It was vintage Winston Peters – a class act that took my mind back through countless encounters with journalists asking questions he did not want to answer.
The 78-year-old with seemingly several centuries of political experience did to Jack Tame on 1News’ Q&A last weekend what he did to the same interviewer on the same programme three years ago: He answered questions with umbrage. At least this time he didn’t repeatedly call him James.
Tame was trying to get Peters to admit his New Zealand First Party had not costed its policies. He tried to pin down Peters on the cost of a dedicated gang prison and seemed to believe it would be a new prison rather than the re-allocation of existing spaces between institutions. After a verbal pas-de-deux he was told: “Look, I’m not going to have a fiscal argument with you when you don’t know what you’re talking about”.
The interviewer moved to a policy on funding the elderly in residential care and after repeated questioning on cost was told: “Can I just tell TV1: You’re a taxpayer-owned operation. The taxpayer is entitled to a proper interview here, not you thinking you’ll do what you did last time…I’ll answer your question if you’ll just shut up for five seconds.” Neither did, but Peters went on to say the party’s imminent manifesto would explain the policy “but, of course, you couldn’t wait for that.” The manifesto was due to be published later that day. It wasn’t, and the following day Peters announced he had delayed publication until after Wednesday’s official cash rate announcement.
Then to co-governance and a complex exchange about Peters’ past knowledge of government policy and a report which he claimed had been withheld from him. A sample of his personal slights aimed at Tame: “Don’t show your inexperience”, “Jack, I know you’re desperate but you’re not going to stop this surge in our campaign with lies and deceit”, “you’re a waste of taxpayers’ money”. On party funding: “This is amazing. Jack, take your dirt and go somewhere else.”
He accused Tame of being “corrupt”, suggesting his “masters” were “trying to get rid of New Zealand First”.
And so it went on, culminating in a final salvo at the host: “People are going to say ‘Winston, why did you bother coming today’. Democracy is about hearing both sides of the story, not hearing arrogant, jumped-up, overpaid [journalists] who think they know more about this country…you just made a case here for us to get the broadcasting portfolio after the election.”
He was asked if that was a threat: “No, it’s not a threat. It’s a promise that you’re going to have an operation that is much more improved on what it is now.”
And, with a winning smile, he was gone.
Not long after, a story appeared on the 1News website headlined ‘Winston Peters attacks TVNZ, says he wants broadcasting portfolio’. The story ended with a scowling quote from a TVNZ spokesperson: “TVNZ’s editorial independence is protected by legislation and Q+A operates without fear or favour. We challenge individuals across the political spectrum every week. It’s an election period and Jack was doing his job this morning. Our journalists ask prospective MPs tough questions so voters can decide who will best represent them in the next government. That’s the role of the fourth estate.”
It was clear from Tame’s questioning that he and his producer had some preconceived views on New Zealand First and its leader. Peters may have found that frustrating and certainly felt some of those perceptions were wrong. Nonetheless, most of Tame’s questions were legitimate enquiries. However, it was vintage Peters to respond with personal attacks.
The way in which he plays out an interview is well calculated. Everything from his choice of words to his expressions and body language are carefully modulated, even though they appear spontaneous. They draw on a full playbook of emotional responses from injustice, pain and frustration to ridicule, derision and revenge.
Winston Peters has been in the political game so long he is skilled at quick thinking. And anyone who thinks that skill has been dimmed by age is wrong. However, this time it appears his tactic was part of a wider strategy and the intent, if not the substance, may have been there before the studio lights were switched on.
A week ago a media release appeared on the NZ First website headed ‘Caution RNZ – Your Bilious Bias Is Showing’. It referred to a Morning Report interview by Corin Dann in which he asked Green Party co-leader James Shaw whether he would look at an arrangement with the National Party to keep Peters’ party out of power. The release fulminated: “Such a line of questioning can have no legitimate broadcasting purpose, but [is] an attempt to stop a political party entering government and to hold a corrupt bribed RNZ accountable.”
Two days later, following the TV3 Leaders’ Debate, a further release targeted Stuff’s chief political correspondent Tova O’Brien and suggested some sort of collusion with the Labour Party. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we first set out to deceive,” it said. “and politicians and media are clearly involved in this too.”
Peters knows his railing against the media will not coerce journalists or bring them to heel. That is not his purpose, any more than he has a genuine desire to hold the Broadcasting portfolio in any coalition. He knows that, in a climate in which the very survival of mainstream media is not guaranteed, it is a chalice from which he would prefer not to sip. And he has his sights set higher – for the good of the country, you understand, and not the ‘baubles of office’.
No, his attacks on the media are – and always have been – a form of political theatre that exploits the cognitive bias of a disaffected constituency. Traditional holders of power – National, Labour, Big Business, and the mainstream media – are ready-made targets whose malicious intent is a given. Importantly, their obvious malice is ‘proof’ that they are out to get New Zealand First and its leader. There is nothing like a healthy dose of paranoia to get the blood coursing through the veins of a malcontent.
Attacks on the media are in a binary relationship with Peters’ stock phrase “the reality is…”. When reporters call into question this ‘reality’, they challenge the world view that has been created for his constituency. The remedy is to attack the validity of the enquiry.
It is an old political ploy but the provenance of the ‘best defence is offence’ adage shows it requires a measure of ruthlessness. In a speech to the British House of Commons in 1932, Stanley Baldwin said: “The only defence is in offence, which means you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourself”.
Peters had little concern for casualties within Q&A or TVNZ. Nor was he in the least concerned about the effect he might have had on trust in both the media and legitimate forms of journalistic enquiry. Indeed, the opposite appeared to be the case. His tactics were calculated to play to his constituency…and beyond it. It is a sad fact that a sizeable section of the community have little regard for the media or for the journalists whose job it is to hold the powerful – and those who would seek it – to account.
The media reaction was predictably negative and broadcasting minister Willie Jackson used the opportunity to take a shot at the New Zealand First leader. However, his criticism was breathtakingly disingenuous: He, too, threatened Jack Tame and TVNZ by innuendo on Q&A last year.
In any case, no amount of critical reaction will persuade the anti-media brigade and Peters’ followers that he gave anything other than a bravura performance.