Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How will history judge John Key?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 1.)

I WONDER how history will judge John Key. On the strength of his performance so far, I think it might assess him quite harshly.

Historians may look back on these years as a time when an economically feeble, socially dysfunctional New Zealand needed bold leadership, but instead had a prime minister who was content to tread water.

Mr Key enjoys remarkable popularity but seems to lack any vision. Either that, or he’s keeping it from the rest of us.

He is personable, media-friendly and seems sincere, but nothing he has said or done since winning the 2008 election has inspired New Zealanders or energised them with a new sense of purpose.

He shows worrying signs of being addicted to popularity. History may record Mr Key as the smile-and-wave prime minister, always ready to exchange on-air jokes with breakfast disc jockeys or be photographed at Super 15 rugby training sessions, but frightened to risk his poll ratings by taking tough action on issues such as wasteful government spending, welfare dependency and economic reform.

His announcement last week of a partial privatisation of four state-owned companies, far from being radical, was a cautious step intended to appease those who are impatient for policies that might lead to the long-promised economic transformation.

Mr Key’s natural instinct seems to be to leave things as they are – hardly a formula for dynamic leadership. His greatest political talent is that his relentlessly upbeat disposition makes New Zealanders feel good about themselves, especially after the dour Helen Clark years. But complacency is the last thing we need.

All this might be less depressing if there were an alternative leader waiting in the wings, but there isn’t. In any case, it would be idle to hope that Mr Key might be elbowed aside by disgruntled National colleagues. National is a party that values power above all else, and will excuse almost any shortcomings in its leader as long as he’s creaming the Opposition in the polls.

* * *

MY REACTION on seeing a Tui beer sign outside a pub or bar is similar to that of medieval travellers arriving on the outskirts of a village and being confronted with a painted black cross warning of typhoid, cholera or leprosy. I don’t exactly flee in panic, but I make a decision to give that particular watering hole a big swerve.

Tui represents all that is ghastly about mass-produced, industrial New Zealand beer. It’s sweet, bland and gassy.

But while I’d sooner drink sump oil, you have to hand it to Tui for its phenomenal marketing story. A beer once considered a regional curiosity, virtually unsaleable outside its home territory, has been re-invented as the quintessential Kiwi brand. The crowd of 7000-plus who converged last Saturday on tiny Mangatainoka, home of the Tui brewery, to watch a Super 15 warmup match was testimony to the brand’s pulling power.

Tui’s marketers would have us believe the match between the Hurricanes and the Chiefs was all about celebrating rugby’s popularity in the rural heartland, but make no mistake: this was first and foremost a beer promotion – and an extraordinarily successful one, with more than 24,000 cans sold.

Who would have thought so many people could have so little taste?

* * *

CHANCES ARE you’ve never heard of Frank N Magid Associates, but if you watch TV One you’ve unwittingly been sucked in to this American firm’s orbit of influence.

Magid Associates, which describes itself as a research-based strategic consulting firm, has been advising TVNZ on its news presentation since at least 1999. The Herald on Sunday recently revealed that the firm’s yearly fees came to $262,000 plus travel expenses.

The state broadcaster coughed up this information very grudgingly after fending off an Official Information Act request for 12 months. Why the secrecy? TVNZ would doubtless argue commercial sensitivity, but a more likely reason is that its bosses realise it doesn’t look good for a public broadcasting organisation to be forking out large sums for advice from corporate shamans on how to massage the news.

The American consultants’ fingerprints are all over One News. You can see their influence in the constant live crosses to places where nothing is happening, in the way reporters are encouraged to cover stories in a breezy conversational tone, and in the preference for youthful, good-looking journalists – young women especially – over more experienced hands.

I also detect Magid Associates’ influence in the way certain favoured journalists are groomed as celebrities (and if rumour is correct, remunerated accordingly).

The purpose is to spice up the news, to personalise it and make it seem more compelling. TVNZ wants us to think of its newsreaders, reporters and weather presenters as our “friends”. But the ultimate effect of this news-as-schmooze approach is to debase the news and further blur what was once a clear line distinguishing it from mere entertainment.


The probligo said...

The Jonkey? Agreed.

Tui beer? I prefer Old Dark myself. That might get the crowds to a rugby game in Tuatapere.

TVNZ news? That piece of "news" suprises me not. I don't doubt that TV3 news is "guided" from the same or very similar source.

On that general note, and perhaps linking the jonkey smile with tv news, how much of what we are given as news in fact is hand-massaged press releases? Experience says quite a great deal.

Bring back Al Jazheera!!!

Moshe said...

Mr Key has been a great disappointment to many of us who expected a departure from the socialistic Labour policies of the last decade.

He's shown to be a vacuous man with an inane grin, incapable of tackling the fundamental problems besetting New Zealand. Total inaction on the welfare front, for example.

Will he change if National wins a second term later in the year? Something tells me the answer is no.

Richard McGrath said...

Manolo got it right. Blue Labour have not changed a thing in the two and a bit years they have had in power. They broke a promise not to raise GST, they have raised ACC levies and done nothing about the Resource Management Abomination.

There is only one political party interested in smaller, less intrusive government and free markets: Libertarianz.

If you can't stomach Blue Labour, voting for them again to keep Goff out is just silly.

Tepee said...

NZ beer, by and large, is dreadful and its drinking offers little pleasure. By comparison drinking English all is a joy offering huge vareity and taste experiences. Drinking NZ beer offers quite the opposite: its consumption seeming to be merely