At the annual winter bash put on by well-connected Wellington PR firm Saunders Unsworth at the Backbencher pub last night, jovial National Party frontbencher Gerry Brownlee mischievously made the point of asking, before he joined in any conversation, whether any of those present had a concealed tape recorder.
Everyone got the joke, of course; there could be no more politically savvy gathering than this. But levity aside, the clandestine recording of National deputy leader Bill English and senior MP Lockwood Smith making what, in retrospect, were injudicious comments at a cocktail party during the party conference last weekend has serious implications.
For a start, the tapes are embarrassing to National because they enable Labour to push the damaging line that behind John Key’s anodyne, don’t-frighten-the-horses policy statements lies a more extreme secret agenda that will unfold only if and when National wins office.
The media have certainly pounced on them, as you’d expect. The tapes were initially leaked to TV3, which to my knowledge has said nothing about who recorded them or how they came into TV3’s hands. Suspicion automatically falls on Labour infiltrators posing as National conference delegates, though I’ve also heard the intriguing (but I think highly improbable) suggestion that ACT provocateurs may have been responsible.
Whatever, it suggests that this is going to be a dirty, desperate campaign. If Labour people are responsible for the clandestine tapes, any political advantage obtained by embarrassing National has to be weighed against possible public distaste at the underhand tactics.
The media’s role – and particularly that of TV3 – also demands scrutiny. Coverage of the controversy so far has conveniently sidestepped the ethical murkiness of obtaining stories by a process that looks perilously close to entrapment. Media law expert Steven Price has pointed out that it’s a crime to tape a conversation between other people if the circumstances indicate that one of those taking part wants it to be private. Steven also suggests TV3 may have broken the law if it were party to an illegal interception. But even if it falls short of lawbreaking, TV3's use of the tapes raises important questions about journalistic ethics.
On the one hand, a strong argument can be made that there is a compelling public interest in what a National government might do and that the public deserves to know if the party isn’t being honest about its plans. But surreptitiously taping people at a party smacks of the tactics used by the deplorable British tabloids, and most senior journalists I know would probably feel uncomfortable about it. I suppose it’s a line call.
Here’s another important consideration: how much weight should you attach to off-the-cuff statements made in response to leading questions at a noisy cocktail party? The media may be reading more into them than is justified.
I would take the same view if the tables were turned and it was Labour MPs who had unwittingly put their foot in it. If you look at the transcripts, they are less incriminating than Labour wants people to think. In any case, how many of us would want to be held accountable for something we’d blurted out after a couple of glasses of wine at social occasion? I certainly wouldn’t.