Friday, October 25, 2013

Scandal, smear and spin - the new normal

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 23.)
As I write this, a lot of questions remain unanswered about the controversy swirling around Auckland mayor Len Brown.
Why did his former lover, Bevan Chuang, decide to expose him? She says she was pressured into doing so by another man with whom she claimed to have an intimate relationship – Luigi Wewege, who happened to be on the campaign team of Brown’s main rival for the mayoralty, John Palino.

As with so many of the claims made in this tawdry and convoluted affair, that has been denied; but text messages exchanged between Ms Chuang and Mr Wewege (who strikes me as one of those repellant people who hang around the fringes of politics, attracted by the buzz of power) suggested much more than mere friendship.
Was Mr Palino party to the conspiracy? He says he knew nothing – not even that Mr Wewege was in a relationship with Ms Chuang. But regardless of whether Mr Palino was in on it, some of the sleaze has rubbed off on him by association.

Why did right-wing blogger Cameron Slater choose to expose the affair when he did? One theory was that by waiting until after the election, he increased the likelihood that the right-leaning Mr Palino – as the second-highest polling candidate – would assume the mayoralty if Mr Brown (a Labour man) stood down.
But Slater’s explanation is that he couldn’t reveal the affair until he had persuaded Ms Chuang to swear an affidavit and hand over the text messages she had exchanged with Mr Brown. That would give him a strong defence in the event of a defamation action.

To make a complex picture even murkier, Slater’s father John, a former National Party chairman, was head of Mr Palino’s campaign. Conspiracy theorists wasted no time joining the dots and concluding Slater senior was implicated, which he denies (as does his son).
Who sent threatening text messages to Slater, Ms Chuang and Slater’s father? These were sent anonymously before Slater dropped his sleaze bomb. At that point he had merely made a veiled reference in his blog to Mr Brown and “Asian beauties”.

If Slater is to be believed, those text messages were the tipping point. It was then that Ms Chuang decided to hand over the evidence Slater wanted – not the outcome the anonymous texter wanted. Meanwhile, after seeing the reference to Asian beauties, Mr Brown evidently decided the game was up and told his wife about the affair.
Should he have resigned immediately? That’s a hard one to answer. As plenty of people have pointed out, the political ranks might look decidedly thin if everyone who had committed a sexual indiscretion was excluded.

On the other hand, as a Radio New Zealand listener texted to Morning Report, if the people closest to Mr Brown – his wife and family – can’t trust him, why should the people of Auckland? I have friends who voted for him, thinking him a solid family man and churchgoer (an image he promoted at every opportunity), and who now feel betrayed.
One more question: are there any other skeletons in Mr Brown’s closet? After all, philanderers are usually serial offenders. John Campbell put the question to Mr Brown on TV3 but allowed him to get away with what I thought was an equivocal answer.

By the time this column appears, some of the above questions may have been answered. Mr Brown may even have stepped down, though that seems highly unlikely.
He may not be the world’s most charismatic politician, but he’s clearly reluctant to relinquish power, no matter what humiliation comes his way (or the way of his hapless wife and daughters, who are the real victims of this squalid saga).

Like John Banks, who was also in the news last week, Mr Brown gives the impression of having developed a protective carapace – call it ego, ambition, vanity, attachment to power or whatever – that enables him to put his head down and push on when public contempt would have caused other men to throw in the towel.
Now, one last question that may be easier to answer.

Has politics got dirtier? Undoubtedly – and not just in New Zealand. The same is true in Britain, America and Australia.
It’s not only dirtier, but more intense. Scandal, smear and spin are now staples of the political diet.

The explanation for this lies largely in the digital revolution.
As recently as a few years ago, politicians and journalists worked to a daily news cycle that revolved around the evening television news bulletin and the deadlines of the morning and afternoon papers.

It was a pressured environment, but it usually allowed time to pause, take a deep breath and react to political developments in a considered way.
Not now. In the digital era, the news cycle operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The tempo has increased exponentially and a far more aggressive media constantly hounds politicians, hungry for new developments. It seems John Key can’t go anywhere without having microphones thrust at him.

But an even more potent factor is the emergence of new digital media – text messages, blogs, Facebook and Twitter – which provide a virulent forum for rumour, gossip, lies, abuse, propaganda and character assassination. It feeds on itself, each inflammatory item ratcheting up the intensity of the political conversation.  
Anyone can become a player in this new game, and they can do it in the safety of anonymity. In other words, it’s not just the pace of political journalism that has changed, but also the tone. Nothing is off-limits; everyone is fair game.

Bloggers compete for attention, often making outrageous claims that the mainstream media don’t bother to follow up. But the most successful bloggers, such as Slater, break stories that the mainstream press can’t ignore. They have made themselves part of the political landscape.
Slater is well informed and politically astute. Mr Brown is his biggest scalp yet, but he won’t be the last.

Some argue that this new political environment is healthy. It promotes transparency and has opened up the debate to new participants. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t come at a cost, and that cost may be that potential new entrants to politics might look at the sleaze that has enveloped Mr Brown and decide it’s not just worth the anguish and stress.

1 comment:

Brendan McNeill said...

Your thesis that the responsible and capable will be discouraged from entering the political fray, for fear of unwelcome scrutiny of their private lives is a reasonable suposition.

Unfortunately for too long local government has been populated by those who are delighted to earn $50K per annum, and think that sitting through resource consent hearings is a stimulating way to spend their days.

We will never attract capable people to these rolls while they are expected to embrace with enthusiasm the mundane and the trivial.

Perhaps we need something more akin to a small commerical board that provides governance to cities and deals with substantive issues, and leaves the employees to graft the detail. Were this the case, more capable people would be attracted to the role, and our cities would likely be better off commercially, and as places to live.

I suspect a reduced 'board' would also go a long way to dealing with voter apathy. We might engage proactively with a handful of capable candidates when a field of twenty or thirty 'also rans' fails to inspire.

Will it happen?