Tea Pot Tapes: Revenge of the Meme
It feels wrong that so much of this election is being focussed on the Teapot Tapes when there are so much more important issues to be discussed: the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, how to pull our country out of global market turmoil, child poverty, looking after our elderly, health, education and environment. But the last week has been extraordinary and John Key and his campaign team must be worried. That the two met and discussed policy in such a public place is foolish, however, the decision on the way best to handle this is extraordinary.
Going after the cameraman in this case has backfired on all counts. That today the saga has made the international media - BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post - shows that the National Party's campaign management crisis is not going to resolve itself easily.
If the last decade has been about us maturing to the notion of MMP and getting used to coalition deals, this election has been completely overshadowed by the controversy around a very public meeting. No less than 30 journalists were present during the cafe meeting. For New Zealand, apart from during the Rugby World Cup, this is about as high as media coverage gets. And if there is one thing you do not do during an election campaign: you do not attack the media. You do not create general solidarity among the media who all want to release it, bonding rival networks and sources as in the media meeting that occurred in Wellington two days ago. You do not prosecute a cameraman. And you never, ever, get the police to process search warrants for four major news networks, even if it is in the last week of the election.
The stakes were high in the initial meeting, which was designed to be a media spectacle. Two men meet each other, highly popular leader of the nation John Key, and ex-Auckland mayor John Banks. It was designed to repair some damage to the fallout that has been occurring in ACT since Brash rolled Hide without even being a member of the party, causing friction in the party close to the election. This was compounded by Brash's Icarus-like fall from actually managing to roll Hide and claiming he would lead the party to 15% in the election and then failing dismally, to currently poll in its party vote at 1.6%. All of a sudden Epsom voters, and the national media who were used to his presence in reality shows and scandals were left with ex-Mayor John Banks who, despite having failed in his bid for Auckland, seemed like he could have been a good match for Epsom. Paul Goldblum was put in there, at number 39 on the National Party list so safe under current polling, flubbing his lines in the first meeting and not meant to be a serious contender for Banks. Goldsmith, however, proved consistently more popular with the people of Epsom.
If Goldsmith gets in, they get one MP for both their party vote and their electoral vote, whereas if Banks gets in, he can bring more people in (at current party polling just one other person). This increases National's chances of winning the election by forming a coalition if they need a partner to form voting blocs against Labour. No less than 30 journalists in a media frenzy were there to catch the two having a cup of tea together. National and Key held out on the meeting, riding on their popularity in the polls and holding out as long as possible in a demonstration of power. As opposed to previous elections where ACT has taken a much more distinctive stance in differentiating itself from Labour, ACT were forced to highlight how willing they were to work with National, a move that communicated to voters their weakness. This was hammered home by the way that ACT postponed its launch till after the cup of tea, even though it was just two weeks before the election, printing glossy pictures of Banks and Key in the historic meeting. This left Brash as man alone, not on the pamphlets further demonstrating to voters their weakness.
The situation has been even further exacerbated by the recording of the meeting. There is a case for it being non-intentional - the election is like a marathon for journalists who are bombarded by the constant announcements of policy by eight major political players, and the event that they created was designed to create a frenzy among media so you can understand things being forgotten in the rush to get the best shot over the other networks. That said, I'm not the journalist and I don't know, but the event was completely designed for that kind of rush, positioned in front of a glass window so that the journalists could tape the entire coffee sans the sound. I don't know what possessed them to think of talking about anything that could be misconstrued in front of that many journalists and other customers.
The way that this is being handled by the campaign team is badly mishandled from a media perspective. They would have been better off just satiating the public's desire by releasing the tape. Then they could do the misbehaving sportsman/celebrity - "I shouldn't have said that" and move on. Instead, they have heightened curiosity over the tape meaning it will likely dominate through the last week of the election. National created the meme. They are now being bitten by it. It is like having celebrities in advertising - you are only as good as the veneer. It may be quite hard for National to extricate themselves from this one, and while National may still have the numbers, Key's reluctance to spill is going to further damage ACT and potentially hurt National.
The truth is whether we think politics should revolve around policy or personality, it is a gladiator sport for spectators. The last month is a battle for the public attention that provides opportunities for gaffes and also for wins. The increased media attention means that people are looking for a narrative that frames and carries the diverse announcements by bringing them together and providing a human interest angle. And National have provided it by creating a meme that backfired badly.
The difference between whether a scandal will continue to dominate the news or whether it will drop out of the public arena is dependent on its ability to tap into these factors. Unlike the numerous other scandals from National and other parties, this one has the potential to keep going. It is summed up easily in a phrase that just rolls off the tongue ("teapot tapes") and taps into popular notions of the triviality of politics, the suspicion of those in power and the desire to see them represented as human rather than untouchable leaders. The meeting also taps into key debates over MMP and the way that people know they need to vote strategically. With Winston and NZFirst getting maximum mileage out of the affair and approaching the 5% mark now according to the Herald Digipoll, the scandal looks unlikely to fade in the way National and ACT would like it to.