Friday, June 11, 2010

A textbook media feeding frenzy

There is a strangely moralistic tone to the furore surrounding Labour MP Shane Jones.

Jones has been singled out for particular shame over misuse of his ministerial credit card because some of his spending was on adult movies. But surely what matters most is that the spending was unauthorised. That some of the money went on pornographic films is secondary. In the relentless media focus on that titillating angle, we risk losing sight of the central issue.

On Jim Mora’s daily panel discussion on Radio NZ yesterday, Jock Anderson described the reaction to Jones’ transgression as “Presbyterian” – a word that neatly captured the cloud of moral sanctimony that burst over the Labour MP’s head. No doubt there was a large element of schadenfreude involved too.

If Jones had postured in public as a morals campaigner, the vilification would be justified. But he hasn’t – at least, not to my knowledge. So the focus should be on the fact that he, and several of his colleagues, played fast and loose with public money. Whether it was misspent on blue movies, $155 bottles of Bollinger, golf clubs, flowers or massages is really neither here nor there.

It’s the misspending that matters. That’s what Jones should be ashamed of, from a political standpoint. That he watched pornographic films in the privacy of his hotel room is probably more a personal issue for him to square with Mrs Jones (for whom this must all be painfully humiliating) rather than the taxpayers.

Of course there is a delicious piquancy for political trainspotters, as Audrey Young points out in the New Zealand Herald, because the Labour caucus includes staunch feminists for whom pornography is anathema. They may well be baying for Jones’ blood. But from a public interest standpoint, the pornography angle is a sideshow.

If there are any lessons to be drawn from the controversy, other than the obvious one that politicians should be more respectful of public money, it’s that hubris can cloud political judgment. In Jones’ case, he seemed so confident of batting away the credit card controversy that he failed to see the minefield in front of him.

Duncan Garner’s report on TV3’s news on Wednesday night indicated that Jones’ strategy was to take the heat out of the spending revelations by boldly fronting up. But his composure started to crumble when Sean Plunket threw him a curved ball on Morning Report the next morning by asking whether his hotel movie bills included porn films – a question Jones appeared not to have anticipated, and which he fudged unconvincingly – and by the end of the day he was wallowing in ignominy that was almost embarrassing to watch.

It was a textbook example of a media feeding frenzy developing at such speed, and with such force, that Jones was knocked off his feet. His clumsy attempts to salvage the situation by excusing himself as a “red-blooded dude”, and jokily dismissing the films as not worth watching anyway, only made things worse.

Politically, Jones seems to have led a charmed life up till now. He has frequently been touted as a future Labour leader, though for the life of me I have never been able to see why. Now, to use the familiar cliché, his career is in tatters. Shakespeare would have loved it.


Bill Forster said...
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Anonymous said...

To me it is gratifying to see that in NZ we have not all leaped onto this bandwagon. You are not the only commentator showing commendable restraint. During the UK's version of similar revelations I read one disproportionately (in my view) furious online comment excoriation of some unfortunate pollie. I was amazed to see that in something like 153 comments from the public, there was not one (literally not one!) that did anything other than weigh in and add to the abuse and opprobrium.

Am I going too far in imagining that this reflects at least one aspect of our society that is more healthy and sane than in the UK ?

I am no friend of the previous Labour government, but it seems to me there are worse things going on in the world that are more worthy of getting one's knickers in a twist.