Sprung! Former NZ First president, Lester Gray, chats with RNZ's Guyon Espiner in the carpark of a Tauranga shopping centre. (Photo supplied anonymously to NZ First and The BFD.)
IT’S CLEAR THAT an important aspect of Jacinda Ardern’s political success is her willingness to seek – and take – advice. This is a much more important quality than people might think. The number of political leaders who neither seek, nor take, advice is distressingly high. Admittedly, a large part of successful leadership is learning to trust one’s own judgement. But, as Socrates so wisely pointed out more than 2,000 years ago: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Asking for advice isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a source of strength.
Sadly, at Jacinda’s right hand sits a man who does not know that he does not know. Winston Peters has climbed very high by trusting his own judgement. As many political observers have noted over the years, he likes to keep his cards very close to his chest. Rather than advisers, Peters relies upon cronies: old mates whom he trusts. Indeed, the only people Peters truly trusts are his oldest and dearest mates. Unfortunately, one does not appear to endear oneself to, or remain a mate of, the NZ First leader by telling him things he doesn’t want to hear. Which is, of course, the explanation for Peters repeated falls from grace.
Take this latest brouhaha concerning Lester Gray being photographed alongside journalist Guyon Espiner in the carpark of a Tauranga shopping centre. If, as Peters insists, the photograph was taken by a NZ First supporter who recognised both the party’s former president and the former television journalist, and was pretty confident the NZ First Party leadership would be interested to learn who was talking to who; then why didn’t he simply release the image to the media immediately? Why arrange for the photograph and its accompanying commentary to be posted on The BFD – a website deemed ideologically radioactive and off-limits by a substantial chunk of the journalistic profession? And why, having agreed to release the information under a fancifully false name, did Peters then admit to MagicTalk Radio’s Peter Williams: “We took those photographs.”?
Had Peters simply released the photograph, which any halfway competent media adviser would have recommended he do in the strongest possible terms, then he would have been well-placed to ask Espiner and his RNZ bosses some very direct questions.
Were they aware that they were in possession of confidential financial and personal information obtained in contravention of the Privacy Act?
Is the way in which this illegally obtained information is being drip-fed to the public inspired by journalistic, or political, considerations?
If the story is being driven forward for political purposes, then on whose behalf?
Questions such as these could have materially influenced the direction and impact of Espiner’s story.
Very similar questions were asked of Nicky Hager by the National Party, when a similar cache of private information, also obtained illegally, became the basis for his 2014 exposé, Dirty Politics. To be fair to Hager, however, he did not drip-feed his material strategically, to carefully selected journalists and media outlets, over many weeks and months, in order to achieve a predetermined political outcome. Instead, he released his story – entire and whole – in book form, and let the public make up its own mind.
Observing Espiner’s body-language on RNZ’s Checkpoint programme, as he was interviewed about Peters’ photograph by his friend and colleague, Lisa Owen, his extreme discomfort and embarrassment was painfully clear. Also obvious, was just how furious the biters were at being bit. Apparently, there is nothing at all wrong with using illegally obtained information, clearly capable of materially influencing the outcome of a general election, when such behaviour is being undertaken in the public interest. But, let the object of the news media’s “investigative journalism” just once display the temerity to show the public exactly how its journalistic sausages are made, and see how explosively the noble Fourth Estate erupts in outrage!
It is most unlikely that the New Zealand news media appreciates just how bitterly the members of NZ First resented the way politicians and journalists conspired to drive Winston Peters and his party out of Parliament in 2008. That bitterness was well merited. Only rarely has such unabashed collaboration been displayed so brazenly. That none of the formal charges against Peters were ever upheld counted for nothing. He had been convicted by “the powerful Privileges Committee” of Parliament – and that was enough. One might equally observe that Donald Trump was acquitted by the unbiased and disinterested United States Senate!
Expressed another way, elements of the New Zealand news media, no more than a handful of journalists, publishers and broadcasters, used its power to effectively disempower the 95,356 New Zealanders – 4.07 percent of registered voters – who supported NZ First in the 2008 General Election. It is most unlikely that John Key’s decision to rule out any coalition with NZ First would have secured that party’s departure from Parliament without the unceasing and vicious journalistic assaults inflicted on Peters – and the Labour-led government – by their no-holds-barred enemies in the House of Representatives and the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Should we really be surprised that the tens-of-thousands of NZ First supporters who remember the events of 2008 might be especially sensitive to what looks like another assault by the “Media Party” in 2020? Is it any wonder that, when a person sympathetic to NZ First looked out the window of a café in Tauranga and saw Lester Gray chatting away amicably to Guyon Espiner, he or she pressed “Record” and captured the scene for posterity?
The great shame, at least from the perspective of NZ First’s electoral base, is that their party’s leader proved to be so ham-fisted in his use of the photographic evidence he was sent. Peters’ obsession with keeping things secret; his over-hasty recourse to denial and/or evasion; has served him and his supporters very ill – not only in this matter, but also in relation to the whole fraught business of political fundraising. To have lost one election by mishandling a donation might be forgiven as an accident. Risking the loss of a second, for the same offence, goes well beyond carelessness.
Presented with a similar evidential gift, Jacinda would have been wise enough to ask for professional advice. What’s more, she would’ve been smart enough to take it.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 February 2020.