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.
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.
- John Key’s honeymoon with the news media is effectively over. The print media will illustrate stories with unflattering photos of Key.
- David Shearer’s honeymoon with the news media has begun. Shearer will be smiling in the majority of photos accompanying stories about him.
- David Shearer will be the only spokesperson on issues of concern to Labour over the next year.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- The Greens will be largely left alone, and will struggle to hit headlines.
- 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.
- No political parties in parliament will support the recommended MMP reforms and will call for maintenance of the status quo.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I have no idea who created these, but they are brilliant!
Many will be familiar with the Tip Top Trumpet “Undies” advertisement when a man in a bathing suit walks away from a beach into a town, while the question is asked “how far away from the beach do togs become undies?” The answer: “if you can’t see the water you’re in underpants”. Something that is acceptably public becomes private once it has crossed a perceptual dividing line.
It’s a scenario analogous to the Epsom talk scandal that dominated the 2011 election campaign last week. While the camera crews and journalists were inside the café covering the tea meeting between John Key and John Banks they were at effectively at the beach, but once they left to go outside the café window they were in town. The dividing line was also perceptual; a piece of glass that meant the media was still able to see what was going on, but they were not permitted to hear what was being said.
Like the appropriateness of wearing underpants in public, in politics there is a dividing line between what is private and what is public. Another analogy is the theatre concepts of backstage and front-stage: there is politics that goes on behind closed doors [backstage] and there is politics that is presented before a live or mediated audience [front-stage].
Backstage is the area that the public does not enter (either because it is personal, sensitive, unnecessary, unhelpful, boring, impractical or time consuming to do so). Opinions expressed in these spaces are not for public consumption. Backstage areas include the 9th floor of the Beehive, the PM’s home, many corridors in parliament buildings, the Cabinet and other rooms in the Beehive, inside crown cars, bars, restaurants, meeting and hotel rooms. Some of these places are public, in the sense of being perceived in open view, but they are nonetheless backstage in terms of being out-of-bounds to the public (including the news media).
Front-stage includes the lobby of parliament, wherever there is a stand-up press conference, the Beehive Theatrette, the television and radio studios when the cameras are running and the mics are on, the chamber, the campaign trail. Front-stage is the space of the ‘photo op’, the on-one-one interview and the media “stand-up” news conference. The rules and timing of these moments are mutually agreed between political leader and media pack, and access to this area is granted “at the pleasure” of the Prime Minister. In return the PM relinquishes his right to edit the tapes, frame the news item or control how his image and message is subsequently used.
During election campaigns the media has increased access backstage. This works to benefit both media and politician: political leaders need to be in the public spotlight as much as practicable in order to communicate their message to as many voters as possible, and so they allow the news media to accompany them on the campaign trail day and night. The news media follow them to gather announcements about the campaign which they can frame as news.
Access to backstage is tightly controlled by media managers, private secretaries, diaries, security detail, processes and systems. However, during an election campaign, when politicians are away from their normal office support systems and are found in myriad public spaces, this access is at greater risk of being violated, as it was in Epsom.
John Key’s cup of tea meeting with John Banks was front-stage in the sense that the media was invited along, the setting enabled them to participate, take photos, ask questions. The media was then asked to leave, and once they had left the immediate vicinity (although still outside the window) John Key and John Banks had what they thought was a backstage conversation in accord with the norms and conventions that have been established between leader and media; the type of conversation that would normally be held in any one of the out-of-bounds places listed above.
Many have argued that because the cup of tea took place in a public place and the media had been invited along to a staged photo opportunity, the details of the conversation between Key and Banks should be available to the public; turning it, in effect, into a front-stage conversation. However, simply being in a public space does not automatically confer those properties on the conversation. The important question is whether the PM gave them a back-stage pass (or permission to wear their undies on the beach) and he did not.
The situation that has dominated the news is a breakdown between front-stage and back-stage actions. It’s no surprise that John Key has dug his heels in and is refusing to engage. The line between backstage and front-stage, the beach and town, has been shifted. And not at his pleasure.
By not being accommodating in subsequent stand-up interviews Key has sought to shift his own line between back and front-stage. The media stand-up is part of the ritual of an election campaign; a reward for arduously and patiently following political leaders around on the trail. For politicians the interview is one of the primary mechanisms by which they can get their messages used in the construction of news. But it’s also the barrier between beach and town, back and front-stage. To refuse to answer their questions is telling the pack that they stepped too far and he’s going to withdraw some of their privileges for a while.
And not surprisingly the media pack are a bit pissed in return. They are expressing this through the selection of unflattering photographic images to illustrate the story: selection of image being one of the powers they have over the PM’s Office. They have also been trying to get Key’s behaviour subsequent to the tea cup taping to form another scandal in itself: in particular the PM’s alleged ability to mobilise the police to investigate the case. Through the vehicle of news stories about ordinary people who haven’t been able to call upon the resources of the police as swiftly as the PM the media is hiding their outrage under the guise of empirical evidence.
As we know from the opinion polls, a majority of New Zealanders accept that there is a distinction between private and public, and that this is media obsession with the story is a sideshow. This is not about public morality but is rather, like most scandals that become media stories, a manifestation of a struggle over a deeper set of power relations between political leader and the news media.
The media will only be truly happy when John Key wears his undies in public. But this is not a man that is ever likely to do so.
Valid questions were asked on Sunday morning’s Mediawatch about the role of television in political impression formation, and the focus of the punditry (me included) on the presentational style of the National and Labour party leaders in the first televised leaders debate on TV One. The issue: whether the focus on presentation masks attention to the ‘real’ issues, as illustrated by Jeremy Rose’s question to the Listener’s Toby Manhire about the quality of blog coverage of the campaign:
“And let’s look at that analysis because there’s a lot of almost sporting analogies and a lot less experts with kind of insight and analysis of what’s going on. Is that your view? Do you think the mainstream tends to be using pundits who talk about body language and that kind of stuff over experts who have in-depth knowledge of say the economy, or whatever the issue might be that’s being talked about?”
It is true that politics has become increasingly personalized since the introduction of television and other mass media changes including greater newspaper competition, tabloidisation and the popularity of newer digitized forms of social networking. These have enabled the news media to give greater coverage and scrutiny to the appearance, behaviour, private lives and narratives of political leaders and leadership candidates.
Many observers worry that this phenomenon, labeled as the ‘personalisation of politics’, has become more important than ever before, to the point of taking precedence over principle, policy and the rational deliberation of objective information, in determining the outcome of democratic elections.
What makes the issue of presentation and appearance so challenging for many is that the mediated images people receive of leaders are not ‘political’ but are instead social. Take a glance at any newspaper or television coverage of leaders in a campaign. You will see lots of images of leaders socially interacting with others: be it with a child, a partner, voters, other politicians, celebrities, officials, journalists, interviewers, photographers, competitors, an audience, party members, colleagues, or protestors.
Rather than panic about this being evidence of the dumbing down of politics, it pays to look deeper into what sort of information audiences receive when they are watching these social images, which is information about political leadership.
Judgments about political leadership can and do make a difference to electoral outcomes. New Zealand election studies have found the impact of leadership on election outcomes is between 1-5%. While it is minimal compared to policy and party predisposition, in a close election (which many of our MMP elections have been) this can be the difference between winning and losing. And evidence from overseas research suggests that the impact of leadership on election outcomes is getting more important.
Of course the question then is, how can audiences form accurate leadership perceptions out of images that relate to appearance, kissing babies, walking around shopping malls and pointing fingers in debates. Isn’t leadership meant to be about trustworthiness, credibility, competence and integrity?
The reality is that political leadership today is as much about relating to voters as it is about making decisions, developing policy, articulating vision, managing teams of people and holding political parties together. And it is through tele-mediated images of leaders relating to others that people form leadership perceptions.
As social beings humans are able to intuit leadership traits out of nonverbal behaviours in social interaction settings. Even at a tele-mediated distance audiences process these images instinctively using the perceptual tools they are equipped with as social beings. They relate their understandings of the rules and conventions of social interaction with the character traits they expect effective leaders to possess, and then use this as the basis for developing a judgment about a political leader.
Humans are instinctively primed to look for caring body language. We look for this in images communicating a leader’s ability to relate to ‘real’ people. We judge this through observation of their comfort in relating to others at close social distance (hand shakes, pats on the shoulder, smiles, body stance, listening). We use this to assess whether a leader is friend or foe. These assessments translate into judgments of caring, likability, trustworthiness and effective leadership, compassion and benevolence in a leader.
In political debates audiences are instinctively looking to see whether their preferred candidate can be trusted to competently protect against threat to themselves and others. They look for nonverbal signs of how leaders respond to threat from a competitor and how challengers threaten the leader. Audiences read nonverbal signs (such as vocal fluency and tone, hand gestures, eye contact, stance, nervous tics, tight or relaxed mouth, frowns, choice of clothing, interruptions and use of humour) for who is best able to handle a complex and stressful social situation. Presentation of a confident self in relation to competition has been found to directly influence assessments of credibility, strength, competence, character, composure and sociability.
All too often commentators and political analysts look at single leader image events and treat them as a symptom of a wider pathology affecting political culture. Yet such image events are rarely sustained, and peoples’ deeper impression of political leadership is not formed over a single incident, or even a few. To be properly appreciated the expression and impression of leadership needs to be considered as something that builds over time and is experienced in a wide variety of situations, not simply in election campaigns.
Expressions and impressions of a relationship enacted between leader and others are going to become more, not less, important as time and technology march on. With further technological changes in large format, high-definition, 3D and eventually holographic in-home media display systems, relationships that are currently perceived at a tele-mediated distance will soon be perceived through immersion in an experience that realistically and intimately mimics an embodied relationship between political leaders and individual citizens.
This will not enthuse observers who think there is too much emphasis on personality politics already in the media. But the potential for new technologies to further lessen the physical distance between leader and others is far reaching.
During last night’s TV One debate, Richard Pamatatau, whose decribes himself as “Programme Leader Graduate Diploma Pacific Journalism. Auckland University of Technology” tweeted “Claire Robinson was a private secretary to Jenny Shipley – hmmmm”. This was retweeted many times, and a lot of abuse was subsequently directed at me.
It was felt that the fact that I worked as a Cabinet Minister’s Private Secretary 20 years ago should (a) be a disqualifier for being a political commentator — Trevor Mallard tweeted “if this is true than expect TVNZ resignation”; (b), that it meant that I couldn’t provide objective commentary — Glenn Williams “Wammo” called me a “ boil on the political commentary landscape “and (c) that I must be a National plant. Deborah Mahuta-Coyle tweeted “just take your national party rosette out of your pocket and slap it on your forehead.” Even TV3 reported hearsay as “fact” on their website this morning that I had once been a press secretary for Jenny Shipley.
For the record, however:
Fact 1: In 1991 I worked as the Women’s Affairs Private Secretary in Jenny Shipley’s Office. I was a departmental official on secondment from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. I was appointed by Dr Judith Aitken, the then Secretary of Women’s Affairs.
Fact 2: This is not news. It is on my Massey biography.
Fact 3. I was not a political appointee or a “Nat staffer”, and have never been on the payroll of the National party.
Fact 4: I was never press secretary. That role was first occupied by Nancy Consaul and then Bronwyn Saunders. As private secretary my job was to answer Ministerials, arrange appointments and push paper between the Ministry and the Minister.
I’m not sure which part of that makes me a National plant, and to my recollection I was never taken into one of the tiny toilets in the Beehive and brainwashed. As evidence —
Fact 5: I voted Labour in the 1990 general election, just prior to taking up my role. I voted Labour in the 1993 general election, after I had left the role.
In terms of my subsequent career, the experience working in the Beehive was invaluable. It was fascinating watching a very unpopular National government manoeuvre its way through the very unpopular minefield of benefit cuts; it was eye-opening and frightening travelling with the Minister and being pelted with eggs and having the car attacked by protestors; it was revealing watching how a relatively young female Cabinet Minister related to her male colleagues, in such a way that they would later support her bid to become National leader and Prime Minister.
These moments are those that any student of politics would jump at the chance to experience. I’m sure Bryce Edwards, who once worked for the Alliance party, would agree that experiencing the cut and thrust of politics on the inside leads to a much more realistic perspective later on.
The main thing I took away, however, was inspiration for my PhD. In the process of trying to “sell” the unpopular benefit cuts to the public, advertising agencies were brought in to advise the government on how to do it best. The government want to use the word “fair’ in its publicity; the agency people advised against it because it was such a politically loaded term. I was not involved in this process, but I was intrigued at this idea that policy messages needed to be “sold”. It is this that later led me to study the campaign messaging of the political parties contesting the 1999 and 2002 NZ general elections. I wanted to be able to understand the process of constructing and processing political messages, and I have got a very good understanding of how it works.
Tweeters from the left may not like some of the things I say, but I speak not from any political bias, but from 12 years of studying and understanding what works and what doesn’t in political communication. I have been equally critical of National in the past when it has missed crucial communication opportunities.
I shall blog my comments on last night’s debate, and the way the campaign is tracking, later this afternoon.
In theHerald on Monday 24 October John Banks is quoted as saying he was “not asking for any favours from the Prime Minister or the National Party” [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10761267] . "I’m going out to win the hearts and minds of the people of Epsom….Three years ago, National was 55 per cent in the polls and on election night were 45 per cent of the vote and if that’s replicated again then it’s critical that Act are well represented in the next Parliament and that is what we’ve got to convince the people of Epsom of.”
Well of course he has to say that. ACT needs to create the impression that Epsom can be won by Banks, in order to reassure ACT voters that their party vote won’t be wasted.
But while it’s true that National’s polling support did reach 55% in May/June 2008 Colmar Brunton/One News polling, in the more accurate public opinion poll, the TV3 poll, National never polled as high as 55% at any time in the 2005-2008 period. 3 months out from the election, which as I have blogged earlier [http://spinprofessor.tumblr.com/post/9228246515/if-i-were-a-labour-mp-now-i-would-be-panicking] is a crucial benchmark, National was polling at 48%. At that point ACT was polling at 1%.
Yes National went down to 44.93% at the election, and ACT climbed to 3.6%. But this was only after John Key and Rodney Hide met for a public cup of coffee to demonstrate that they were on the same page and could work together harmoniously. National voters in Epsom received the strong message to give Rodney Hide their electorate vote.
3 months out from the 2008 election National and ACT together were polling at 49%. 3 months later their combined party vote was 48.58%. Nothing significant changed to their overall total. In fact, what appears to have happened is that National sacrificed its own party vote to get ACT’s vote in 2008. And therein lies the rub. At the moment the National/ACT party vote amounts to the same amount of pie regardless of how it is shared out. If National does a deal to shore up John Banks’ vote in Epsom in order to get ACT elected in 2011, National is not likely to be getting additional party votes, it’s more likely to be robbing its own party vote.
National doesn’t need to do this deal. And nor should it. Rather than manipulate voter behaviour to prop up a coalition partner it doesn’t need, National needs to read the signals that voters are giving it. At a national level ACT’s 2.2% support is well below the threshold, and the voters in Epsom seem to prefer National’s candidate Paul Goldsmith as their electorate MP. The electorate knows that ACT has passed its use-by date.
The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has dismissed the Labour Party’s complaint that the ”Prime Minister’s hour” broadcast on RadioLive on 30 September 2011 was an “election programme” in terms of the Broadcasting Act 1989, and breached Code of Broadcasting Practice in relation to election programmes.
To be an election programme in terms of section 69 of the Broadcasting Act the show had to encourage or persuade, or appear to encourage or persuade voters to vote, or not to vote, for a political party or the election of any person at an election.
The BSA has interpreted this section as capturing programmes which “overtly and directly” act to encourage or persuade. They consider that programmes which may in an “incidental, resultant, secondary or consequential way amount to encouragement, persuasion, advocacy or opposition for or to a particular political outcome are not captured by section 69”.
In the case of the Prime Minister’s Hour, the BSA came to the conclusion that it did not come within their interpretation of an election programme because it did not “actively encourage, persuade, advocate or oppose a political outcome”. Nor did “the mere presence” of the PM make it an election programme.
I can understand why John Key agreed to the format and Phil Goff made the complaint, however. They both know that John Key doesn’t have to talk politics to accrue political capital. It’s John Key’s personality, his ability to transcend politics and relate to people at a non-political level, that is currently attracting votes away from Labour. The non-overtly-political format of the PM’s Hour played directly to John Key’s personal and electoral strengths. And this has irked Phil Goff.
It’s a classic example of something I have been arguing for years. In this era of permanent campaigning all manner of activities, behaviours, events and messages are electioneering. They may not explicitly ask for the vote, but all are undertaken in order to be viewed favourably by voters with the ultimate goal of gaining as many party votes as possible at the next general election.
The current election broadcasting and advertising laws do not reflect the realities of modern campaigning. I’m sure the Electoral Commission will also find that that, in response to Labour’s complaint that the programme was an election advertisement, the show does not confirm with the Electoral Act’s definition of election advertisement either, because it will be covered by the exemption for editorial content of a periodical, radio or television programme.
Electoral law will always be playing catch-up here, because it is unable to predict every form of campaigning that will occur in the future. With proliferating channels of communications, rapidly changing technologies and multiple messages competing for attention, electioneering will increasingly be carried by the intangible and the implicit: things like smells, movements, locations, physical actions, projections, shapes, spaces, smiles, colours… Anything may be an election offering, at any time, and none of these are covered by existing legislation.
And nor should they be! We actually need laws that enhance rather than restrict politicians and political parties from engaging with citizens. Political communication is good not bad. All the current laws do is encourage sideshows as officials fruitlessly deliberate whether something is an election broadcast or ad. Between 1 January and 10 October 2011 (when I requested this info) the Electoral Commission had received 619 requests for advisory opinions about whether a piece of political communication is an election advertisement or not. A number of these requests related to multiple items of publicity. And each one took between 3-5 working days to process. What a ridiculous waste of time and taxpayers’ money this is.
Rather than cry foul, what Phil Goff needs to do is be creative and find something to do on the campaign trail that Key hasn’t thought of first. That is what successful challenger brands do when they are going after the market leader in the commercial market. The same imperative exists in the political leadership market.