What to make of the teapot affair?
As a person with a long-held interest in politics and the political process, I’ve watched the progress of many New Zealand general elections. I have to say that this one has become the most remarkable one of the lot so far.
With the National party as seemingly certain winners just a week ago, the events around the unauthorised recording of what is now dubbed the “teapot tape” conversation between John Key and John Banks, now familiar to every Kiwi with a radio or TV, have unexpectedly changed the whole contest in the most bizarre way.
It seems likely to change the way the votes play out, though not enough for National to lose, but it will have a longer-term impact on the way Kiwis view political manipulation and the use of hierarchical authority.
The event that led to the teapot tape recording was itself only a relatively minor, lightweight one. Key and Banks could have covered those topics in true privacy, without the invited media nearby and somewhere other than a cafe open to the public, and we’d have never known. They almost certainly do have such inter-party strategic political conversations from time to time.
But it’s the reaction of Key to the news that the conversation was heard that is truly remarkable, even unprecedented. And because of that reaction the incident has developed a life of its own, fuelled entirely by the PM and his advisors.
And furthermore, I’m starting to believe that the PM has decided to use it to encourage the diversion of media and voter attention from the real issues and hence starve the opposition parties of air, for short term gain and without too much thought to the longer term effects for the country and Key himself.
There appear to be four types of reactions by voters:
1. Those who couldn’t care less one way or the other about Key, but are annoyed at the media’s continuing interest in the situation, spoiling their TV viewing.
2. Non-political souls who love Key regardless of anything he says and does, and have made up their mind long, long ago based on his smile and charm.
3. Some very intelligent people who really want the National party to win, and are working on strategies to deflect attention from what was said at the Banks-Key meeting and use the media’s interest to advantage.
4. Other intelligent and concerned people who are outraged by most of the events arising out of Key’s initial reaction to turn against the media, and who see the emergence of some aspects of Key’s character that are rather disturbing – probably as disturbing as many felt about the character and influence of Robert Muldoon back in the 1970s and early 80s.
Here’s my list of outrageous and manipulative actions and statements around this affair:
A. The initial inviting of the media scrum for the staged event (endorsing the ACT party candidate John Banks in the Epsom electorate and thereby to take advantage of and, in the eyes of some, manipulate the rules of the MMP voting system) and expecting to manipulate the publicity of the endorsement via a compliant, eager-puppy media. This displays the arrogance of a person who is fully self-assured that he’s running the whole show on behalf of his adoring supporters.
B. Being so stupid (this one I still struggle to believe) as to risk the outcome of the event by talking about anything other than the weather. To assume there were no lip-readers or people with acute hearing through the glass partition or from nearby tables is cockiness at best, and the stupidity of people who think they are untouchable at worst.
To claim since that it was a private meeting was insulting to any thinking person. If you need a private conversation, go somewhere where it’s private; if you want to be seen to be talking beside cameras as close as a metre away, then at least keep it squeaky clean.
C. The inability of Key to come clean from the start, take it on the chin and get on. Or was this a considered strategy to deflect attention from opposition parties’ policy debates? Or a way of getting popularity be attacking the media who many people wish would shut up? Or simply gaining sympathy for the poor old media victim John Key?
D. Calling in the police to chase up evidence of a possible crime is disturbing, especially so when the police then threaten media outlets to keep quiet. Over such a minor thing and in the hurly burly of an election campaign, does this indicate how Key thinks he should maintain authority and control of the debate and the populace in general?
E. Invoking analogies with the News of the World scandal began a series of desperate responses by Key which have since become ever-more insulting to intelligent people. They show him to be rattled and speaking without thinking.
F. For example, invoking the “slippery slide” argument by using an extreme and outrageous example of a youth committing suicide as a result of a secret taping of his/her parents talking. What kind of idiot does he think I am?
G. Assuming the guilt of the cameraman, and slandering him (innocent until proven guilty?) about a “crime” that hasn’t yet even been established, while at the same time claiming he is taking a “principled” stand against such “crimes”. This, along with calling in the police, smacks of a worried man in a position of power using his office to rein in his subjects.
H. Saying that the police have new-found spare time to do the work of investigating this “crime”. What an insult to the busy police force, and to anyone who’s still waiting for police to investigate a real crime such a break-in of their house. Some claim Key was just joking, but looking at his face on camera as he spoke, I doubt it.
I. Risking the sight of police marching through media offices with search warrants and confiscating papers, even ones that are not directly related to the recording. This sounds like a police “fishing” expedition, will make long-term enemies of the media, and looks even more like abuse of Key’s privileged position.
J. Giving Winston Peters (who I cannot stand but acknowledge his political nous) the chance to dare police to arrest him for saying what he has already, thus gaining a huge boost in votes from his core constituency. And by not allowing the conversation to be made public, Key is inviting Peters and others to suggest all sorts of other mischief about what may have been said, even if it wasn’t.
K. Increasing the risk that the Epsom voters, seeing themselves as being thought stupid for going along with the manipulation, will not do as told and vote for National instead. National voters have pride too!
L. And finally, Key is setting up his probable next term of government with an angry New Zealand Herald, and other top media, as enemies. Until now, most have given the appearance of being supportive of Key on balance, but after search warrants and “don’t publish” threats, those days are past.
My main annoyance is seeing and hearing Key and his team talking as if I’m totally stupid. His efforts to defeat the media are insulting to the thinking electorate (except those who are forced to defend him).
What the saga does show is more about Key’s character. I wrote in an earlier blog article that I was becoming increasingly concerned at glimpses of another Key, one who gets nasty when he doesn’t like the questions or challenges from journalists. One whose face reveals a nervous, shifty demeanour when caught out. Apparently he was nicknamed the “smiling assassin” or something like that when he was a money market man. Seeing his refusal to engage with the media now shows continuing attempts to manipulate the media by blaming them. All with a smiling mask on his face.
The teapot incident has shown us even more of this other side to his beaming smile. Clearly in his makeup there is some combination of arrogance, disrespect for the voting public, inability to consider losing, and pig-headedness when things start going wrong.
We may not altogether like the political media, especially those currently hounding on this issue, but media digging for basic facts is a vital if sometimes irritating part of a free democracy. If we say they should just shut up and report what politicians want us to hear, we may as well let them be a compliant tool of the political elite. And that is a slippery slope which we must always be aware of and avoid, no matter who may be embarrassed by being found out.