Spinprofessor (Claire Robinson)

Thoughts on electoral politics and political leadership

If it wasn’t laughable, it would be a great first line in a bad romance novel…“Can I begin by saying I’m sorry,” he said.

“I don’t often say it. I’m sorry for being a man right now, because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children.

“So the first message to the men out there is: wake up, stand up and man up and stop this bullshit!”

Can I begin by suggesting that at a personal level David Cunliffe is not really sorry he’s a man right now. In fact I’m sure that he’s quite pleased to be a husband and a father. It’s not something that he would give up, never, ever. I’m also sure that, like most men, he’s not sorry that he has a penis. In fact I’d wager that he quite enjoys having it, and I doubt he’d want to lose it as remedy for his remorse. Can I also suggest that there’s nothing for him to personally apologise for, at least in terms of domestic violence, because as far as we know he hasn’t done anything to be guilty of in that department.

So if his apology was not personal, was it political? On the surface yes, as a message targeted at female voters; a message which, he was at pains to explain to Duncan Garner later on Radio Live, had to be taken in context (specifically referring to the issue of domestic violence), and which he subsequently moderated to meaning not all men. And which he post-rationalised as having to be controversial in order to get the issue out there.

But no, it wasn’t political in that as a statement it appeared to be more ad-libbed than scripted; loose lipped rather than tactically crafted for best effect. Did David just sense the love in the room and on the spur of the moment decide it was safe to unleash his inner-feminist? Many women and men on social media seem to think so; arguing it was courageous calling out the “bullshit, deep-seated sexism” still prevalent in New Zealand.

But that is quite out of character for David. Feminism isn’t his strong point. Otherwise he would have known that it’s way too simplistic to attribute the cause of sexual/domestic violence to sexism. That David reducts the issue to the ignorance and inability of men to “man up”, suggests a superficial understanding of what is a deeply complex, and insidious reality. Moreover, if David was truly aware of what happens in abusive situations he would not have used the apology in the communication of his message. He would know that victims of repeated domestic violence are also victims to the apology. The apology is what repeat abusers do to hoover their victims back to them; a psychological handcuff to prevent them from breaking free, thereby perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Over time victims of abuse learn to distrust the apology because it means nothing.

What is in character, however, and is the most plausible scenario, is that he walked into that room and immediately recognized he was a fish out of water. His fight or flight brain jumped to the conclusion that he was talking to a group of hostile man-haters (stereotypical assumption when confronted by a bunch of feminists). To reassure that he had come in peace he instinctively dialed up a number of clichés from his study of American political behaviour, and in one fell swoop conflated Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” remark (down-with-the-homies), with the political apology that American politicians frequently use when they have done something wrong and need to appear vulnerably human and remorseful. It wasn’t a genuine apology; it was a cliché’d response to his own personal discomfort. Which is why so many felt that it lacked authenticity and sincerity, and why it came across as insulting. It is yet another example of the yawning gap that exists between the real David and what uncontrollably falls out of his mouth.

If David had come in authentically saying, I’m feeling like a fish out of water, forgive me for not being an expert in this area, but we have been consulting with real experts and I hope you will agree that Labour’s new policy is going to go some way towards dealing with sexual and family violence, he would have been credible and convincing. And he would not have potentially offended a lot of the male voters he needs to stave off disaster in the polls. Can I end by saying that his comment is going to come back and haunt him in the campaign.

Get a grip people!

This political party fundraising discussion is verging on the hysterical. Although interestingly, it’s a discussion largely taking place amongst the commentariat rather than the real world.

The most significant thing about today was that, Labour’s Chris Hipkins and National’s Steven Joyce aside (clearly they were the party assigned spokespeople), not another member of Labour or National’s front bench engaged in debate about donations to political parties. Nor for that matter did any of the senior leadership of the Greens, New Zealand First, ACT, the Maori Party, Mana, United Future, or the Conservative parties. 

New Zealand’s electoral finance rules, while far from perfect, enable donors to feel safe, enabling them to support all political parties in private, up to a ‘reasonable’, limit. All parties need these donors. That’s what we the people, through our representatives, have agreed is appropriate.  

The alternative is total taxpayer funding of political parties, and I don’t perceive any public appetite for this alternative. Nor are parties prepared to seek this. All parties are afraid of the potential public backlash should they seek to transfer responsibility for all their activities to the taxpayer. 

So what’s this issue really about? It’s not about who is funding political parties. That’s not the story. This particular one is about whether David Cunliffe bought his way to victory. And in whose pocket is he sitting?

But honestly, I don’t think anyone really expects that David would sell his soul to any of the five donors who collectively contributed a mere $20k to his leadership campaign. Nor that John Key would sell his soul for $100k. This is not America. This is not the House of Cards.

The reality is that regardless of whether or not he had access to more money than Grant Robertson or Shane Jones, David Cunliffe ran the better leadership campaign. He won according to the rules that the Labour party established for the leadership campaign. It might have resulted in selection of the wrong candidate, but that’s the system Labour members chose. That’s the party’s problem. Grant and Shane didn’t lose cos David had richer backers. They just weren’t as skilled at campaigning as Dave. 

8 March 2014

Such a good cartoon by Sharon Murdoch!

Looking like a winner

Last year I published the results of a study into the visual bias of the main newspapers in their coverage of the two major leadership contenders in the 2011 New Zealand general election (“The eyes have it: visual bias in election campaign coverage”, in J. Johannson and S. Levine (Eds), Kicking the Tyres: The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011, Wellington: Victoria University Press.) I found that when it came to photographic images in the New Zealand Herald, Herald on Sunday (HoS), Dominion Post and the Sunday Star Times, coverage was not equally detailed and exacting of the major party leaders. Substantial image coverage imbalance was found in all four newspapers, most of it in favour of incumbent National leader and Prime Minister John Key. I suggested the findings gave reason for the Labour party and its then leader Phil Goff to feel like they were unfairly treated in print-media coverage, especially in the Herald/HoS. I said this raised serious questions about the objectivity of the print media’s visual coverage of New Zealand election campaigns that was worthy of wider consideration and public discussion.

As I have discussed in a previous blog entry, the subsequent level of critique was not particularly profound or accurate. While the Dominion Post remained largely silent on the matter (bar a cartoon), the New Zealand Herald criticised the research as a “batshitstudy” (Tim Murphy, Editor in Chief NZH, on Twitter); “wilfully misleading” (Shayne Currie, Editor NZH, on Twitter); not stacking up, fundamentally flawed, and not providing “meaningful answers” (John Armstrong, political columnist NZH, 29 November.)

New Zealand’s first nation-wide primary-style leadership campaign, in which the Labour Party allowed party members to vote for their new party leader for the first time, provided another opportunity to examine the issue of visual bias, and to test whether the papers had become more alert to the need to provide balance in their visual image coverage of leadership candidates.

This campaign was a particularly interesting object of study because, unlike a general election, there is no legislation governing how fair campaigns must be run in a party-run, party-wide leadership contest. Nor are there precedents for how the news media must operate or maintain balance in such a situation. Nor did anyone know what to expect in terms of media opportunities on the campaign trail. And there were three main contenders for leadership office, unlike the general election where the media’s primary focus is on the leaders of the two major parties. This was all new territory for the New Zealand news media.

There were three hypotheses I wanted to test:

      i.         that for the most part there would be substantial equivalency of coverage because none of the three leadership contenders were the incumbent leader, all were campaigning together, attending the same campaign meetings and talking to the same people over a short period of time, meaning there would be few opportunities for candidates to be photographed individually in more advantageous “photo op” moments;

     ii.         that there could be some evidence of “geo/partisan” imbalance (where the media reflects the interests of its dominant geographical audience). I anticipated that David Cunliffe could get more coverage in the Auckland papers given that he lived in Auckland and was an Auckland region MP; that Shane Jones could also receive more coverage from the Auckland papers given that he is from and represents the Far North; and that Grant Robertson as a Wellington Central MP, and well known in the core public sector could receive more coverage in The Dominion Post;

   iii.         that Grant Robertson’s sexuality (he was the first openly gay MP aspiring to be the leader of a major New Zealand political party) would not feature as an issue of visual importance, despite being a subject of written and verbal discussion, because there are no precedents for how to visually represent this as a campaign feature.


Using a similar method of analysis to the 2011 study, this time adding a South Island newspaper, I examined the photographic images published in the print versions of The New Zealand Herald (The Herald) and The Herald on Sunday (HoS) from the APN NZ Media stable of publications, and The Dominion Post (DomPost), The Press and Sunday Star Times (SST) from the Fairfax Media stable. The study covered the period Tuesday 27 August 2013, the day after the leadership nominations closed, to Sunday 15 September 2013, the day that voting closed for Labour Party members. In total the study covered 20 days and 57 editions. The unit of analysis was the individual photographic image featuring the three leadership contenders individually or together. In total this amounted to 65 separate photographs and 99 individual candidate appearances within those photographs.

A combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis was used in the study. The leader images were measured and compared for number, size and proportion. The images were also analysed for positive, neutral and negative tone, determined by a set of visual criteria used in the 2011 study and drawn from previous research into non-verbal, interpersonal communication in leader images (Robinson, 2012a; Robinson 2012b). I also added another variable: campaign vs stock images, to test whether there were individual campaign events that attracted more coverage.


Number and Proportion

There is evidence that the press was conscious of the need for balance: 69 of the 99 appearances were on a page featuring all three candidates, whether all together in one photograph or in separate images. Having said that, there was still a marked difference in terms of number and proportion of appearances. David Cunliffe’s image was the most published overall (37.4%); Grant Robertson’s the least (29.29%). Jones received exactly a third of the coverage, which is what could be expected in a perfectly balanced contest.

Regionally, Shane Jones’ image was the most published in the Auckland papers; David Cunliffe’s was the most published in the Wellington and Christchurch papers; Grant Robertson’s image dominated none of the papers, and was the least published in the Herald and the Press. The national Sunday papers were the most evenly balanced for number.

imageNote: highest in red, lowest in blue


Cunliffe’s image dominated the area in a higher proportion to his number of images (44.37%:37.37%.) Conversely, Robertson’s image occupied the least amount of space in total, and even less proportionate space than his number of images (23.9%:30%.) By a small margin Jones had the largest area proportion in the Auckland papers; and by a greater margin Cunliffe had the largest area proportion in the Wellington and Christchurch papers. Cunliffe had the largest average image size at 13.3cm2, Jones had the next largest at 11.9cm2 and Robertson the smallest at 11cm2

imageNote: highest in red, lowest in blue

Stock vs Campaign images

The short length of the campaign combined with the fact that the three contenders were campaigning together did indeed limit the number of staged “photo ops” the individual candidates could create. Just under half (31/65) of the candidate photos were stock photos taken at other occasions and held on file by the various newspapers. The candidates were photographed together at the same campaign venue in 16/65 photographs. Significantly, of the 18 photographs taken at other campaign locations 9 of them were of David Cunliffe’s campaign launch. 



Examining tone over the whole campaign, Cunliffe had the highest number and proportion of positive images across all papers, and Robertson the lowest. Robertson was the only candidate to have more negative than positive images — in the Herald. Cunliffe had over twice as many positive and neutral images than Robertson. Cunliffe also had the lowest number of negative images.


Why did Cunliffe dominate?

David Cunliffe (who went on to win the leadership contest) received the most favourable image treatment and coverage, and Grant Robertson the least, over the five newspapers. Let us examine the possible reasons for this, starting with the most contentious: Robertson’s sexuality. There was only one story that featured 3 separate images of the candidates with their partners. At the level of the published visual image, therefore, this was not a differentiating factor.

What about geo-partisan bias? Did the fact that Cunliffe and Jones represent the geographical interests of the Herald’s primary coverage area assist them? There is no strong evidence for this. Certainly Jones was the most published in the Auckland papers, and Cunliffe had three more published images than Jones in the Press as a result of a profile piece on Cunliffe’s South Canterbury roots. But if geography was a differentiating factor Robertson would have dominated the Wellington papers, which he did not. Instead it was Cunliffe that was the most published in the Dominion Post.

How about incumbency? A number of international studies have found evidence of an uneven balance of news media time and attention in favour of incumbent candidates relative to their standing in the opinion polls — sometimes referred to as an incumbency ‘bonus’ (Barber 2008; Hopmann, de Vreese and Albaek 2011; Jenkins 1999). In 2011 I found an incumbency bonus in favour of National leader and Prime Minister John Key (Robinson 2012a.)

In this primary-style campaign no-one was incumbent leader, but David Cunliffe was the longest serving MP and he was also the frontrunner in terms of public opinion support. In a 3 News poll midway through the campaign Cunliffe was the favourite amongst Labour voters at 45.6%, Jones was second on 28.1%, and Robertson third on 26.4% (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9135678/Cunliffe-ahead-in-Labour-leadership-poll. This was a similar order to the overall number, area and tone of image coverage each ultimately received.

Evidence of a possible bonus over and above opinion poll standing in favour of Cunliffe can be found in individual papers. The Dominion Post gave over 53.14% of its candidate image coverage to Cunliffe; the Press gave over 51.15% to him. This was largely at Jones’s expense in the Dominion Post and Robertson’s in the Press. This evidence is not strong enough, however, to suggest that Cunliffe received an across the board advantage.

Of much greater impact on number, area and positive messaging was David Cunliffe’s decision to hold a media-invited “razzamatazz” campaign launch, captured in large, colourful images of Cunliffe displaying victorious body language and facial expressions. Despite media commentators describing Cunliffe as “vainglorious” (Espiner, 2013), and his launch as a “cringeworthy revival meeting lacking authenticity” (Small, 2013), the spectacle substantially increased the amount of visual attention he received over the other two candidates, who had earlier announced their candidature in low-key media interviews with no press photographers present.

Not only did the large Cunliffe images dominate newspaper coverage of the campaign on the day after he announced his candidacy, but they were repeatedly used to illustrate stories about him throughout the campaign. The launch gave Cunliffe a serious advantage in terms of on-going visual coverage, which the others could not compete with because of the lack of subsequent photo opportunities afforded by the campaign’s organisational structure. While many of the written stories were not entirely complimentary about Cunliffe (e.g., Vance 2013, Roughan 2103), the take-away message in the visual images was positive.




But the ready availability of a good press photograph containing messages about victory and popularity does not explain all of Cunliffe’s dominance. Some of the answer also lies in his proxemic placement in relation to his competitors at campaign meetings.


Whether by the speaking order determined by meeting organisers, good fortune, because he possessed good tactical awareness, or a combination of these factors, Cunliffe was seated in-between Jones and Robertson in a majority (10/16) of the campaign photographs of the three together. Compositionally, therefore, the photographs were centered on Cunliffe; he was the focal point of the visual narrative, with the other two responding to the action in the centre. In a number of these images Cunliffe looked straight down the barrel of the camera with a smile on his face (creating a one-on-one relationship with the viewer) while Jones’ and Robertson’s body language reacted negatively to Cunliffe (and ignoring the viewer.)

The images of Jones and Robertson as physically disengaged from Cunliffe illustrated a sub-theme about Cunliffe’s lack of popularity with his caucus colleagues that ran throughout the media’s written campaign coverage. While this was a largely negative written message about Cunliffe, paradoxically the visual images ended up being most damaging to Jones and Robertson because they connoted their lack of ability to handle their chief threat. The overarching message was that Cunliffe was the dominant player in this game.

Conclusion: Looking like a winner gets you press

This study found some evidence of the press being conscious of the need to balance cover of the three candidates. However, it also found significant imbalance in visual image coverage in favour of David Cunliffe and away from Grant Robertson. Like Phil Goff in 2011, both Shane Jones and Grant Robertson have a right to feel deprived of the same visual image coverage that David Cunliffe received in the press during the Labour leadership campaign. Coverage was not equally detailed and exacting of the three leadership candidates, and this may have impacted on the ability of Labour party members to make a well-informed voting choice.

This will no doubt disappoint some in the press, because they were often unflattering in their written coverage of Cunliffe, and may not welcome the suggestion that they may have unwittingly undermined the chances of the other candidates by their more positive visual image coverage of Cunliffe. But the issue here, and what makes the visual image so potent, is that the visual images accompanying a written story are what most readers will see and process first, before they interpret meaning from the written story. Images have the power to elicit reactions that are intuitive or emotional and influence conscious thinking before the logic derived from language is engaged. This is especially so when it comes to images of people — personal appearance, facial expressions, gestures and posture are included in the range of images neurologically pre-programmed for instant effect. The more often readers are exposed to these images, the more these messages imprint in their subconscious. The meaning contained in visual images simplifies the complexities of political learning, and may even influence the likelihood they will vote for that candidate.

This all makes the choice of the image that accompanies a written story, and the message it contains, extremely important, and why visual bias needs to be an object of concern in an election campaign when many voters turn to the press for information to assist them when making their voting choice. The challenge that Labour party members faced in this primary was how to select a leader between three candidates who had not yet proved their leadership competence. In this situation, when all three brought aspects of significant political capital to the table, there was always a risk that the final judgment would be based not necessarily on careful reasoning, but on heuristic judgments of who would perform best as the leaders — made through the intuitive assessment of who looked most like a winner

There are also tactical lessons to be learned from this experience by anyone engaged in a public leadership competition — about the importance of controlling for nonverbal body language at all times; and the importance of the well-timed spectacle, not only for what it communicates about a particular event but for the way that the images continue to be recycled throughout a campaign, and for the significant impact they have on voter choice.

3 February 2014


Barber, M. (2008). Getting the Picture: Airtime and Lineup Bias on Canadian Networks during the 2006 Federal Election. Canadian Journal of Communication, 33, 621-637.

Barrett, A. W., & Barrington, L. W. (2005, Fall). Is a picture worth a thousand words? Newspaper photographs and voter evaluations of political candidates. Press/Politics, 10(4), 98-113.

D’Alessio, D., & Allen, M. (2000). Media Bias in Presidential Elections: A Meta Analysis. Journal of Communication, Autumn 2000, 133 - 156.

Espiner, Colin. (2013). David Cunliffe is Labour’s top dog, http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/blogs/bull-dust/9092256/David-Cunliffe-is-Labours-top-dog, retrieved 27 August 2103.

Hopmann, D. N., Vreese, C. H. d., & Albaek, E. (2011). Incumbency Bonus in Election News Coverage Explained: The Logics of Political Power and the Media market. Journal of Communication, 61, 264-282.

Jenkins, R. W. (1999). How Much is Too Much? Media Attention and Popular Support for an Insurgent Party. Political Communication, 16(4), 429-445.

Kahneman, D (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin ebook.

Robinson, C (2012a) “The eyes have it: visual bias in election campaign coverage” in J. Johannson and S. Levine (Eds), Kicking the Tyres: The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011, Wellington: Victoria University Press

Robinson, C (2012b). “Interacting leaders” in J Lees-Marshment (ed), Routledge Handbook of Political Marketing. London: Routledge.

Roughan, J (2013). “Cunliffe has the wind in his sails” Weekend Herald, 7 Sept, p. A25 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11120832

Small, V (2013). Robertson best choice for Labour, http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/columnists/vernon-small/9100193/Robertson-best-choice-for-Labour, retrieved 29 August 2013

Vance, A (2013). “Loved and loathed: the polarizing politician”, Dominion Post, 14 September, p. A6, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9164503/Loved-and-loathed-the-polarising-politician

Let’s get a royal stamp of approval

Holding a referendum at the election about whether to change the New Zealand flag is electorally smart for National. The public debate so far seems to be more in favour than not; deep down it’s an issue that makes us reflect from a sense of community about the ways we represent ourselves internationally as a nation and a culture. It could result in many more voters going to the polls, because it’s a historically significant moment that will impact on the lives of our children, grand children and great-great grandchildren. Even people who are not normally engaged in politics may feel it’s an issue worth expressing a democratic choice over. This could translate into broader feelings of satisfaction with the status quo, which means voters are less likely to want a change of government.

However if, as is being speculated, the government will also ask voters to select from a range of designs that have already been shortlisted by Cabinet, then John Key may as well hand over the swipe cards for the 9th floor of the Beehive to David Cunliffe now. Because that would well and truly be bad policy-making as well as electoral suicide.

Why suicide? Because having to choose between already shortlisted options will result in public lobbying and emotional debate that will distract voters from the more important electoral choices they have to make in the election. If public flag preference is tracked by opinion polls, those supporting less popular options may feel their vote won’t count and be completely deterred from going to the polling booth. If there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the process and with the options being presented the target of dissatisfaction will be the government and National will be the loser. This is not mere speculation. Enough is known about voter behavior to predict that this will happen.

Why bad policy making? Because neither Cabinet nor the general public are capable of making the best decision for New Zealand on the design of the flag of the future.

Sadly there are no artists or designers in Cabinet who are qualified to understand the purpose and power of the visual symbol as a metaphoric expression of New Zealand identity. Sure there are some who understand elements of it (Steven Joyce understands the importance of design-led innovation, Chris Finlayson is a strong advocate for culture and heritage, Judith Collins appreciates the politics of fashion design), but the design of the flag is too important to be left to former business people, farmers, lawyers and accountants.

John Key has already stated his personal preference for the silver fern on a black background. Without doubt the silver fern is stylish, and government ministers wear it proudly as a brooch on their suit lapels. But its symbolic origins derive from butter marketing and it has become commodified as an export identifier. It’s also strongly associated with historic sporting success, and we are emotionally biased towards it. But are we that insecure as a nation that butter and sports marketing should form the basis for the manifestation of our future national identifier? 

The design of the flag is not an economic decision. It is about what takes us forward as a nation into next 100 years. It needs to capture the essence of us as a people while being instantly recognisable; it wants to be worn at events, should raise a tear, sit boldly and comfortably alongside, but also set us apart visually in, a sea of other nations’ flags.

So why can’t the people decide? It is the people’s flag afterall. Last week’s public discussions have shown that suddenly everyone’s an expert and everyone thinks they’re a designer. Well I’d like to see them put a portfolio together and apply to design school. They might get a shock to find out how difficult it is to get through the front door!

The general public doesn’t have a role in deciding what the new design could be because it will, by its very nature, avoid extreme preferences, regress to the mean, default to the already known, and end up with the mediocre. And mediocre is the last thing we need at a time when New Zealand needs to have a strong international presence in an ever-changing global environment.

The design criteria, commissioning process, and shortlisting would best be decided by an independent expert panel comprised of our most successful designers, artists, film-makers, musicians, writers and performers. These people, more than anyone, understand the design process, the importance of the metaphor, the need to depart from the known, and how to generate new ideas to create the future. The need “to crave a different kind of buzz” saw Lorde succeed with Royals. That is what we need to capture in the new flag design.

The final decision then has to be made by someone of New Zealand but not of New Zealand; someone who bridges old and new, the past and the future, the old flag and our future flag. Ironically there’s only one person who could do that and that is possibly our last royal: Prince William.


Claire Robinson is a Professor of Communication Design and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey University’s College of Creative Arts

Originally published in the New Zealand Herald, 4 February 2014 

Who will win the 2014 election and why?

If recent history is anything to go by, the 2014 general election result is already sorted. As the chart (below) shows, since 1998 the major party leading the political opinion polls in July of the year preceding a general election has gone on to be the party with the highest proportion of the party vote come election day, and the party that has led the next government. Despite the current centre-left Labour/Greens bloc looking competitive, National appears to have the next election in the bag, again.

How is this possible, when there is a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and the next election; when the Labour Party hasn’t presented any of its 2014 policies; and when not a cent of money has been spent on campaign advertising by any political party? Surely voters will be waiting to see what tricks new Labour leader David Cunliffe can pull out of the party’s bag before coming to a decision?

It’s counter-intuitive, but election campaigns in New Zealand don’t actually make much difference to the outcome of elections for major parties (although they do for minor parties). Data gathered from the New Zealand Election Study since 1999 shows that on average almost 54% of voters will make their decision about which party to vote for before the election campaign. While pre-existing party loyalty is a significant factor in the voting choice of these “early deciders”, international research shows that they also base their decision on performance measures they already know or estimate well out from the election campaign.

Break the data down even further and we find that 62.7% of National voters make their voting decision before the election campaign; 40.4% of them make that decision before election year. It is these voters Labour needs to reach across to if it is to have any chance of regaining the box seat. But most of them have already made up their mind based on what they know now, and it will take a miracle to convert them.

Labour’s miracle needs to include convincing National voters that David Cunliffe’s recent rekindling of Labour’s relationship with the union movement and its grass roots members is also in their interests. It may have worked to shore up Cunliffe’s leadership ambitions, but persuading more conservative centre-right voters to swing to the far left will not be such an easy ask.

Without being able to rely on these voters for support, Cunliffe will have to share the spotlight with the Greens’ Russel Norman and Metiria Turei in order to present a viable leadership alternative to the National-led government. This isn’t an easy alliance. The closer they get to Labour, the Greens risk becoming seen as ‘Labour-lite’. However, if they are to grow their support base they need to keep taking voters off Labour and presenting themselves as significantly different. Conversely for Labour to grow they need to take votes off the Greens, which means that they can’t become too chummy either. It won’t be easy for either party to present itself as a shared and unified coalition when deep down they are competing for the same votes.

Although David Cunliffe emerged from the Labour leadership ‘primary’ with all guns blazing, recent political history also suggests he will find it hard to make a sustained impact within the next 12 months. The MMP era is littered with major party leaders that have rolled or replaced their predecessors — Jenny Shipley, Bill English, Don Brash, Phil Goff and David Shearer — in the hope that they could do better within 2-3 years of the next election, only to fall by the way. John Key was the exception, taking just under two years to become Prime Minister; before him Helen Clark was leader of the Opposition for six years before becoming Prime Minister; and before her Jim Bolger was leader of the Opposition for 4.5 years before becoming Prime Minister. No-one has yet gone on to lead a government within twelve months of assuming opposition party leadership.

Of course none of this means that forming the next government will be straightforward for National. As incumbent it could continue to govern immediately after the next election even if it lacked a parliamentary majority, but it would still need the support of another party or parties to survive a confidence vote in the House. Its current support parties in government — ACT, United Future and the Maori Party — have all suffered serious reputational damage and declining popularity over this term of government, and their continued ability to survive the next election, let alone collectively prop up a National-led coalition, is not guaranteed.

Of the three minor coalition partners, the Maori Party is the most likely to survive through the 2014 election. David Cunliffe has too much on his plate over the next 12 months to be able to reassure voters in all the Maori seats that he is in a position to prioritise their interests. So there will still be room on the political spectrum for a party or parties dedicated to maori needs. With a new leader in Te Ururoa Flavell, we are likely to see a reinvigorated Maori Party, but it’s not looking likely that Maori and Mana parties will be able to reconcile over the next 12 months in order to win all the Maori seats.

As always in New Zealand politics, the wildcard is New Zealand First, which will wait until the election results are known before committing its support to a major party. Assuming it gets over the 5% threshold, New Zealand First’s main options would then be to go into coalition with National, go into coalition with Labour and the Greens, or remain on the cross benches. With a party membership that has previously indicated a preference not to be in formal coalition with National, and faced with the alternative prospect of being the third (and least important) party in a Labour/Greens coalition, the most likely scenario is that New Zealand First will choose to stay on the cross-benches, supporting a minority National Government on confidence and supply, much as it did for the 2005-2008 Labour-led government. In this scenario it would be in the all-powerful position of having the casting vote on every piece of legislation before the House, with management of a Cabinet portfolio or two thrown in for good measure.

But there is an even wilder card that may yet disrupt this scenario, in the form of the Conservative Party. In the 2011 election it got 2.65% of the party vote, which is more than any of National’s coalition partners. Off the back of population increases it is possible that a new electorate may be formed north of Auckland, currently a National leaning geo/political zone. It would not be without precedent for National to ‘gift’ the winning of that electorate to party leader Colin Craig to ensure that the Conservatives’ party vote — likely to be higher in 2014 than in 2011, and taking votes away from New Zealand First — may be counted in a new centre-right coalition bloc. National might then be able to govern without the need for the support of New Zealand First.

Either way, National has options. It is going to be a very interesting election year!


Professor Claire Robinson

Massey University

Originally published in: The New Zealand Herald Future NZ Supplement, 14 November 2013

Is it any wonder that news media outlets have difficulty finding female “expert” commentators willing to stand up and speak out?

Readers of my last blog will know that in late November 2012 I was on the receiving end of some bizarre critique from male media and bloggers after the publication of my research that found evidence of image bias in the print media during the 2011 New Zealand election campaign. The most sexist critique was by NBR columnist Rod Vaughan who tried to discredit me by arguing I had my knickers in a knot and a crush on the Prime Minister (and therefore couldn’t possibly be balanced myself).

At around the same time in Australia former Wallaby David Campese publicly apologized for tweeting a sexist remark about Fairfax Media’s rugby union correspondent, Georgina Robinson (no relation). He had been roundly condemned by current and former players for a tweet in which he questioned why the Sydney Morning Herald should “get a girl to write about rugby”.

It was too much to expect that anyone would have condemned Rod Vaughan for being equally disrespectful and sexist in his blog. By attacking a sacred cow in my research, in this case the impartiality and objectivity of the most influential newspapers in New Zealand, I wasn’t likely to get too much support from within the news media for speaking out.

A couple of weeks later media3 ran a story on the difficulty in Britain finding female “expert” television commentators, particularly when it came to discussing “women’s” issues.

Given that they had taken such a sympathetic interest in this subject matter I thought I would check out just how many female expert commentators media3 called upon in 2012. I counted the instances that media3 had used male and female panelists in its 19 shows. I defined panelists as those who sat at the desk with host Russell Brown in the media3 studio and were interviewed for, or provided comment based on, their expertise. In total 51 such panelists featured on the show in 2012. Only 14 of those panelists (27.45%) were female. I tweeted Russell and Jose Barbosa about this. Jose said the point of the story was more about situations where its obvious a female voice is needed, but acceded they could do better. Russell said I might be surprised at how hard it has been to get the women they wanted on camera.

Of course, female commentators shouldn’t just be called upon to discuss “women’s” issues. Women are just as competent as men to express expert opinion on any issue. However, even in the last election campaign, where the issues were of interest to male and female New Zealanders, women were under-represented on screen. Researcher Corin Higgs recently published a review of punditry in the 2011 New Zealand election campaign (in Levine/Roberts ed Kicking the Tyres, VUW Press). He found an under-representation of female pundits on screen, with a gender imbalance of two or three male pundits for every woman.

So why should it be so hard to get women to go on camera as expert commentators?

The usual reasons held up for women’s advancement in all areas no doubt apply: women often lack the networks to be ‘known’ in the right circles to get the opportunities; there are fewer women in positions of authority to call upon so the pool is smaller; women often don’t think of themselves as being expert (the imposter complex), while testosterone fueled men will have more bravado and be more entertaining; and women often won’t have the confidence, desire, or thick skin to stick their heads above the parapet in a combative environment.

With good reason.

With the exception of Maori Television, Corin Higgs found that female pundits tended to be interrupted more frequently, and enjoyed less speaking time than their male counterparts. He also noted that on internet blogs, social media and other outlets, criticism of female pundits tended to be more personalised than criticism of male pundits, and gave as an example where I was labeled a ‘boil on the political commentary landscape’ and accused of being a stooge for the National Party.

The 2011 election campaign was my fourth election campaign as a political commentator. During the campaign I made 16 television appearances. I was contracted by TVNZ to be an expert panelist on the three leaders’ debates and provide post debate analysis on the Tonight news show. I gave a campaign roundup each Friday on Breakfast. I featured on TV3 news, on Chinese TV, on 60 Minutes, and on Sunday. I also gave many radio and print interviews.

In the previous three elections I never received one piece of criticism. That changed in 2011, with the social media revolution of the previous three years making it much easier for people to fling abuse around anonymously from their mobile devices in the safety of their living rooms, and for me to see it.

During the election campaign I received and read what I considered unpleasant personal criticism in the social media. I was called a stupid bitch, a stupid turnip, a seagull, a trout, a gormless smirking pol com, part of TVNZ’s worst political news team, a boil on the political commentary landscape, completely wrong, an air head, a child, hardly neutral, biased, vacuous, awful, utterly superficial, infatuated with the Prime Minister’s political style, the weakest link, not credible, untrustworthy, a public health warning, Shipley’s ass-wipe. I was accused of having no practical knowledge of or any real understanding of the world of politics, of being a good righty, of parroting National Party memes, of contributing nothing, of spouting biased pieces of shit from the ass that is my mouth, of getting my political science degree off the net, and from a cereal box, of providing superficial analysis, of being full of shit. As a female it was suggested I should be more empathetic to the left. I was impersonated on twitter by someone who took my photo and my profile description and tweeted as me through the campaign. They made inappropriate comments about my children.

I searched the internet at the time to see if fellow political scientist Jon Johannson was receiving similar personal attacks. Aside from the odd accusation of him being a lefty, there were none.

To make me feel not so isolated, friends sent me articles from the international press on trolling, and the phenomenal abuse that female bloggers and commentators receive elsewhere. At least I hadn’t been threatened with rape, murder or being urinated on like some female commentators in Britain and the US. Even this week Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, has blogged about her recent experience with shocking trolling http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2013/01/internet-fury.html

Seasoned hands said I had to grow a thick skin; that I was now playing in sandpit with the big boys, the playground bullies, and that I shouldn’t gratify them by whining, or showing how their comments affected me. I decided not to comment publicly. I grew a thicker skin, and I didn’t let the abuse put me off political commentating.

I have no problem with people critiquing the content of what I say; if someone has better research or evidence to refute what I say I should be challenged. But the problem of the lack of female expert commentators will not be resolved while personal attacks, misogynist sexist comments and denigration continue, and while the blogosphere (including news media sites) condone and perpetuate it by publishing the abusive comments that their readers mindlessly fling about. As one English political commentator has written, women will never achieve equality in this area as long as they’re being intimidated out of the picture.

Only now getting around to my rebuttal

In which I address some of the criticism I received late last year in response to my image bias research.

On 26 November 2012 some research I conducted into incumbency bias in the New Zealand print media in the 2012 election campaign was published in the Levine/Johansson edited book Kicking the Tyres (VUW press). I knew that publication of the research findings was going to cause some discomfort because it essentially caught some print media outlets with their pants down. I didn’t expect it to be hysterical: a word often derogatorily used for an over-the-top female response to an event, but in this case used to describe the response of male members of the media and blogosphere.

The research was variously described by them as:

  • A “batshitstudy” (Tim Murphy, Editor in Chief of New Zealand Herald, on Twitter)
  •  “wilfully misleading” (Shayne Currie, Editor of New Zealand Herald, on Twitter)
  • not stacking up, fundamentally flawed, and not providing “meaningful answers” (John Armstrong, New Zealand Herald, 29 November)
  • “a very lazy piece of work” (Whaleoil, 27 November)
  • “hardly cutting edge”, narrowly focused, “virtually worthless” research based on “simplistic notions of what constitutes unbiased coverage” (Sean Plunket, Dominion Post, 1 December)
  • Plunket also implied that I was a left-wing political commentator influenced by the political leanings of my employer Steve Maharey, the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University, who is a former Labour cabinet minister (Sean Plunket, Newstalk ZB, 27 November).
  • I was also accused of having my “knickers in a knot”, a “crush on the Prime Minister”, and needing to “have more to worry about” given that I am “believed to be earning more than $100,000 a year” (Rod Vaughan, NBR online, 27 November).

Many of the criticisms were about the study’s focus on the election campaign period only. The Herald guys pointed out that restricting it to that period meant that a lot of images of Phil Goff published just prior to the campaign period had not been included — the inference, a broader time period would have showed they were more Goff-friendly. This, the limitation of the study to the four newspapers and the restriction of the study to the two major party leaders’ images and not the minor party leader images, seemed to lead to the allegations that the methodology was flawed.

This is of course rich critique coming from journalists and bloggers who don’t themselves use anything remotely resembling a rigorous methodology when they make commentary in the media or in social media! And it wasn’t clear whether any had actually read the chapter before choosing to mouth off!

Nonetheless, here is my rebuttal:

So why study the election campaign period only?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of methodology would know that quantitative research has to have a discrete start point and an end point that relates to the research question, is manageable (otherwise we would have to keep measuring forever), enables the research to be conducted under controlled conditions so as to provide unambiguous answers, prevents the researcher from changing or manipulating variables, and enables replication by a subsequent researcher.

In this case the start point was the beginning of the “official” election campaign period, Thursday 27 October, through to Friday 25 November, the day before the 2011 election and the last day that the media were allowed to publish election-related stories. This was a period of time selected for its unique characteristics in an election cycle. During this time voters will consciously turn to the news media for election information, to either confirm their predetermined voting decision (for those who have already made up their minds); or to help them make an informed choice (for those who haven’t formed their decision). An average of 45% of voters say they make their voting decision during the election campaign period (New Zealand Election Study, 1993-2008). That is a substantial number of voters, many of whom will be accessing election information in newspapers. There is plenty of domestic and international research to demonstrate the importance of this particular period on voter decision-making. This wasn’t me making an arbitrary or irrational call.

Of course there will be images (data) outside the period that weren’t included but that happens with every study! The important thing is this was a period of sufficient length to provide a good sample of images to study. It was also in line with other international studies of election coverage bias.

Does studying only four newspapers make the research ‘lazy’?

In terms of restricting aquantitative research study to a manageable sample, decisions have to be made about the size of a sample that is representative of a wider whole. In this case I chose to study four large newspapers representing the two main newspaper ownership stables, APN and Fairfax, from which other smaller newspapers draw their material. They were also the newspaper groupings  with the highest circulation in the fourth quarter of 2011. This made it a significant sample representing high levels of potential newspaper influence on voters.

Importantly, a larger sample of newspapers would only have proved three things: either that the South Island, smaller and or regional papers had less, equal or more image imbalance than the four largest papers. It wouldn’t have altered in any way the findings in relation to the Herald/Herald on Sunday and Dominion Post/Sunday Star Times.

Why only the major party leaders?

The principal question the study was seeking to answer was the extent to which there was bonus media coverage for the incumbent political leader over the main challenger for the incumbent’s position. This meant the study was focused on John Key and Phil Goff. None of the other minor party leaders were competing to become incumbent Prime Minister, so they were not included in the study.

I acknowledge in the chapter that New Zealand’s elections are run under a proportional electoral system, and many more leaders and parties contested the 2011 general election. I indicated that the issue of lack of media attention paid to minor party leaders in the print media is for another study.

Was studying this a waste of time?

Word bias has been studied before in academic studies of New Zealand’s newspapers, and the findings have supported the view that reporting is generally balanced and non-partisan. But today the news is rendered visually as well as verbally, and international research has found that measures of verbal bias do not apply to measures of visual image bias. Visual image bias in election campaigns has never been systematically studied in New Zealand before, making it definitely an area worth examining.

International research has found that incumbent leaders do receive more coverage because readers are interested in their activities. So I was fully expecting that there would be more favourable numbers and tone for Key, and was not surprised to find this borne out by the data. But the amount of favourable coverage for Key was a lot more than international research had predicted. This makes the New Zealand findings anomalous. Is this worth knowing? Of course it is? Are the reasons for this worth hypothesising? Of course they are. Is this an important issue? Absolutely, regardless of whether I earn over or under $100,000. My income is totally irrelevant to this!!

As for the more bizarre claims…

Sean Plunket’s suggestion that I am myself politically biased and influenced by the political leanings of my boss. Hard to know where to start with this one because it is so illogical, and the implications plain bizarre. Does that mean that everyone who comments on anything political in the media is just a mouthpiece for their boss? Seriously? What I found even more amusing was that after a year of being accused by the left of being a right-wing political commentator, all of a sudden I was being accused by the right of being a left-wing commentator! 

Then there was Rod Vaughan’s suggestion that comments I had made in an answer to a Dominion Post reporters questions (in July 2011), about why John Key might have been so popular with women, meant that I had a crush on the prime minister (meaning I could not be unbiased). Though this crush had apparently been replaced by a residual guilt at Phil Goff’s demise because in 1990 and 1993 I had a “dalliance with Labour”. I mean FFS. This is the 21st century. To have it suggested that my research findings are influenced by what my boss thinks, or in the context of crushes, dalliances and knickers is, quite simply, tragic.

Is it any wonder that news media outlets have such difficulty finding female “expert” commentators willing to stand up and speak out?

I have been busy with a new job for the past 12 months, which explains the long absence from blogging. However, there are a few issues that I will be commenting on over the next few weeks, the next one discussing the question posed above.






Creative arts add real economic value

Recent media reports have exhibited an undercurrent of suspicion towards tertiary study in the creative arts.

Last weekend’s Herald on Sunday, for example, cited Professor Jacqueline Rowarth of Waikato University’s management school saying that New Zealanders weren’t paid well for tertiary qualifications and thousands of students were enrolling in creative arts courses that won’t help them get jobs. Rowarth argues that students take creative arts courses at the expense of science, and that scientific research is needed to keep the economy growing.

The implication is that by including creative arts in their tertiary studies, students are using valuable government resources to pursue “hobby” subjects instead of opting for more “serious” economically-worthwhile subjects like agriculture, science, engineering and maths.

Let’s look into this idea of value. Take the most successful company in the world at the moment, Apple.

One of the longest serving and critical members of the team that designed the iPhone and iPad is a creative arts graduate from New Zealand. Consider another global giant, Nike. Two creative arts graduates from New Zealand were on the team who helped design the Nike swoosh that appeared everywhere at the London Olympics.

Think about how many people own a Philips appliance. Who leads their design team? A New Zealand creative arts graduate. Who designed the transformational Fisher & Paykel dishdrawer? A home-grown creative arts graduate. How about those revolutionary seats on Air New Zealand long haul? Who designed those? Again, creative arts graduates from New Zealand.

These people are moulding global culture and businesses. They were lucky to be born with talent in a relatively free, creative little country. Here in New Zealand they have had the right opportunities to hone their natural abilities.

Now they are renowned and amply rewarded financially for their skills and creativity. Their careers clearly show that creative arts education can generate substantial economic benefit for individuals themselves, for business, and for the wider economy.

Yet at home, we still encounter embarrassingly parochial attitudes and cringe-making ignorance about the economic value of creative arts. Some among us look on every dollar spent on the arts as a dollar lost to science.

Then there is the important socio-cultural value that tertiary-trained artists, performers, writers, filmmakers bring to articulating and forming our national identity.

The creative arts are the primary way we as a nation express our character, our soul. They give us - in economic terms - our market differentiation. They provide reasons for people to visit us, to do business with us and to watch our movies.

The Government is currently grappling with the issue of how to improve its business infrastructure to help the economy become more innovative. In this we are not alone. The Europeans are well ahead of us, recognising that creativity and design is a critical part of the innovation infrastructure and investing resources to encourage greater creativity.

A recent evaluation of a UK Design Council programme aimed at increasing the use of design by primarily small and medium sized enterprises in manufacturing indicated strong economic returns for firms investing in design. Draft figures show that every £1 ($2) spent delivered £20+ in turnover, £3.90 operating profit and £4.71 exports directly attributable to the programme, and that every £1 invested by Government in design returned £34 to the economy. The evaluation also indicated that investment in design directly created and safeguarded jobs.

Prime Minister John Key frequently says that New Zealand’s economic future depends on moving up the value curve - ensuring there are more competitive firms making and selling more higher-value products and services.

New Zealand needs students studying science, technology, engineering and maths to achieve this. But without question it also needs creative arts students and graduates.

Playing the science/art divide is a tired strategy that doesn’t serve our country well. There are myriad instances of collaborations between science and the creative arts that have generated substantial added value.

In the UK, for instance, a programme pairing design associates with scientists and engineers at advanced R&D facilities led Oxford University to attract £4 million in investment to develop new electricity metering technology.

In New Zealand, leading agricultural companies like Gallaghers use industrial design expertise to give them the edge. It is time to embrace the 21st century, respect the skills and expertise of our highly trained graduates of every hue, and work together to get the best value out of every dollar for New Zealand.
Claire Robinson is an associate professor in creative arts at Massey University.

Originally published in the New Zealand Herald, 

My political media picks for 2012

  1. John Key’s honeymoon with the news media is effectively over. The print media will illustrate stories with unflattering photos of Key.
  2. David Shearer’s honeymoon with the news media has begun. Shearer will be smiling in the majority of photos accompanying stories about him.
  3. David Shearer will be the only spokesperson on issues of concern to Labour over the next year.
  4. David Shearer will pull the plug on Red Alert, requiring that all channels of communication which multiply the opinions of independently minded Labour MPs be shut off.
  5. David Shearer will also forbid all public bagging, baiting, trolling, sulking and responding to attack on Twitter. Labour MP’s Twitter comments will be reduced to announcements of attendance at public events.
  6. Outspoken and hyperactive old-guard MP Trevor Mallard will find it hard to toe this line, and will be the first to test the new directive.
  7. Corin Dann will replace Guyon as TVNZ Political Editor (I have absolutely no inside knowledge of this, but I think it would be a good move).
  8. The news media will spend the first six months of the year testing the backbone of new New Zealand First and National backbench MPs. More than a couple will be publicly humiliated.
  9. The Greens will be largely left alone, and will struggle to hit headlines.
  10. The MMP Review will recommend substantial change to MMP, including a reduction in the threshold to 4%; removal of the entitlement for a successful electorate candidate to bring in other MPs with their party’s below-the-threshold party vote; and removal of the ability to be able to stand as a candidate both for an electorate seat and on a party list.
  11. No political parties in parliament will support the recommended MMP reforms and will call for maintenance of the status quo.
  12. This won’t get much media attention, as after July attention to domestic politics will take a back seat to the more distracting London Olympics and US Presidential elections.
  13. Bryce Edwards will finally come to his senses and give up the thankless and time-consuming task of compiling his New Zealand Politics Daily newsletter.
  14. The Nation will continue to marginalise the opinion of half of its potential viewing audience by excluding the voice of women from its regular punditry.
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