Thursday 3 February 2011

Will Key's Courage Provoke Media Bias?

Masterful Performance: If Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he's a very slow learner. The danger now is that the mainstream media will start treating the 2011 election not as a contest - but a coronation.

JOHN KEY’S COURAGE over the past ten days has been extraordinary. Not only did he utter the deplorable word "privatisation", but he also gave us ten months advance notice of the General Election’s precise date. Having surrendered one political advantage the Prime Minister then went on to give away another. By reaffirming his 2008 determination not to enter into a post-election coalition deal with Winston Peters, Key has given New Zealand fair warning that if he cannot win the election on his own terms – he’d rather not win it at all.

If, after this performance, Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he’s a very slow learner. It takes courage. It takes clarity of purpose. And, it takes the ability to speak forthrightly to the electorate. When a reporter asked the Prime Minister what would happen after the Election if Peters ends up holding the balance-of-power, Key replied, simply: "If Winston Peters holds the balance of power it will be a Phil Goff-led Labour government."

It’s this rare ability (in a politician) to give a simple, straightforward answer to a simple, straightforward question that endears Key to friend and foe alike. We are reassured that he’s speaking without mental reservation – hiding nothing. Voters cannot but respond positively to such frankness – so very different from the usual circumlocutory political prattle. The result is paradoxical: by demonstrating his consummate political skills, the Prime Minister convinces us that he isn’t really a "politician" at all. "As some of you have noted", he told journalists, "I’m a different politician to a lot of politicians". Indeed.

It takes a very different sort of politician to hide his intentions in plain sight. Only now, in the light cast by the events of the past ten days, has Key’s strategic plan been revealed to us.

Stage One involved persuading New Zealanders that they were dealing with a very different sort of National Party leader – one they could trust. Everything Key has done since deposing Dr Don Brash in 2006 has been directed towards this end, and he has succeeded brilliantly.

Stage Two requires Key to parlay the trust he has so assiduously cultivated into majority support for a radical manifesto of economic and social change. (This is where we are now.)

Stage Three, to be attempted only after securing an unequivocal democratic mandate, is to implement the promised changes as swiftly and as comprehensively as possible.

Essentially, Key’s strategy is the same as the strategy adopted by the Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, from the moment he succeeded the formidable (but rather frightening) Harry Holland in 1932. Most New Zealanders don’t realise that the election which cemented-in Labour’s policies took place not in 1935, but three years later, in 1938. That was the election in which Labour secured the most emphatic electoral mandate in New Zealand’s history – 55 percent of the popular vote. It was a victory built on faith and trust. Key is hoping to repeat Mickey Savage’s triumph.

And, unless I’m very much mistaken, he will be assisted at every turn by a news media which long ago gave away any idea of "monitoring the centres of power" or – God forbid! – holding them to account. Absent also (except among a handful of worthy journalistic veterans) is any conception of the Habermassian "public sphere". The idea that the media’s role is to facilitate a democratic discourse strong enough to interrogate and clarify the political choices on offer finds few, if any, advocates in the upper reaches of the so-called "mainstream media".

Carrying much more weight among news editors and producers is the plebiscitary principle inherent in big media’s reliance on opinion polls. Journalists are increasingly aligning themselves with what their newspaper’s and network’s pollsters tell them is the majority viewpoint. Critical examination of the majority’s claims is strongly discouraged, and media bosses only rarely sanction the presentation of a minority report (unless, of course, such reporting serves the interests of a major advertiser).

With all their polls showing Key well in front of his challengers, the mainstream media’s response will almost certainly be to present the Prime Minister’s political discourse as its own. This was certainly true of Morning Report’s coverage of the Prime Minister’s decision to once again rule out Winston Peters as a potential coalition partner. Radio NZ’s parliamentary reporter, Julian Robbins, was scathing in his dismissal of Peters’ electoral chances. NZ First, he assured us, had just become "irrelevant". Excluded from the Prime Minister’s coalition options, Peters would struggle to gain media attention, opined Robbins.

This was extraordinary stuff – especially since Key himself had already made it clear that if NZ First crossed the 5 percent threshold there was every chance he would be forced from office. The real story is that Peters and NZ First's share of the Party Vote will have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the 2011 election - only becoming "irrelevant" if journalists (especially those working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery) decide to make them so. And if that is their decision, what possible claim can they – or their employers – make to either fairness or balance in their election coverage?

Goff and the Labour Party should protest loudly against this sort of treatment being handed out to any political party – no matter how detested by right-wing politicians and voters. If elements of the news media allow themselves to be used – as they were in 2008 – to do the National Party’s and Act’s dirty-work, then it won’t only be NZ First that finds itself in the cross-hairs of an aggressively partisan media pack, but Labour and the Greens as well.


Philoff said...

You and Lew agree, now I am truly terrified ;)

The only way for Labour to win with Goff is to run a campaign that completely contrasts with Key's (and it will be all about Key) and go for substance over style. Make it all about policy and real world affects.

If Goff would only stand up and say, "I was there in the Douglas years and I made a bunch of mistakes because those policies hurt our people - here are some that will actually help them".

Either that, or the electorate will decide that Key's bid for an absolute majority is arrogant. Sadly, though, I don't think that will happen.

WAKE UP said...

Key's refusal to relate to Peters post-election, signalled this far ahead, may be the first serious error of judgement he's made in an otherwise Teflon-coated career. Bad move; watch that space.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Good God, man, Did you say cross hairs?


Where the hell have you been?

So far we've had the silly walk and the silly hair.

With a new front bench of old farts, it must be only a matter time before Goff covers his hair in that spiky gel shit so beloved of illiterate teenagers and get's himself a full arm length tattoo.

You say:-

"especially since Key himself had already made it clear that if NZ First crossed the 5 percent threshold there was every chance he would be forced from office. The real story is that Peters and NZ First's share of the Party Vote will have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the 2011 election"

First I don't think Mr key has said any such thing. You've made that bit up.

Second,you're flat out wrong on Peters' share of the vote. Pray tell how do you expect a tired, bullshitter with no money, no mates and no credibility to last for ten months during a campaign? Any votes he wins will not come from National or ACT Even the dumbest right wing shouters, all twenty three of them, are not that stupid.

Tiger Mountain said...

Surely the word “more” is missing from the post title after “provoke”?

Quick comment: The election campaign officially began yesterday. Tory supporters and their trusts are likely to ‘splash the cash’ liberally for a few months now on all manner of populist and wedge issue media campaigns. Plus the erroneous (in a recession) yet likely powerful beneficiary bashing has yet to begin. It will soon when Paula Rebstock’s cancerous little group officially reports back.

Whatever parliamentary Labour’s effectiveness as an opposition, 2011 remains a pivotal election. So you do what you do best. Go to the people and get them to bloody vote. It is hard work. It requires straight talking and organisation. Exhibit A: the super city election.

I concur on the media though Chris, Stuff had a lovely wee video today asking mainly pakeha/Euro women (blond bobs predominated) and some coffee sipping men, in comfy suburbs, who was ‘hottest’ John or Phil.
It shows what people are up against this year from the privately owned media, not to mention TVNZ. How long will non brown noser Corin Dann (Breakfast TV) keep his position one might ask, and all he does is ask what would once have been considered middle of the road questions.

Madison said...

Well Chris, while I agree that there's been a definite push towards John Key over the last while I think in several of the articles I've read the bias is explained by this post and your previous ODT article. The gauntlet has been thrown to Goff numerous times over the past three years and for the most part he's done nothing but side-step it.

While the media is pushing John Key as someone different it's hard to do much when Goff seems to do everything to corner himself as an old style politician of double-talk. When he took over Labour's leadership he stated right away that Labour got away from listening to the people, and then has consistently failed to learn from what he said. The people have responded (for better or worse) to Key's style and Goff remains a simple reactionary and refuses to stand out as Key does. He hems and haws and then drifts back away.

While I do wish there was a more even spread to the news, one of the reasons I read this blog, I can't fault the media for following Key. He is clear, succinct and has far more held the party to the promises they made whether it has been a benefit or a harm to their image. While Goff hasn't been in power to have exactly the same chances he also hasn't responded powerfully when his few chances appeared. He responded like a career politician worried about upsetting the apple cart. Until this changes we have about as much chance of even reporting as we do of the US winning the RWC. Zilch. They will avoid him simply because they 'think' he's boring and this will color any and all commentary we see.

rouppe said...


I seem to recall that Labour had a pretty generous media representation during a large part of their government tenure.

Now while some of that could be attributed to the uninspired leadership of National over that time, could not the same be said of Labour at the moment?

Unknown said...

Interesting comments Chris. On behalf of my namesake can I say that any comparison of Key to Savage is way off mark, one of them built a christian ethos into NZ society, the other wants to build a pure capitalist dog eat dog ethos into NZ society and the two models are diametrically opposed.

Much has been made of the "bravery" of Keu to do two things, announce the election date so early and to rule out coalition with Peters.

Dealing with the second point, Peters would rather eat sharpened razorblades than go into coalition with National following his treatment in 2008. There is nothing less remote than a National NZ First coalition and Key is conceding nothing,

In relation to election day it appears to be unusual to announce it so soon but I always wondered if there was any benefit in holding this information back. By Key announcing that it will be so far away he is not conceding anything. Let us be frank here, National's coffers are brimming with dollars, Labour is still struggling to get its finances in order. Key's announcement means that National can spend oodles of money over the next 6 months. Labour can only watch.

Key also gets to claim some sort of position of moral authority. He wins in so many ways.

It all seems so cynical. I just wish that I could read this sort of analysis in the MSM.

SPC said...

He's following the path of Helen Clark - her first term delivered on the manifesto promises.

One might say she was required to do so during the winter of discontent in 2000 - when the media effectively tried to block implementation of manifeto policy, but in the end accepted her operating within the limitation of the Labour Party manifesto (effectively constraining Alliance Party influence).

But she did go into the 2002 election having established trust in her leadership as a result. That is why Key made promises and has kept them on Super and WFF and student loans - as Bill English has noted this gave reassurance to many voters while also allowing the government to make changes in other areas (GST led tax change etc).

Of course the Key government has a more radical second term agenda than her's (her radical policies - WFF, interest free loans - were part of the third term mandate). But the point, in establishing a reputation for trustworthy openness, is that all the other issues not covered this year (with the debate about asset sales and the like), allow the government a free hand in their second term in all the other areas.

sagenz said...

What is scarier than your agreement with Lew is your agreement with me.

I commented on Lew's post yesterday that Key wants to win a mandate on his own terms for the policies he will promote over the coming months or not win at all.

Your additional analysis of the media reaction is indeed plausible, but why expect them to invent a plausible alternative narrative when Labour is incapable of doing that?

Sanctuary said...

If you want an example of this (unconscious?) bias, our state owned news channel thought the latest unemployment figures so unsexy, so un-noteworthy, so potentially damaging to the cult of personality built around John Key, that they were buried “under the fold” after the first advertising break.

Unemployment affects 158,000 New Zealanders every hour of every day of every week of every month. – The unemployed live here, they are the fellow citizens of Guyon and Simon and Wendy for Gods sake – yet it is rated as a less important story than a non-fatal cyclone in Australia, the sentencing of a man for a months old murder, a minor re-shuffle in the opposition, or even an update on a cricket match, and about as important as John Key mincing about like a half-wit at a fashion parade.

TVNZ at least now has no idea what constitutes the news anymore. They've given up. they don't even care anymore. The cult of personality, celebrity gossip, and sensationalist weather/crime/sport is all they seem to know or understand.

Sanctuary said...

@mickysavage - I also think comparing Key to Savage grossly insulting to Savage. This is because Savage unashamedly sought power to exercise it for good. He sought to do this only to better the lives of his fellow men.

John Key is a political dilettante of the global elite, who actions show us he seeks at every opportunity to exercise power without responsibility and who sees public office as an exercise primarily in the gratification of his own ego.

Not for John Key the long struggle for the treasury benches undertaken by the likes of Savage, Lee or Fraser with it's reverses and halts, the slow, determined march towards the goal with an unwavering faith in democracy. There commitment stands in utter contrast to Key, who is uninterested in public service (he will quit politics if he is not prime minister on November 27th 2011 or if Winston peters is in the frame) and is only prepared to rule us on his own terms.

Savage was a humble public servant who sought office to make the world a more perfect place for his fellow men. John Key is a courtier of the global elite, and a lowly one at that.

Victor said...

To my mind, Key has shown all the courage of a performing seal, jumping through hoops at his trainer's behest, to the unthinking applause of a circus audience that expects nothing less.

A courageous leader would not have sat and smirked through Paul Henry's racist ramblings and would not now be turning up weekly for a breezy little blokes' chat with a man who beat up his former girlfriend.

Call me old fashioned, but I don't think those are the things that 'real men' do.

Chris Trotter said...

Courage is often associated with virtue - but not always. It is entirely possible to be a bold villain.

It is also important, Mickey Savage and Sanctuary, to be capable of intellectually separating one's political ethics from others' political praxis.

Of course the real Mickey Savage is readily distinguishable from John Key - in terms of the aims and objectives he and his party were pursuing - but I wasn't discussing that.

I was discussing the way in which Savage and the First Labour Government conducted themselves, politically, in order to win a second term.

It's important to keep in mind that, in 1938, when 55 percent of New Zealanders thought voting Labour was the best means of securing a better future, there was another 45 percent who saw the Labour Government as a bunch of ravening socialists - hell-bent on destroying everything they held dear.

Morality plays a central role in the individual's experience of politics, but that doesn't mean there isn't also a need for cool-headed - even cold-hearted - political analysis.

Anonymous said...

Are you implying Chris, that Key is a villian? How come Kiwis can't see through him, are we that blinded by love?

Are we this dumbed down?

Victor said...


Wherein lies the boldness?

The Right has been urging Key to "do something" for the last couple of years.

He has to come up with something more ideologically rigorous than the cycle path or eventually lose the support of a large wedge of National voters, newspaper pundits and (more importantly) boardroom supporters.

Nor is there anything particularly bold about saying that he won't do a deal with Peters. Again, he's only said what his core supporters expect him to say.

Anonymous 3:51 PM

I'll leave it to Chris to answer your first question but the answers to your second two questions are "Yes" and "Yes".

Unknown said...

Helen Clark's Labour Government had the best part of nine years support from a predominantly left biased media. John Key has yet to deliver on anything that remotely resembles a conservative political platform, and as you rightly point out, he is affable, direct and likable. Why wouldn't the media be happy with both his politics and his persona.

WFF is untouched, Welfare in general remains untouched, State expenditure continues to climb, faster than inflation, we borrow $300M a week to fund services and lifestyles we can no longer afford. What's for the left not to like about John Key?

Surely he is doing tax payer extravagance and socialism as well as Labour?

Victor said...

In his own weird way, Brendan has just exemplified my point.

Key needs to display 'boldness' to please his core constituencies on the Right. But, because he's doing what they want, it's not really bold at all.

In fact, his only real boldness lies in not giving them the ACT-style, 'red in tooth and claw' neo-liberalism they seek. But that will probably happen in time.

Marty said...

John Key has had most of NZ's media grovelling at his feet, playing Mr Smiley Smile whilst Gerry Brownlie, Nick Smith, Bill English, Anne Tolley, etc. quietly go about their business pushing the righ-wing agendas that they have always been dying to do - but up until now have been too chicken. The NZ media are so fascinated by style that they have overlooked the distinct lack of substance here.

Unknown said...


I really laugh when RWNJs say the media was biased to the left. To you and everyone else who has said this please provide empirical evidence and proper analysis.

Otherwise we get into an "it is, it isn't, it is, it isn't ..." debate.

I am also certain after heavily sampling the MSM for the past decade that the only bias is towards the right.

Unknown said...

In response to Mickysavage who reasonably asks for evidence to support my statement of a 'predominantly left wing bias' in our media, I suggest he consider the following:

But, first, It is difficult for us to objectively realize how socialized and left leaning our general political environment is here in NZ as we are totally immersed in out culture. However, when you consider that in the USA, most members of the Democratic party would be to the right of our National party on almost every issue, then it helps to put our situation into perspective.

but more to the point...

Almost all children in New Zealand are educated by State funded employees, via a State designed curriculum which in turn was developed by State funded employees, and then delivered in a highly unionized environment.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine the underlying world view bias that exists both in the curriculum and its delivery.

My daughter was trained as a teacher in (yes you guessed it) a State funded teacher training institution by (yes you got it again) State funded employees whose politics was way to the left of the general NZ population, if we are to judge it by both the courseware and the left wing bias that was delivered daily in lectures.

Graduates from these State funded schools then go on to University to be further educated by (yes you guessed it) State funded academics who by and large, are products of 1970's Marxist thinking.

By the time Journalists have completed their Post grad degrees and enter the workforce, they have spent the last 20 years of their lives being taught and shaped by State funded employees who are steeped either consciously or unconsciously in Marxist thinking. They have had to write essays that reflect the 'perceived wisdom' of their teachers and lecturers their whole lives.

They then go on to be employed in poorly paid journalism jobs, feeling under paid, and under valued by society.

Out of this environment do you expect anything other than a 'predominantly left wing bias'?

Randominanity said...

Y'know it is kind of funny how these accusations of political bias get flung about.

Under the last Labour Government I remember there being a lot of criticism of there being a left wing bias in the media.

Now under a National led Government there are those who believe it's going the other way.

Personally I like to look at the people who are making the accusation. Quite often, but not always, they are people of very set political views who take umbrage at that which conflicts with their world view.

Also the other factor meany people ignmore is that Governments tend to get more coverage than oppositions. They are, after all, the one's making the changes. Therefore righties get miffed under a Labour Government because the Government's actions are getting a lot of attention. Under a National Government the opposite applies.

And as for the claim that the press gallery has made Key's discourse its own. I do recall hearing an piece on ZB last Friday where they opined the PM's position on NZF and the election gave clear certainty to both NZF and Labour about what they had to do to win. Something that could work to their advantage given the NZF situation is not what it was in 2008 (ie Peters hasn't had 18 months of bad headlines)

Victor said...


I think you are mistaken.

News coverage on much of New Zealand's media is biased against Labour both in and out of government.

As someone who has worked in and consumed media in a number of other western countries, I am often amazed at the extent of the bias found here.

No doubt much of the bias is unconscious and merely reflects the collective bias of the establishment.

However, it's hard to escape the impression that TVNZ, which is probably the country's most important news medium, consciously uses its enormous power against Labour and seeks to determine electoral outcomes.

Of course, it helps that Labour is congenitally maladroit when it comes to the black arts of media management and blithely and arrogantly averse to compromise with bland, wart-less modernity (think Helen Clark's lack of investment in cosmetic dentistry).

And it also helped that, in the run up to the 2008 election, the party was conjoined with an ally who revelled in truculent aggression towards the media.

The bias is apparent in choice and prominence of stories, in the lead-in lines used to characterise stories, in the choice of camera angles and in the cutting and editing of material.

The bias occurs so often and so consistently that it's just unrealistic to view it as inadvert.

I would, however, agree with you that there was a brief window of pro-Labour media bias when the Clark government was first elected.

I suspect that this was the work of the temporary prominence of a bunch of baby boomer feminist journalists and pundits, who saw Clark as an exemplar. The mood didn't last long.


I always enjoy your rants and love the way you refused to be prejudiced by any knowledge of the facts.

Here, however, are a few facts for you to consider:

Firstly, most American kids go to publicly funded schools.

Secondly, many US teachers are union members and quite a few of them (100% of those whom I know personally) are Liberal Democrats.

Thirdly, US university faculties are renowned for their 'liberal' rigidities.

So, if we accept your characterisation of New Zealand society as wholly and drastically to the left of the US, you might have to look at some explanation other than the two countries' education systems.

Chris Trotter said...

Your knowledge of the NZ media is very impressive, Victor.

There were, indeed, a small number of strategically-placed Baby-Boom generation women in the New Zealand media at the turn of the Millennium who, collectively, made a huge difference to the quality of local journalism.

There was Trish Carter, Melanie Jones and Maryanne Ahern (to name but three) at TVNZ. Kim Hill and Lynda Clark at Radio New Zealand. Cate Brett and Donna Chisholm at the Sunday Star-Times. And Nicola Legat at Metro.

Both Trish Carter (who later helped Al Jazeera set up its Asian section) and Melanie Jones did not survive the appointment of Bill Ralston as TVNZ's Head of News & Current Affairs. (Ralston's summary and apparently unjustifiable dismissal of Jones is rumoured to have cost the network tens-of-thousands of dollars.)

The superbly ascerbic Hill was shunted out of current-affairs and into the much less risky Saturday-morning "arts & letters" slot. Clark departed for kids, university and PR - and was replaced by the deeply conservative Kathryn Ryan.

By the middle of the decade, Legat had exchanged Metro for a more rewarding publishing career at Random House. In late-2008 Brett, reading the writing on the recessionary wall, decamped for the Law Commission.

With the exception of Metro, where the admirably media-savvy Simon Wilson now reigns, the men and women who replaced these excellent women journalists, editors and producers have yet to match the impressive contribution of their predecessors.

Randominanity said...

@ victor

if TVNZ is anti-Labour. Why is one of its former political reporters now the MP for Mana, and another the current chief press secretary for Phil Goff?

Unknown said...


It is indeed a great pleasure to be personally denigrated by you. :-)

My point in introducing the comparison with America, was to demonstrate how 'left of centre' our culture is generally when compared to the last Western nation that retains any sense of cultural confidence.

While the populations of all other Western nations clamor for their Governments to do more for them, only in America do people march in the streets demanding that the Government does less!

It is this kind of resilient, self-reliant conservatism that still abounds in America, that now is a distant memory in New Zealand. I suspect that this is just one reason why State educators in the USA are generally more conservative than their New Zealand counterparts.

Of course we are shaped by more than just our education, but I think it's relevant when considering the training of journalists and the influence it has on shaping their world view.

Victor said...


Well, why have neither of these two chosen to stay with TV?

Obviously, not everyone at TVNZ is part of the conscious machine of bias. But I'd take some convincing that the key movers and shakers aren't or that a willingness to play the game isn't part of the process of career advancement
for those in key news roles.

No other explanation seems to explain what I see nightly on my TV screen. And I'm far from being a left wing zealot.


Is it not also the case that the stalwart individualists, whose preponderance in the United States you so admire, tend to think of most of their own country's media as dangerously 'liberal', 'elitist' and even 'socialistic'?

Madison said...

Hey Brendan, Having been educated by these teachers (vast majority in my area were Unionised) in the US I can say that there was no heavy leanings for the group. They crossed most political backgrounds and I can say that for every ultra-leftist teacher I had (including the one who didn't teach for a day while I was in primary and instead lectured us on the evils of government and why only Union people could ever be trusted) there were at least 2 moderates and usually 1 conservative.

Just because you're state funded and have joined the Union for a better deal doesn't mean you sell out all of your political ideals. There are also plenty of educators out there who can reach our young people without constantly pouring in one political bias or another, even here in NZ.

Oh yeah, just because people are marching in the streets doesn't mean they are correct or even well informed on the issue. I'm no serious leftist but the US government is notoriously stingy on helping people and the people who need help are usually far too busy working two jobs to make ends meet to take time out to protest.