The AM Show-Winston Peters farce raises a more troubling issue

by Jane Clifton / 10 July, 2018

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Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters speaks to media on June 21. Photo/Getty Images

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters speaks to media on June 21. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Winston Peters AM Show

After handing Winston Peters a six-week ban for being late, The AM Show learned that if you fight like a 12-year-old, it's best not pick a scrap with someone who fights like a 13-year-old. Jane Clifton saw a more concerning trend. 

In what other country would this happen? The nation’s leader arrives a few minutes late for a television interview and is banned by the programme for six weeks as a punishment.

Then after audience feedback – along the lines of “What are you? Twelve?!” – the wallahs at Newshub relent and ask the leader back – only to find he has booked himself with another country’s TV show for the next six weeks to punish them. If you’re going to fight like a 12-year-old, best not go up against someone who can fight like a 13-year-old.

Yes, this is low-audience AM up against low-vote leader Winston Peters. A sandpit row. And over nothing. He wasn’t late on purpose – though he has been known to be – but because the Prime Minister’s office mucked up the schedule. Still, for a mainstream media outlet to act in such a puerile and disrespectful fashion to the Acting PM is a troubling sign.

Sure, there was an element of opportunistic shock-jockery (on both sides). AM’s channel, Three, is struggling for audience attention, but what media outlet isn’t these days? It could also be a symptom of the lingering resentment some still have at the election outcome; it was galling enough that 7% Peters kept 44% National out of office in favour of 36% Labour, but now he’s our actual leader.

Watch host Duncan Garner tell off Winston Peters:

It’s just what happens in a country that isn’t big enough for even three degrees of separation, and in which informality is a quasi-religion. Media access to politicians here is free and easy compared with most other countries. Even in Australia, reporters can’t bowl up to ministers in the corridors, let alone bail up the PM the way we do on a daily basis.

It’s no new intimacy. Even before Rob Muldoon, who had his number in the phone book if anyone was brave enough to use it, prime ministers literally walked among us, albeit with varying degrees of air and grace. Media relations were largely respectful until the Muldoon era, but although he tried banning irritants from his press conferences, they were always only a door or two away planning their next affront.

We’ve never had to develop a lobby briefing system like Westminster’s because ours is such a small Parliament. The horse’s mouth is the most efficient source. Unless they’re running scared or sulking, ministers will generally answer a reasonable query. This has got to be healthy and it means that journalists aren’t as awed by the mere fact of office as those in other countries whose contact with the powerful is strictly rationed.

The AM Show crew.

The AM Show crew.

But as our nanas used to say, there’s always one that takes it too far. AM’s strop is in the same category as those awful Benny Hill chases where embattled MPs get pointlessly hounded through airports and down corridors being pelted with snarky questions. It sends MPs a message that they’re justified in pulling up the drawbridge, since the media can’t be trusted to be civil.

By the time you’re a minister, let alone a leader, you can afford to minimise your exposure to media gladiators, and it’s a serious temptation to make yourself a scarce commodity.

Helen Clark shrewdly recognised that her austere carapace needed work, so she greatly broadened her availability, scheduling the first of set weekly interviews with mainstream outlets.

John Key, who would talk to anyone anywhere about anything, took this concept rock’n’roll, including notoriously telling listeners between hip-hop and pop that, yes, he had peed in the shower. He greatly cemented his everyman reach with this garrulous informality.

But need Jacinda Ardern follow suit when she’s back from maternity leave? She already has enviable appeal across most demographics. Business is the big holdout, but it isn’t watching morning TV or glued to talk or pop radio.

Small-change chore

The treatment of her deputy – even discounting his compulsive media-baiting – will be a factor making this new parent rethink these red-eye Monday-morning appointments. Backbench MPs squabble over these comparatively low-audience gigs, but for a senior politician they’re a small-change chore that can become a liability. The hosts are often more shock jocks than journalists, and even those with serious reporting cred tend towards high pugilism. They earn more points for scoring a headline or “gotcha!” than eliciting information.

PMs’ advisers spend hours helping them craft on-message responses, which can be derailed in a trice by a demand to respond to some dopey remark by a backbencher, or give an unprepared take on a sensitive new issue.

Ardern may also be troubled by Opposition leader Simon Bridges’ “pinko/baby” brush with shock-jock radio. He responded in kind to bantering questions, only for his kidding to be taken out of context and made to appear unfairly churlish.

Still, if media-politico relations can tilt too far toward gamesmanship, sometimes it simply can’t be helped. The Government’s failed attempt to exempt Northland’s Te Arai golf course/mansion development doubles as the most irresistible game of bingo. Initially, it was just ministers Shane Jones and David Parker in the gun for seeking to exempt from the new foreign-buyers’ restriction a luxury development involving the Te Uri o Hau and Ngāti Manuhiri iwi and some local and Californian money-bagses. But to invoke The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the random improbability generator has been at work, spitting out fun figures from the deal’s history.

Key lobbied for the exemption, and – big bonus points – Te Arai was where he played golf with Barack Obama. Former Finance Minister Steven Joyce helped with a roading consent; National’s Doug Graham and Labour’s Margaret Wilson processed the original iwi settlements; National Party grandee Sir Graham Latimer helped pioneer it; two former prime ministerial chiefs of staff, Wayne Eagleson and GJ Thompson, have worked on the deal; and – jackpot royal bonus points – Te Arai co-developer John Darby personally entertained the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their Queenstown visit. And just to sweep the board of all Crown and Māori squares, refusal of an exemption could mean a whole new Treaty of Waitangi breach.

Let’s hope this impasse can be resolved before we have to add golf-mad Donald Trump to our burgeoning collect-a-set.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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