When politicians and journalists collide

JOURNALISTS: 3rd Degree's Guyon Espiner, left, and Duncan Garner.
JOURNALISTS: 3rd Degree's Guyon Espiner, left, and Duncan Garner.

Political journalist Duncan Garner has been roundly criticised for incorrectly predicting the imminent resignation of Labour leader David Shearer.

Comparisons have been drawn between Garner's infamous tweet and the media tactics used to bring down the Australian Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard.

Questions are now being raised about the ethics of journalists and commentators becoming players in a game they're only supposed to watch.

All of which is the purest humbug. Politicians and journalists have always lived out of each other's pockets.

This is because politics isn't just about the use of power, it's also about how the use of power is explained and justified.

The truly effective politician leaves as little of that to journalists as possible.

There wasn't a lot more that a journalist could have added to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Winston Churchill's "Finest Hour" speech.

Nor could Kiwi scribes much improve upon David Lange's crushing dismissal of Sir Robert Muldoon's interventionism: "You can't run a country like a Polish shipyard!"

Not all politicians are, however, blessed with such memorable rhetorical skills. For those who struggle to explain and/or justify their political actions, a measure of journalistic assistance is usually required.

We have learned to call these people "spin doctors". It's an evocative title, recalling those legendary spin bowlers who could turn a cricket ball in whatever direction they pleased.

The reality, however, is that nearly all spin doctors have, at one time or another, been senior political journalists.

As such, they have a fairly shrewd idea of who it is among their former colleagues that should be called in for an interview - and who should be kept as far away from their bosses as possible.

As skilled journalists they can also spot the weaknesses and strengths in the stories that are written about their employers.

Tony Blair's formidable spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, certainly wasn't shy about letting errant journalists know exactly what he thought of their work - and them.

The environment in which politicians and journalists move is, therefore, one of both familiarity and contempt. Only the very best performers, on either side, have no need for the back-scratching of the other.

Stories are leaked. Rumours are started. Judgments are made - or encouraged. Politicians and journalists constantly use each other - not only to build themselves up, but also to tear down their colleagues (who are more often than not their competitors and rivals).

Which brings us back to Garner and his tweet.

Labour MPs have accused Garner of "making up" his story about a coup being under way against Shearer. But only a moment's thought is required to expose this accusation for the nonsense it is.

Garner has confirmed that his informant was a member of the Labour Party caucus. Presumably, he or she was someone who had vouchsafed information to Garner in the past - information which had proved to be reliable.

The maelstrom of criticism into which Garner has been unceremoniously pitched, since his predictions of last Thursday night were proved wrong, provides the strongest argument as to why he would not have tweeted without feeling extremely confident about the rumour's veracity.

(Just to make sure, however, he sought and received confirmation from a second Labour Party source.)

That Garner was given what the Americans would call "a bum steer" should tell him (and us) that the atmosphere in Labour's caucus is becoming increasingly toxic.

And, as Julia Gillard would no doubt confirm, such a poisoned political environment makes rumours of an imminent leadership spill both inevitable and believable.

So, why did Garner's coup rumour fail to stack up? Let's go through the explanatory options.

1) Some sort of leadership coup was on, but Garner's tweet alerted Shearer's supporters and the organisers were forced to abort. (Despairing Labour MPs may simply have been gathering sufficient signatures to persuade their leader to go gracefully and preserve the party from a debilitating civil war.)

2) No coup was imminent, but Garner's source considered it vital that Shearer be forced to endure yet another destabilising round of media speculation concerning the viability of his leadership. (So vital that they were willing to abuse and lose Garner's trust.)

3) For reasons of their own, Shearer's backers decided to undermine Garner's journalistic credibility by deliberately misinforming him that a coup was under way.

Each of these explanations offers a slightly different take on the dire state of affairs within the Labour caucus. Underlying all of them, however, is the undeniable fact of a leader (and the faction backing that leader) under extraordinary and unremitting pressure.

Garner's prediction may have failed to materialise, but it did, at least, remind us of Bismarck's famous quip: "Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied".

The Press