Overwhelmingly, the opinion of press gallery journalists – including some for whom I retain a degree of respect – seems to be that Gaurav Sharma deserved what he got. Luke Malpass says so; so does Audrey Young.
But I wonder whether the public thinks the same. Political events often look different from a distance than they do from the close proximity of the press gallery, and what journalists think is often wildly at odds with public opinion. As I’ve argued before, they’re ill-equipped to know what the public thinks about anything.
Besides, reporters form their opinions based on information from political sources who have positions to protect, and no matter how conscientiously press gallery hacks try to take a neutral, objective line, their perspective is almost inevitably skewed by the views of whoever’s briefing them.
They also have a natural interest in remaining onside with their sources. All this needs to be taken into account in assessing press gallery opinion, which is often suspiciously homogeneous.
Even accepting the government line that Sharma is a problem child who got himself into trouble with his own staff and apparently refused offers of intervention, some aspects of the controversy remain unsettling.
My own antennae twitched when the story first broke. Not only did the full weight of the Labour Party machine come crashing down on the hapless Sharma – that’s politics, baby – but the media, almost without exception, obligingly parroted the government narrative from the start. The hit job on the Hamilton West MP was not only instantaneous and overwhelming but gave the impression of having media buy-in. Guilty as charged; done and dusted. It looked to me as if reporters were briefed and primed to go.
I couldn’t help but contrast the press pack’s apparent acceptance of the government line with their refusal to cut National any slack over the Uffindell saga. The difference was striking.
Of course I can no more claim to discern what the public thinks about the Sharma furore than the press gallery, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the public view has shifted over the course of the affair. I’m inclined to agree with the talkback host I heard last night who sensed that the balance of public opinion, which he thought was initially in the government’s favour, had probably moved as the controversy evolved and the perception grew that Sharma may not have been the guilty party – or at least not the sole bearer of blame.
The secret caucus meeting on Monday night certainly wouldn’t have helped. Gang-ups are never a good look. The irony is that this controversy arose out of bullying claims and ended up showing in plain sight exactly what political bullying looks like.
Even accepting that Sharma broke caucus rules, the manner of his punishment – no, let’s call it humiliation, which is what it is – doesn’t play well to a public concerned with fairness and due process. It’s the ugly face of politics laid bare, and the government can’t escape being damaged.
As a talkback caller said, whatever happened to Ardern’s kindness shtick? Her earnest, imploring facial expression, so wearyingly familiar to viewers of news bulletins, has never looked more strained – some would say fake – than when she was defending the brutal demolition job on her wayward MP. The empathetic look has worked remarkably well for her, but its magic may be wearing off.