to accept that, far from being automatic defenders of media freedom, most citizens were suspicious of social critics, and resented the space and time news organisations made available to them.

People do not like to receive information which contradicts their most cherished assumptions. The 50 percent of New Zealanders who identify with John Key’s aspirational and anti-political persona do not want to be told that it is nothing more than a carefully constructed mask. They don’t want to know that behind the Prime Minister’s genial and easy-going manner lies a ruthless and unforgiving politician.

The harder the news media pushes for the Key-Banks conversation to be released, the more fearful his supporters become that they will be forced to change their favourable opinion of the Prime Minister. And since that’s something they’re desperately unwilling to do, they’re happily telling the pollsters they support his “principled stand”.

Horizon Research puts the Against Release/For Release split at 53 to 46 – and that may well turn out to be the way the votes are finally distributed between the parties of the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left. Only a handful of political junkies and policy wonks genuinely care about the parties’ policies. Elections are not won or lost on policy. (If they were, then National’s policy on asset sales would already have condemned it to defeat.) Elections, for most people ,boil down to only one question: “Who do you trust?”

Who do you trust to keep your job? Who do you trust to keep your house? Who do you trust to keep you safe? Who do you trust to give your kids a rich and fulfilling life?

Overwhelmingly, and for an unprecedented period of time, New Zealanders have answered those questions with the name of the Prime Minister. That’s why the National Party has put all its eggs into the single basket named “John Key”. It also explains why Mr Key and his party are going to such extraordinary lengths to suppress Mr Ambrose’s recording.

Protecting its contents has been transformed into an act of almost religious fidelity. John Key the people’s saviour must remain inviolate, lest John Key the calculating politician be exposed as human, all-too-human.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 November 2011.


Tiger Mountain said...

False consciousness leading to voting for ‘aspiration’ against ones interests is a factor, ably assisted by an enduring sector of conservative, reactionary, ‘dark’ New Zealanders.

It will be ironic indeed if even sometime down the road apiece Key is dented by a freelancer. A status ever more common for dependent contractors under the likes of the ‘Hobbit Enabling Act”.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

You were going along reasonably well until you used the words 'Horizon Poll.'

worvil said...

Astonishing that the building of Brand Key as the nonchalant BBQer next door has been so successful at a time when his tribe of financial crooks have been vilified for bringing the world to the brink of economic disaster. Well, ackshully, we're over the brink, but don't tell the voters. Gotta love the boredom turning to petulance, the lazy thing he does with his mouth, the nodding head, the dead eyes. I mean gees you don't need to read Allan Pease to work him out do you.

Robert Miles said...

Human, all too human is not how I would judge NZ society. As much of the intelligent in the 21-50 year old age range migrate to Australia, UK or US and much of the rest of the world, NZ has been closing up and becoming a more conservative and angry society ,increasingly repressive and intolerant of the rich and very poor. Worker her is the ultimate badge and social control. Real conditions and suppression in prisons and asylums is increasing out of sight -- but the general attitude of the staff and social workers is to push the inmates into low grade work or out of sight and restrict and stop past rights and pleasures for any dissident or non worker.
The media have a duty to raise the issues of the repressive treatment of inmates and patients and the increasingly militancy of the police and military to take the law and judgement in to their own hands and be subject only to the tribal codes of the initiates and the working men.
The lack of media, academic and political bravery to challenge NZ's likely post election dictatorship of the ordinary man and the fact nobody appears to actually be advocating the structual changes needed.
What is actually requied is a total rejection of the views of th epolitical class and the university academics. Change is impossible without a direct challenge to the weak kneed appeasement and surrender to the views of the dumb, ugly, stupid the federated farmers and the police which is the nature of Bill English and Helen Clark politics.
On the tapes the issue is did Key or his political staff order the remove of mikes at the table and were people so close that their was a high probability the conversation could be gleaned anyway. Where any of the journalists looking thru the class trained in lip reading. Was their a reasonable probabily they would be overheard and an ordinary man hear and interpret. An ordinary man and reasonable should be defined in future law as an intelligent man. That will be the key change in future global law

Jeremy Bowen said...

How will life actually be under John Key? He can't lead us too quickly down the path of destruction or he'll be gone in three years. Changes to our electoral system are the only real worry in the short term as that can be sold as the decision of the majority which isn't an election loser. Taxes won't change I should think. So why is Key in there in the first place? Has he been tapped on the shoulder like some political version of Sonny Bill or is it just a personal desire for a challenge along with a sniff of power? Afterall in his old profession meeting Queens and Presidents would take a lotta luck and a tough climb. Is the answer in the eyes? Is it, 'you wait'? Or, 'this is done and dusted why do I bother with these silly interviews'? Or is it like a train driver on a night train on a bridge in the pitch black feeling an odd shudder from the axles and not being an engineer and not knowing what it was feeling a slow warming of his overalls? Will we ever know?

Anonymous said...

John Key seems to be able to say any old thing, and usually not be challenged. In the TV3 debate, he said Labour had left him with a load of public debt, and would be saddling the country with more, if elected, with interest that would be paid forever.

Labour actually reduced public debt markedly. Key's government has borrowed a record amount this year, over $20 billion, and his Treasury officials admit taking treats from local branches of the merchant banks. What do the media focus on? Phil Goff's memory of projected capital gains tax income of $78 million, based on hypothetical Treasury numbers. So of course the media have a political agenda, and Key is the main beneficiary of it, even with the sideshow of the teapot recording. The National Party's policy is announced and then broadcasted verbatim, even when the actual policies have often already been implemented, but it's no wonder more air time has been spent on tape recording, it's a better spectacle than policy detail.

Anonymous said...

"Who do you trust to keep your job? Who do you trust to keep your house? Who do you trust to keep you safe? Who do you trust to give your kids a rich and fulfilling life?"

This may well be true.

Are voters comparing Key with Goff? Or Cunliffe? Or Jones? Or Parker? Or Little? Or Norman? Or Turei? Or Harawira? Or Peters?

Sure, they might know what they get with Key, they have seen him in the role for three years, but who would they trust of the others, or a combination of the others?
They may prefer to not have to find out.

Victor said...


Your point is only valid if you expect a second term National government (headed by a leader of proven popularity) to behave with the same moderation as a first term administration elected, not on its own perceived merits or policies, but out of boredom and irritation towards its predecessor.

Frankly, I have no such expectation, particularly if National emerges with an overall majority.

Anonymous said...

I am delighted that Winson is back, to really hold the government to account, a decent opposition.
All because of Key, too. How ironic. Winston is loathed by the media and has been utterly ignored by Key.
Winston must be laughing hard today...