It would be a good thing for the so-called 'teapot tapes' to be published. This is simply because during election campaigns in particular, the public is served by having the most information possible about the political class, even if that information is gained surreptitiously. Of course this is messy, but democracy frequently is. If you want an example of how our understanding of political parties and politicians work is furthered by material garnered surreptitiously then we need look no further than Nicky Hager's Hollow Men.
The 'teapot tapes' saga was first reported in David Fisher's PM blocks release of chat tape. I'm quoted in the article as saying: 'the information should be released. It is increasingly difficult for the public to access real information about politicians because the media was outgunned by political budgets and press officers. "It is a conversation that would help voters navigate the election campaign. In an election campaign, voters need maximum amounts of information and viewpoints. In the name of democracy, we need this sort of information".' See also: Jonathan Milne's Chat over cuppa more than it seemed.
Milne says 'the potential disclosure of the contents of that conversation... could yet throw a rocket into this election campaign. It is a game-changer' and that 'it's the sheer range of comments in Key and Banks' discussion that is breathtaking - and the pair's assessment of the prospects of National, Act and NZ First'.
The media's relationship with politicians is extremely problematic in New Zealand (and elsewhere). In most areas journalists are in a weakened position vis-a-vis political parties, MPs and government. The political class is so extremely well resourced, the media is at a huge disadvantage in covering the politicians. Parties in Parliament have access to Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services funding of many millions of dollars that they use for, what amounts to, constant election campaigning. Part of this money is used for employing public relations professionals, communications experts, spin-doctors and ex-political journalists. For example, in the Prime Ministers' Office there are about 25 communications staff working in it. Overall, the parliamentary parties appear to have more political journalists working to spin their electioneering than there is actually working full-time in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
As a result, the public rarely gets to see what goes on behind the scenes in politics. We are fed a constant stream of scripted campaigning. This means that in New Zealand the public is often ill-served and ill-informed about what goes on in politics. This election in particular is one of the most heavily manipulated and glossy we've seen in New Zealand. For more on this see Tracy Watkins' excellent column Groundhog Day on the campaign trail. Not only does the column supply an impressive summary of the campaign so far, it also gives an insight into 'life on the campaign trail' and how much the journalists are reliant on an entirely stage-managed diary of political walkabouts without any real content to report on. She says: 'one day is starting to look a lot like the rest. Journalists fret over their laptops each night trying desperately to conjure up "colour" - how do you turn John Key eating a prawn into news? - and wake to a new day of shopping centre walkabouts, kindy visits and factory tours. The lack of interesting news is in inverse proportion to the amount of energy, planning and resources poured into each day on the campaign trail. Advance teams from the leader's office head up the night before to scope out the territory, check for potential pratfalls and ensure nothing is left to chance. In National's case, the purpose is not to create news, but manage it. Prime Minister John Key is so far ahead right now that no news - literally - is good news'.
Similarly, in the Manawatu Standard editorial today 'Cup of tea' charade leaves bitter taste, Warwick Rasmussen laments that 'every day for the top parties is a series of planned opportunities to maximise exposure to the public while peddling policy' and the 'choreographed and sickening photo opportunity really does plumb the depths'. He's referring mostly to the Epsom deal-making - which he also calls 'distasteful', and 'a circus and a farce'. Also in the Manawatu Standard, it's reported that 'The ministerial offices have been keeping MPs' movements on the campaign trail close to their chests in the past few weeks. Media advisories have been distributed late and publication of these has often been forbidden. This has probably been done to avoid any organised protests, similar to the one that marred Mr Key's appearance in Palmerston North before the 2008 election' - see: Jonathon Howe's Picking row not in Key's best interests.
Massey University's Grant Duncan also argues against the politicians' argument that issues of privacy should trump the public interest - see: Tea-Party-Gate. As others have done, Duncan points out that it's ludicrous for politicians to cry 'privacy!' after generating a 'media circus' 'engineered to maximize attention'. Furthermore, 'on the principle that 'those who live by the sword shall die by the sword', the tape should be released. Public figures, during a highly public event, are not to be accorded any special right to privacy in the course of that event. Naturally, they do have rights to privacy (in their family lives, or in caucus), but not at those times when they have actually invited reporters and camera crew to follow them. The conversation was captured on video, and a lip-reader might have interpreted it; and so the fact that they did not know there was a live microphone in earshot is irrelevant. And, if the two Johnnies ever wanted to have a genuinely private conversation, surely they could arrange one'. Of course, if the 'teapot tapes' are to be published, then isn't all political conversation up for recording and distributing? Where do you draw the line? This question is also discussed by Scott York on the Imperator Fish blog - and he says 'no' to the release. For more on the legal aspect of the issue, see: Steven Price's blog post, Of sneaky devices, and another very good argument is put forward by Russell Brown in his blog post The perils of political confidence.
So-called electorate deals are another big issue of the day - mostly in terms of the National-Act relationship in Epsom. The electorate deal-making has also been strongly targeted by Phil Goff - see his comments in John Hartevelt and Andrea Vance's Goff looking to stop MP 'smuggling'. A populist Goff is quoted condemning the Epsom deal as a 'rort' and calling for the MMP threshold exemption rule to be abolished: 'Frankly, I think the law needs to be changed to stop this kind of gerrymander. You either get in because you've got an electorate seat or you get in with list MPs if you get over five per cent'. Responses to this can be seen in Graeme Edgeler's Election Fact Check #8: Electoral Law Consensus and David Farrar's Why Simon Power was wrong to trust Labour.
In other issues, the highlight of today is definitely Steve Braunias' very clever The Secret Diary Of John Banks. The next best is the Sunday Star Times profile of some of the minor players in the election - see: Colour amid the beige. Other very worthwhile reads include Matt McCarten's Key wipes off smirk and Greens can grin, Vernon Small's Poppers as ACT gets its show underway, and John Armstrong's Act's rebranding too little too late.
Colin James (TV3): Voters not comfortable with dirty Epsom deal
Jane Luscombe (TV3): Usually anti-Nats back Goldsmith over Banks
NZH: Election 2011: Baying for Banks in Epsom
Warwick Rasmussen (Manawatu Standard): 'Cup of tea' charade leaves bitter taste
John Hartevelt and Andrea Vance (Stuff): Goff looking to stop MP 'smuggling'
Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Political Report for November 11
Steve Braunias (Taranaki Daily News): The Secret Diary Of John Banks
Epsom cup of tea tape
David Fisher (NZH): PM blocks release of chat tape
Jonathan Milne (NZH): Chat over cuppa more than it seemed
Michael Field and Danya Levy (Stuff): Greens: Show us the tea tape
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Key blasts secret recording of Banks meeting
Russell Brown (Hard News): The perils of political confidence
Jonathon Howe (Manawatu Standard): Editorial: Picking row not in Key's best interests
Andrea Vance (Dom Post): Cafe chat should be released for all to hear
Steven Price (Media Law Journal): Of sneaky devices
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Has the HoS been telling porkies?
Grant Robertson (Red Alert): Cuppagate- Game Changer?
Clare Curran (Red Alert): Cuppa Tea gone sour
Grant Duncan (Policy Matters): Tea-Party-Gate
Imperator Fish: Should We Know What Was Really Said?
Chris Ford: Release the Epsom tea time chat tape!