Editorial: Stoking up a storm over the teacups

Last updated 13:00 16/11/2011

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OPINION: Whatever's in the surreptitious recording made of the Prime Minister's publicity-stunt meeting with ACT's Epsom candidate, John Banks, it is safe to assume that the reaction it has fired up is out of all proportion to its actual significance. That is due to poor political management by John Key, his advisers and ACT. They have allowed the incident to become an event, potentially even one of those supposed defining points in the campaign when the unexpected twist assumes a life of its own. No question, they were on safe ground to condemn the behaviour of a cameraman who claimed, unconvincingly, that his leaving an activated microphone concealed on Mr Key's and Mr Banks' cafe table during their discussions on election dealings was all an accident. No question, too, that they have the right to feel aggrieved that the recording was then shopped around news media outlets.

At that point, the Prime Minister should have accepted that the thing was out of his control, that whatever the recording revealed (he insists little to nothing) it was going to come out somehow. His best bet, surely, was to let that happen and move on to more pressing concerns as quickly as possible. Instead, he has given a textbook performance of how to stoke the interest up, increasingly appearing wrongfooted and confused in the process.

His decision to go to the police to prevent publication was one misjudgment. Not only does it feed suspicions that he is hellbent on stopping the thing from coming out; now he has set up an extraordinary scenario where the police are firing off warnings to news media organisations, seeking to constrain their reporting in the midst of an election campaign.

Meanwhile, he has tried to keep treating it as a debate about media ethics. While there is a valid point to explore there, it has been overtaken by the growing intrigue about what he and Mr Banks talked about – and muddied by Mr Key's misguided rhetoric. His attempt to compare the recording to the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and then to some made-up scenario of journalists eavesdropping on parents discussing a suicidal child is nonsense. To compound the sense that this is running away from him, it seems New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has discovered what's on the recording and is gleefully taking every advantage of it.

Probably, none of this is going to cause great harm to National's re-election prospects – probably, most voters are entirely nonplussed by the fuss – but it is undeniably a huge nuisance and distraction for Mr Key at a critical point of the campaign.

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It is worth noting, too, that the fuss has grown out of an entirely stage-managed and unnecessary episode designed to placate National's potential junior coalition partner. As an event, it only assumed so much significance because of the strange courting dance Mr Key decided to engage in with ACT over whether to give Mr Banks a clear-ish run in the Epsom contest, and so guarantee the party at least some parliamentary presence.

Such jack-ups are one of the less savoury aspects of MMP. Perhaps, therefore, it is fitting that trying to turn one into a photo opportunity in the heat of an election campaign has backfired so noisily.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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