MediaRoom column: Did Judith Collins stage a photo opportunity of herself deep in prayer before she voted, or did the news media invade a deeply private moment against her wishes? Probably neither, writes Tim Murphy

Prayergate. The most religious political controversy since the Exclusive Brethren tried to fund Don Brash and National to power in 2005.

National leader Judith Collins went to a church – not her local Anglican church, just the closest polling booth – to lodge her advance vote for the general election, last Sunday morning. The news media had been notified and when she stepped from her car, cameras, microphones and tape recorders swarmed her, following her into the foyer of St Thomas Church in Kohimarama.

Inside the old stone building Collins might have expected to go straight into the polling area in an adjoining annexe, but she was greeted by Father Bob Driver, the priest-in-charge.

“I invited Judith Collins to come into the church and pray, and she did,” Driver tells Newsroom. “I wasn’t prepared for all the cameras and what-not going into the church as well. I thought they would stay clear.”

So, as the confirmed Anglican Collins went into the church, which had emptied after the 9am family service, the media swarm simply continued tracking her.

When she put her bag down, kneeled, brought her hands together and up to her nose in prayer, photographers and cameramen stood near the broad church entrance and dwelled on her for up to a minute, shooting the images that have since caused such controversy.

St Thomas Church. 

After criticism on social media for being cynical in exploiting faith for political gain – and commentary from political opponents, including New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who tweeted Jesus’ exhortation to his followers not to be showy and flashy in displaying their faith like the Pharisees of old – Collins turned the criticism onto the media’s alleged insensitivity.

In one interview she labelled the photography and filming “evil” and elsewhere she said the media had invaded her private moment. She had not sought or expected the media attention.

Some of the journalists from that pack pointed out one of Collins’ staff, a press secretary, had asked a church official if it was okay to film in the church and then given the media a tacit all-clear.

Collins does not accept that that amounted to an invitation to film her. “They checked because media asked them,” she now says. “I did not get asked and when I go and pray, I do not expect a whole lot of people to come in with me…. I expect to go without a whole lot of cameras.”

Driver cannot recall if he was asked if media could film Collins in the church. “I can’t really remember, but it was all quite overwhelming, the media was like an elephant stampede, really.”

If he had been asked, he thinks “I probably would have said ‘Just leave the woman alone’.”

But it seems clear the suggestion of a prayer was the priest’s initiative rather than the politician’s. “The place is set up for the voting and I hover around and invite them [arriving voters] to go and pray if they wish to. I did the same for Judith. Several people have been in and it’s rather nice, really.”

In the end, there was no breach of church protocol or offence taken by Driver at the taking or publication of the photos from within the church. “As you know, people take photos in church all the time. You go to the cathedrals in England and the place is full of people taking photos.

“In this case I wouldn’t call it an ideal thing. You are supposed to worship in a church or pray, as Judith did.”

Driver hadn’t seen Collins at St Thomas before – there is another Anglican church closer to her St Heliers home – and thought it was straightforward for a politician to take a moment to pray.

“I don’t see why not. Judith has been telling us she is a Christian. You can take a very cynical view of it, I realise, but I take it at face value.”

So the prayer was the priest’s idea rather than a planned political PR move by Collins or her handlers.

And the media openly followed Collins from her car through to the church pews without objection, and with an understood licence to proceed from a Collins staff member. So no hidden agenda or questionable ethics there, either.

As she began to pray, Collins did seem aware that media were in the environs, and made no attempt to prevent the filming or ask journalists to leave. She says that would have been used against her, for shooing people out of the chapel. No objection was raised by Collins when exiting the church, or going through to vote.

The lesson? This was the first time her staff or the media had experienced Collins taking a moment in public to show due piety to her maker. She has made it clear that from now on she wishes to send up her invocations in private. One-on-one with the Lord.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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