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.