How to survive in the political spin cycle

22:34, Jun 01 2012
Shane Jones
INVESTIGATED: Labour list MP Shane Jones.

Alastair Campbell, Britain's ruthless bad-boy of spin-doctoring, has a set formula for surviving a political scandal.

If your minister's woes make the papers for 11 days straight they have to go.

John Banks rode it out. Shane Jones made a half-hearted effort, but lasted barely a week.

"What I think I said," Mr Campbell explained recently, "was if the same story ran for 10 to 12 days, you knew you had a real crisis management issue, not a frenzy."

If you are going to dig your heels in, it is essential to have colleagues on your side. Staunch allies override the natural concern that those in the firing line must be martyrs for the good of the party.

Mr Banks had John Key, who resolutely – almost inexplicably – stood by his coalition partner in the face of Opposition and media attack over the alleged Dotcom donations. Political support often dilutes the controversy by reducing the hoo-ha to partisan backbiting. Belonging to a strong government also helps – Bill Clinton survived Zippergate largely because voters thought he was doing a good job.


The silence from Mr Jones' colleagues over the Yong Ming Yan affair has been deafening. Aside from leader David Shearer's feeble defence of Mr Jones' adherence to process, I've not heard one senior Labour figure stand up for the beleaguered List MP.

Eleven days is actually an agonisingly long time in the attention span of the 24-hour digital media. Every nuance, breath and twist in a scandal now gives the reporter an excuse to update a story, often way out of proportion to the actual significance of the development.

Labour's Darren Hughes clung on for two days of lurid headlines last year.

National Cabinet minister Pansy Wong barely lasted 24 hours when allegations of travel perk abuse surfaced.

ACT's David Garrett got a few days grace because leader Rodney Hide was out of the country. He dragged out the painful affair – but also the inevitable column inches – by first putting himself on leave, then quitting the party and finally, eight days later, exiting Parliament.

Labour's Chris Carter hung around for months to avoid a by-election – but everyone accepted his political career was finished.

Of course the politician in the eye of the storm just wants the coverage to cease. It's tempting to hide, keep schtum, or, in the unforgettable words ofMr Banks "obfuscate".

That, however, flies in the face of another of Mr Campbell's dictums on how to handle a scandal. He advises a full – voluntary – disclosure.

The vacuum created by Mr Banks' silence saw revelations eked out over a period of days, each one more damning than the last. The little the Epsom MP had said – that he barely knew internet mogul Kim Dotcom – was brutally contradicted as the scale of their relationship was laid bare.

It was a painfully slow, artfully constructed, political assault – having Mr Key as a defender saved Mr Banks from it being fatal. Whether he survives long-term of course depends on the outcome of the police investigation.

If new information comes to light, or police decide Mr Banks fell foul of local electoral laws, Mr Key will be tainted by the fall-out. The trouble with his relaxed demeanour is that it can easily be twisted by opponents to say he didn't take the matter seriously enough.

On the other side of the House, Mr Shearer found himself in a conundrum of his own making. After savaging Mr Key for not dumping Mr Banks, he dillydallied over Mr Jones' future.

Mr Jones made things worse by not fronting up. Perhaps he thought he could continue to avoid answering the questions he has dodged since the scandal first broke in 2008.

Two years ago he handled hotel-porngate beautifully: a combination of honesty, self-deprecation and his personal chutzpah took much of the heat out of his rule-breaking. Back then, of course, he was tipped as a leadership contender and had more to lose. Perhaps his heart just isn't in it any more.

There is a timing element to Mr Jones' shift to the back benches. Senior Labour Party figures wisely judged his troubles could prove too much of a distraction to their assault on the Budget. Sacrificing their colleague paid off – Labour's relentless attacks on the paperboy tax and class size reforms have been some of the most damaging the Government has yet faced.

It will also allow the party to resume its onslaught on Mr Banks, who has kept his head down in the last couple of weeks.

It's telling Mr Shearer made the decision to stand him down a few hours after Mr Jones made a personal explanation to caucus. The party learnt valuable lessons from the handling of allegations of corruption against Taito Philip Field, who went on to be jailed. It can no longer afford to be perceived as tolerant of allegations of misconduct.

According to some camps, Mr Jones is furious with Mr Shearer, especially as a court cleared Mr Yan of passport fraud the very next day.

After failing to completely resurrect his standing after the credit card sins, he seems to have lost his political ambition. Until the Bill Liu/Yong Ming Yan saga blew up in court he's been all but invisible, issuing just one press release in February. He may yet quit politics altogether, although he is bent on seeing his name cleared.

Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has folded Mr Jones' regional and Maori economic development roles into his portfolio.

Mr Campbell, who quit as Tony Blair's director of communications in 2003, has since reviewed his decree. When the News of the World phone hacking scandal engulfed former editor and number 10 spin doctor Andy Coulson, he declared: "it depends on the circumstances ... the rule is that there is no rule."

When it comes down to it, how diligent, or popular a politician is with the public and his colleagues and how ferocious the media frenzy gets are not the deciding factors in whether they survive.

Whether they go or not ultimately depends first on whether they broke a rule, and second how serious the breach is – in both cases we must wait to hear the verdict of the police and the auditor-general before we start writing their political obituaries.

The Dominion Post