Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Those clandestine tapes

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.


Truth Seeker said...

Technical note: The recordings could have been made on any decent cellphone in a shirt pocket using the voice-record function.

As for the substance, the comments from the two senior National MPs indicate a party with clear preferences for actions they frankly acknowledge the public would not support support.

The issue for me as a voter is that these preferences do not feature prominently - if at all - in the party's official public policy statements.

Moreover, that is clearly deliberate - as both MPs implicitly acknowledge.

I'm much more concerned that we know the truth about any party's policy than about who recorded the secret truth and how.

As Rodney Hide says, National would have nothing to fear if it said the same in private as it does in public. But that isn't the case.

Which is worse? The deception or exposing the deception by deception?

Another argument might be that someone who wants to Lead the National Party is trying to see John Key loses. If he wins, they may not need a new leader for some time.

mawm said...

Of coure it is scandelous that people are recorded without their knowledge just as it is when people use their mobile/cameras to surruptitously photograph up the skirts of women or while they are busy on the toilet. It is a violation. Nothing more or and nothing less - and those who choose to profit from it, whether it be TV3 or Labour, are party to it by association and should be harshly condemned for it.

As for National having a hidden agenda, this is very much a Labour Party beat up, and they, Labour, cannot for one moment claim innocence here. Just one example - did they ever campaign on the promise to spend well over a billion dollars on buying back Rail? Not that I can recall and I feel that they have abused me by taking my tax and wasting, yes wasting, it on the buy back without a mandate from us.

It is time that politicians were reminded that they are chosen by us to represent us and our wishes - and that they are paid handsomly to do so. They are NOT our masters and must be held accountable for their actions.

Their behaviour, especially in our parliament, leaves much to be desired - slander and innuendo, comments fom the gutter, lies, and dodging answering questions. And these are the people who would be our leaders! These are the people who write the laws which we must adhere to - whilst all along they are breaking or 'bending' these self-same laws.

PooChute said...

Where, exactly, has Steven Price commented on this matter? I was interested in what he has to say but have not come across his statements on his website. Could you direct me please?