The American satirist Fran Lebowitz once said, ‘I believe in talking behind people’s backs. That way, they hear it more than once’. I wonder if the sentiment crossed Jacinda Ardern’s mind as she dealt with the non-fall out of her decision to play a game of high-stakes Chinese whispers with a comment made about whether Donald Trump mistook her for Justin Trudeau’s wife.
She must have been pleased that, when pressed for several minutes on the issue by Jack Tame, the New Zealand public, after nearly a decade of John Key’s New Idea-Premiership, found its appetite for candyfloss politics finally sated and demanded in one voice: ’real news’. Someone call Mark Weldon.
Email after email, letter after letter, tweet after tweet became a symphonic rebuke of Tame’s lack of professionalism, not oddly, that of the Prime Minister who had just been caught mocking the famously capricious US President — yes, the one who has been known to cause a diplomatic incident over offences as minor as an awkward phone call. One column even asked Tame to grow up, forgetting he wasn’t the one caught passing on gossip.
Baiting doesn’t even qualify as news, let alone serious news. This is puzzling. Were the President to mock our Prime Minister at an awards ceremony (which, and this should embarrass Ardern, is an equally plausible scenario) it would quite justifiably earn itself a place in our nightly news bulletins. The fact that Trump is eminently unlikeable and that Ardern’s characterisation of him as a sexist buffoon is entirely accurate is hardly the salient issue.
We’re dealing not with whether Ardern was right to do what she did, but whether Tame was right to ask her about it, which of course he was. Anything our Prime Minister says about a foreign leader is newsworthy, especially a leader as important as Trump.
New Zealand is trapped in a toxic relationship with its politicians and journalists, like a couple that has spoken so long in baby talk, it’s forgotten what it’s like to have a real conversation or a civil disagreement.
This doesn’t make the interview any less painful to watch. Indeed, it makes excruciating viewing precisely because it represents the saddest, sorriest example of the celebrity circus politics in this country has become: a Prime Minister and journalist playing ‘he said, she said’ over gossip whispered at a music awards ceremony that may or may not end up in a series of angry tweets from the most powerful man in the word. It’s excruciating all right, but it’s only because the backstage banter at a music festival is now politics, rather than because it isn’t.
We have been so poorly served by both media and politicians the scandal is hardly surprising. John Key’s anodyne radio interviews that covered topics as diverse as peeing in the shower to ‘gay’ red t-shirts, introduced a pernicious brand of celebrity to our politics.
The politicians who found that holy grail ‘reliability’, tended to be the ones who talked about themselves more than they talked about their politics. It’s unsurprising that so many National and Labour MPs that have entered Parliament since Key’s time, from Maggie Barry and Steven Joyce to Tamati Coffey and Kris Faafoi, have media backgrounds.
In an age where politicians are ace personal marketers, a journalist must persistently ank a question that’s been inadequately answered, teasing the subject bit-by-bit away from their scripted response. The crucial distinction of who observed the event and how that information got to Ardern and why she decided to spread it is central to the story. Surely it is Tame’s job to persist, as it is his job, not Ardern’s, to decide when that line of questioning is over. If it were her role to decide when her answers were satisfactory, PMQs would be much shorter.
It’s equally easy to see how this situation developed from the other side of the desk. Tame climbed the greasy antenna of broadcast journalism, not by showing any particular acumen or insight for politics, but for dutifully doing his time reporting the softest stories on television, patiently waiting his turn — Bruce Almighty-style. He waited patiently until he too was just as much a celebrity as the people he interviewed. It’s not the cleanest road into the anchor’s chair, but hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
When, at the highest level, both politics and journalism are so beholden to celebrity, such sorry scenes are inevitable. New Zealand is trapped in a toxic relationship with its politicians and journalists, like a couple that has spoken so long in baby talk, it’s forgotten what it’s like to have a real conversation or a civil disagreement.
It’s difficult to doubt the integrity of Jacinda Ardern, but the ability of journalists to push the elected officials on political issues, wherever they appear, is surely itself beyond the bounds of questioning. Perhaps if anyone needs schooling in professionalism, it’s us.