Hissy fit at media just doing its job

TRACY WATKINS - POLITICAL WEEK
Last updated 13:52 06/04/2013

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OPINION: So a livid John Key has decided it is not fair for anyone to expect him to answer questions on the spot.

Reporters who do and then criticise him for getting it wrong are knuckleheads and the Opposition are all liars anyway, was the substance of Mr Key's "poor me" rant on Radio Live yesterday.

But his hissy fit over the spy boss debacle was also textbook politics: The more you bluster and accuse the media of lies and bias, the more likely the public will tune the media out.

It is also handy for feeding the ninth floor's mounting fixation with managing and controlling the message.

Mr Key's new line is that since the media can't be trusted, he will demand they put their tricky questions in writing.

How handy. No more embarrassing gaffes.

Mr Key and State Services Commission boss Iain Rennie have tried to cast the questions about spy boss Ian Fletcher as an attack on his character and credentials, neither of which is under scrutiny.

It's the straw man tactic which serves two useful purposes. It makes the criticism look personal and grubby. And it diverts attention away from the central issue - which is Mr Key's bizarre deflection of questions about his own involvement.

The way Mr Rennie tells it, there was no reason for Mr Key to be anything other than up front. The prime minister's central role in the decision was all very much business as usual, the commissioner insisted.

That only makes it more inexplicable that it took more than a week to finally tease out all the details of who said what, did what, and when.Murdoch

Has the ninth floor adopted the default "mushroom" position towards the media and the public - as in, keep them in the dark and feed them the proverbial?

Or has National now become so cavalier about its popularity that Mr Key thinks he can wedge the media and the public over any old thing?

As Mr Rennie acknowledged, the head of the Government Communications Security Bureau serves at the pleasure of the prime minister, who must have a high level of trust in the director.

That makes it a very different process to the one in use for most state sector chiefs, who are appointed by the commissioner.

The commissioner can recommend - but the prime minister is the one who decides.

Mr Rennie was comfortable with Mr Key throwing names into the ring.

That was quite normal, he protested. David Parker did the same when Labour was in power - ultimately causing some controversy. And some government ministers - Labour ones, according to Mr Key - had even requested a spot on the interview panel.

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At first glance, it would be easy to lump Mr Rennie in with Mr Key as being guilty of the "drip-feed admission".

In his first response to questions from Fairfax on March 27, Mr Rennie would only say he managed the appointment process on behalf of the prime minister and it was typical of that used for public service chief executives.

It took a week for the full picture to emerge - of a short list that was rejected, candidates being told to prepare themselves for a meeting then suddenly being rejected, and a meeting where Mr Rennie and Mr Key "brainstormed" a few names before the decision was made to shoulder tap Mr Fletcher.

But in Mr Rennie's defence he was responding as someone in his position would. His instinct in any employment matter would be to put the privacy of the individual applicants front and centre.

As he demonstrated with the resignation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone, however, Mr Rennie is also prepared to make a call on the side of public interest when that is required.

He was open about the reasons for Ms Longstone's departure.

It may have taken a few days, but once he realised the direction the Fletcher story was headed, Mr Rennie was just as transparent.

The shifting ground under the prime minister's various explanations is less explainable.

When he was asked if he had had any contact with Mr Fletcher since his school days Mr Key said he could not recall any particular occasions. And when he was later asked what role he played in the appointment, Mr Key responded: "Only that the state services commissioner came to me with the recommendation."

It wasn't just that Mr Key misspoke. He was asked the question in various ways and the basic thrust of his response didn't waver.

You can play the semantic game all you like, but ultimately it boils down to one thing. By any acceptable yardstick, those answers were simply not true.

Mr Key's subsequent explanation, that he forgot, also stretches credulity.

Mr Rennie recites a conversation back in 2009 with Mr Key where the prime minister recommended Mr Fletcher to him as someone who would be worth shoulder tapping.

Mr Key also told him they went to school together.

Mr Rennie seems to have a better recollection of the relationship than Mr Key.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories about why Mr Key was not up front from the start.

But the innocent explanation is more likely. That is that the GCSB appointment loomed particularly large in Mr Key's mind at the time because he wanted a cleanout there.

A report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge - temporarily installed at GCSB after the Kim Dotcom fiasco - is expected to paint a damning picture of a dysfunctional and poorly run organisation.

Mr Rennie alluded to that during a press conference on Thursday. Behind the scenes, fingers are being pointed at former GCSB boss Bruce Ferguson, who has spoken out publicly against Mr Key's involvement in the Fletcher hiring.

Among the rejected applicants are said to be those who had a similar military background.

Clearly something was badly amiss at the spy agency, which bungled the case against Dotcom - whom the United States is seeking to extradite on copyright charges - by spying on him illegally.

Maybe that explains why Mr Key's initial reaction to questions about Mr Fletcher was to be less than up front. Maybe he felt that getting too deep into explanations about why he wanted an outsider brought in would get too messy.

But that's the generous explanation. And it's certainly not one that Mr Key has offered up. He has fallen back on bluster instead.

Mr Key might find it annoying when the media worries at statements made by prime ministers that later turn out not to be true. He could swing wildly at conspiracy theories.

Or he could accept the more obvious explanation - that it would be a worrying place if the media no longer saw that as its role.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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