My first reaction, on hearing the Herald on Sunday had obtained a clandestine recording of John Key’s meeting with John Banks in Newmarket last Friday, was to let out a groan of dismay and disbelief. Did we really need this London-style tabloid sleaze?
Now, having learned the full circumstances, I’m inclined to take the paper’s side.
I could understand Key getting up on his hind legs, but I heard HoS editor Bryce Johns on Morning Report and his explanation of how it happened struck me as plausible. Besides, I worked with Bryce for several years and unless he’s changed, I don’t think he’s a journalist in the Clive Goodman/Rebekah Brooks mould.
Quite apart from anything else, leaving a recording device on the table right in front of the two politicians, even if it was in a little black pouch, seemed too clumsy by far to be a serious attempt at eavesdropping. It was sure to be spotted, and it was.
The fact that the paper chose not to report what was said during the conversation supports its case. The HoS appears to have acted ethically. This is not the behaviour of an editor bent on getting a sensational story that might blow the election wide open.
In any case, why go to the trouble of planting a recording device, and risking the inevitable hullabaloo that would ensue, if you weren’t going to take maximum advantage of it by splashing the taped exchange all over page one?
This affair has the potential to rebound on Key. He dismisses his exchange with Banks as “bland” but refused permission for the HoS to publish the transcript of the recording, on the ground that he didn’t want to give the paper the satisfaction of getting the story after behaving unethically (if indeed it was unethical).
The problem now is that there is real public curiosity about what was said, and about the contradiction between Johns’ claim that the recording is potentially game-changing (the political phrase du jour) and Key’s insistence that it’s really of no interest. The stakes have been raised to the point where it becomes increasingly likely that someone will divulge what was said.
TV3 disclosed tonight that it too has a copy of the tape, and there are likely to be others circulating. There are hints that the recording contains statements about ACT leader Don Brash that would not look good for either Key or Banks. I’m picking that it will all spill into the public arena sooner or later. That’s the way these things normally play out.
It demonstrates that even at this late stage in a carefully orchestrated and generally successful National campaign, things could still go pear-shaped for Key. It only takes one indiscreet comment, and Johns hinted at such a comment in the tape from the Café Urban.
In fact it would be exquisitely ironic – you might say poetic justice – if the meeting between Key and Banks blew up in their faces. It was a PR stunt staged to attract maximum media attention. People talk about the cup of tea as being symbolic, and so it was – not just in the strictly political sense, but also because it was symbolic of a tightly controlled media operation in which political journalists are expected to dance to a ballet choreographed by Beehive spin-meisters.
It was assumed the media would turn up en masse at the Café Urban and film the palaver; indeed the whole pantomime would have been pointless if they hadn’t. But the journalists and photographers were then expected to retreat to a respectful distance, noses pressed up against the window (almost literally), and allow the two men to go into a cosy huddle.
It was a highly public event, deliberately so, yet at crunch time Key insisted on asserting his right to privacy. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking there’s a bit of a contradiction, a double standard, here. The whole affair was conducted entirely on the politicians’ terms, for the politicians’ benefit, and to that extent, pretty much summed up what the modern election campaign, with all its jiggery-pokery, has become; and I have to admit I’d find it quite satisfying if something hideously embarrassing came out of it all.