Going back through last week’s papers before putting them in the recycling bin, I came across a story by Dom Post political reporter Kate Chapman about Labour MP Clare Curran’s banishment from the parliamentary debating chamber for wearing non-authorised apparel – to wit, a Highlanders jersey.
Chapman wrote that Curran “got more coverage than she had bargained for when Speaker Lockwood Smith took offence to her outfit and ordered her to leave the House”.
I would say that in fact Curran got exactly what she bargained for. A former journalist and union PR adviser, she would have foreseen Smith’s reaction and would have known perfectly well how the media would react. It was, in other words, a publicity stunt.
No harm in that, but it was intriguing to see how the media played up the story. Curran must have been enormously gratified. That single incident earned her more coverage than she’d previously attracted in the two and a half years since she was elected.
That’s is the way it is these days, and not just in New Zealand. Lindsay Tanner, who was Minister of Finance in the Australian Labour government led by Kevin Rudd, recently published a book, aptly titled Sideshow, in which he says, among other things: “After spending much of my life dedicated to the serious craft of politics, I have to admit that I am distressed by what it is becoming. Under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues.
“In turn, politicians and parties are adapting their behaviour to suit the new rules of the game — to such an extent that the contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs.”
Commenting on Tanner’s book in Spectator Australia, former ALP leader Mark Latham chimed in: “Tanner makes the argument I have been making for a decade: that the trivialisation of politics in the mass media is destroying the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.”
What Latham doesn’t say is that the politicians are complicit in this. They understand the new dynamics of political coverage and happily play along. In fact Christchurch Press editor Andrew Holden revealed on TV3’s The Nation at the weekend that John Key spoke to Fairfax editors on the day Curran wore the Highlanders jersey and correctly predicted that the story would be leading the bulletins that evening.
If Key knew exactly what the media response would be, I'm sure Curran did too.