Media Muse

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Although obviously not as bad as they were for Julius Caesar who was assassinated around this time in 44BC, the Ides of March in 2016 were not good for Labour Party leader, Andrew Little.

“Little’s shocking week a worry for the voters” was the headline over the weekly column from The New Zealand Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young.

“Andrew Little’s bad week at the office” echoed Radio New Zealand’s deputy political editor, Chris Bramwell. “It has been a tough week for Labour leader Andrew Little after he tested the waters with some populist positions on immigration and interest rates,” Bramwell wrote on Radio New Zealand’s website in the Power Play blog which is not, as far as I am aware, actually broadcast on the wireless as you might expect of an organisation funded by taxpayers to be a national non-commercial radio network.

Over at Australian-owned Fairfax, their political editor, Tracy Watkins, asked: “Is Andrew Little getting angry about all the wrong things?” Noting that the Labour leader had been nicknamed “Angry Andy” by National MPs, Watkins observed: “This is a dangerous time for Little. The success of his leadership so far has been in unifying a fractious and divided caucus. But the traditional fault lines are starting to reassert themselves.”

Oh really, Tracy? And your evidence for this is …“eyes are rolling”? After spotting some eye-rolling, Tracy checked her in case eyes rolling now indicated heads rolling later. But, no. “The denials from Little and his advisers to any suggestion of disunity or caucus division are desperate to leave no room for doubt that the scales are finely balanced.”

Bollocks! Any desperation was clearly her own as she and her gallery colleagues pounded their keyboards to fill their columns in Saturday’s papers.

Their weekly commentaries do have the value, however, of illustrating how tightly the parliamentary press gallery is bound together by group think. Not surprising given their incestuous working environment in taxpayer-funded offices side-by-side in the narrow annex behind the Beehive and sharing their thoughts with each other on Twitter (which celebrated its 10th anniversary on March 21).

Discussing his Election of Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill on BBC Radio 4’s comedy podcast Mark Thomas: The Manifesto (Series 1, Episode 2), British MP Mark Price said: “The world has changed. We’re living in the world of the internet, of free information flow. We’re living in an age of empowered citizen journalism and citizen democracy, and the culture of politics has to change.

“That’s the problem. Political culture is at least two generations behind the culture as a whole.”

Political culture is the ongoing conversation between politicians and journalists, two occupational groups which vie for bottom place in those surveys which show nurses and firefighters to be the most trusted professionals, as you’d expect.

The political culture of this country is stuck in the eighties, the decade of Cold War paranoia and governments elected on a minority of the popular vote under the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. The murky realities of today’s invisible and invasive surveillance systems and multi-party parliamentary complexity simply do not produce such good headlines.

That suits both politicians and journalists. They have a mutual interest in maintaining the fictions of the old political culture, chief among them being the belief that voters hang on their every word. But unlike political commentators who have to come up with fresh comment daily, voters have three years to form their opinion. Those that make a difference on polling day — the swinging voters — tend to make up their minds in the last few days.

They will not remember that, over a year earlier, Labour’s leader was challenging the orthodoxy that prohibits political intervention in setting interest rates or questioning immigration targets. Doing his job, after all, as a member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Even just a few days down the track it’s difficult to remember what last week was all about. In retrospect, the furore over milk prices, interest rates and too many ethnic chefs spoiling the immigration broth turned out to be just another opportunity for the political culture to get together and generate a few headlines — and copy for the editorial leader writers.

“He needs to do better,” thundered a Herald leader writer, obviously disappointed in Andrew Little’s performance so far. “He does not help his party’s credibility, or his own, with the sort of suggestions he made this week.”

A newspaper that backs its credibility against a politician’s is taking a big risk of having to make costly repairs to its glasshouse. It is a contest that will ultimately be decided not by readers but by voters — some 18 months away in the future.

And as long as the political culture maintains the fictions of the past the realities of the present go unreported.