Quite frankly, New Zealand politicians don’t know how lucky they are.
Last week several of them wasted part of their valedictory speeches lambasting the news media. All had been the authors of their own fall from the political pedestal. Yet they saw fit to paint themselves as victims of journalists – a profession they characterised as lacking in ethics, scruples and plain common decency.
New Zealand media are, in fact, more restrained than their counterparts in countries where tabloid press and tabloid television run roughshod over the personal lives of politicians and have done so for a very long time.
The most common political personal own-goal is the sex scandal. British journalist Matthew Engel wrote an entertaining history of the ‘popular press’ titled Tickle the Public in which he recalled such headlines as TOP TORY ‘ENJOYED’ LESBIAN SEX SHOW and MAJOR’S BOY DID GET A LEG OVER. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post ran a succession of salacious front pages over the sexting antics of Congressman Anthony Weiner including POP GOES THE WEINER and (when he refused to resign) WEINER: I’LL STICK IT OUT. And Italian newspapers had a field day with Silvio Berlusconi’s BUNGA BUNGA parties.
In the vast majority of cases, the politicians had only themselves to blame but even the blameless are not exempt. British Culture Secretary John Whittingdale unwittingly dated a sex worker for six months before becoming a minster and was ‘exposed’ by BBC Newsnight after reports that the story was being offered to tabloid newspapers.
None of the New Zealand MPs who turned on the media last week was exposed to the sort of treatment that might have been meted out in some other media environments. And none was undeserving of the scrutiny under which our media placed her or him. I understand and sympathise over the effect that publicity may have had on them but this does not make the journalism either unethical or unwarranted.
Sarah Dowie, National MP for Invercargill, raged against the media in her valedictory: “when a predator is able to manipulate the media for his agenda and the media is directly party to it, it is the media fraternity that needs to audit themselves as to their ethics and their conscious peddling of sexism and patriarchy.” In an interview with Andrea Vance she accused the media of “slut shaming”.
Dowie had had an affair with rebel MP Jami-Lee Ross. That was their business. What was the legitimate business of the news media was the police investigation that followed her email to Ross (after their relationship broke down) suggesting he should die. The Police determined it did not “reach the threshold of an offence” but that does not invalidate the media enquiries into the circumstances surrounding the matter. A member of Parliament being investigated by Police is a matter of public interest and, in this case, the affair cannot be overlooked. Scrutiny of their relationship was justified on the basis that the state of Ross’ mental health had been raised and Dowie’s judgement in sending the email had been questioned. The Invercargill MP is equally unjustified in suggesting complicity between the media and Ross. The matter was awash with claim and counterclaim and the media were justified in reporting them.
Sacked Workplace Relations minister Iain Lees-Galloway had also had an affair – one that he acknowledged had rightly cost him his place in Cabinet. He did not waste a lot of his valedictory on the media but did accuse them of subjecting him and his family to the “dehumanising trauma of being used for headlines and clickbait”. I’m sorry, but it was Mr Lees-Galloway’s actions that brought about the publicity. The headlines were warranted, and this was one instance where the ‘clickbait’ was driven by the political significance of the story. He went on to say: “Every attack, every thoughtless and uninformed commentary, cuts at the hearts of political families. We at least get to put our case; our families don’t.” I can only imagine his reaction (and that of the public) if media had sought interviews with his wife. Rightly, her privacy should be protected.
Dunedin MP Clare Curran’s decision to stand down had nothing to do with ‘office affairs’. Her fall from grace in the Labour-led Cabinet had been brought about by a failure to disclose a meeting with a potential candidate for the role of Chief Technology Officer. It was the second meeting in a month that raised questions about how she handled her portfolios. The first had been with Radio New Zealand news executive Carol Hirschfeld who subsequently told RNZ CEO Paul Thompson it was a coincidental meeting when it had, in fact, been scheduled. Hirschfeld resigned after Thompson and RNZ chair Richard Griffin misled a select committee in the belief the meeting had been a chance encounter. Thompson’s recent actions over RNZ Concert may have put a blot on his copybook but in the Curran-Hirschfeld matter he and Griffin were innocent parties. They returned to the committee to apologise.
A minister should not put her executives in compromised positions. So it was surprising that, in addition to a shotgun blast at media in general, Curran devoted part of her valedictory to a direct attack on Radio New Zealand: “State-funded media not controlled by but at arm’s length from Governments remains essential so that accurate news analysis and information is provided to citizens to maintain the social contract. The UK has the BBC, Australia the ABC. We have a much smaller entity, RNZ, which I fear has lost its way in holding all media to a higher standard.” She did not elaborate.
She did, however, appear to have a qualified view of political accountability. She told the House: “Politicians and the news media focus on conflict, perceived or real slip-ups, rather than substance and the quality of ideas. The objective is to catch people out and take them down, rather than providing a platform of discussion for and against the best improvements to the lives of New Zealanders. Politicians should be held accountable, but we are not prey.”
Curran lost her place in Cabinet for legitimate reasons and the media were well within their mandate to interrogate the purposes of meetings that were not acknowledged until exposed and about which she failed to give Parliament a satisfactory explanation. She was not ‘prey’. She was a politician being called to account – and we still do not know why she and Hirschfeld met at the Astoria Café.
It is significant that MPs whose actions have led to media scrutiny chose to use their final speeches in Parliament to shoot the messenger.
Contrast those speeches with three other valedictories before Parliament rose.
Nikki Kay, Todd Muller’s short-lived deputy, had the media spotlight long before the debacle over National’s leadership. Her stepbrother was charged with murder and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both were the subject of media attention. However, she chose to simply leave a positive message for journalists: “I think that if New Zealanders knew more about the stories of politicians helping people, our democracy would be much stronger. Recent events are not a true reflection of the calibre of many of the parliamentarians that walk these halls.”
And Amy Adams, who had also been caught up in Muller’s short hold on power, acknowledged the difficulties but without rancour: “ We all as MPs face the same personal challenges and upheavals as the rest of the population, but we quickly learn that we have to put on our public faces no matter what our internal turmoil, and that can take a toll… I’ve received death threats and abuse, and I’ve seen my children have to deal with the relentless negativity and lies that are aimed at us through the media and social media alike. Yet not for a moment do I think it all hasn’t been worth it.”
The most gracious farewell to members of the Press Gallery watching from their elevated rookery came from former National deputy leader Paula Bennett: “To the media: I haven’t always liked it, I have seldom agreed, but I actually respect you and the role you play in our democracy. I hope that continued Budget cuts in your industry don’t mean that you don’t have time to investigate and challenge.”
She and some of her parliamentary colleagues may know the history of “shooting the messenger”. One of the earliest references was in Plutarch’s Lives and related to the Roman general Lucullus’ attempts to bring Armenia within the Roman Empire. When the Armenian king Tigranes the Great received news that the Roman Legion was on his doorstep, he was so annoyed he had the messenger beheaded. After that no-one would bring him information and he sat listening only to those who flattered him, while war raged.