Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: A marvellous GCSB debate

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Prime Minister John Key on Campbell Live.
Prime Minister John Key on Campbell Live.

Last week's 'marvellous' debate between John Campbell and John Key over the GCSB legislation is being widely heralded as one of the great media moments in New Zealand political history.

If you haven't already watched it, you can see the 18-minute spectacle here: John Key defends the GCSB bill. But for context, and to see the Prime Minister giving a very different performance a few days earlier, also watch Rebecca Wright's 2-minute clip, Key: NZers care more about snapper than GCSB.

Following on from those media episodes, there's now an equally marvellous debate and discussion about 1) The winners and losers in the Campbell Live debate; 2) The state of the media; 3) The strength of John Key and 4) The GCSB reforms in the lead up to the final vote in Parliament this week.

1) The winners and losers in the Campbell Live debate

One of the first verdicts on the interview came from veteran media expert Brian Edwards (@DrBrianEdwards) who tweeted, '@JohnJCampbell Raving is not interviewing, John. A graceless and embarrassing performance. This from your greatest fan. Brian'. Edwards then went onto provide more detail in his blogpost, In the red corner John Campbell; In the blue corner John Key; Your Referee - the good doctor!.

His review is nicely summed up in the following sentences: 'Key: critical of the programme, but patient, considered, quiet, reasonable, polite, helpful, good-humoured. Campbell: patient and agreeable to begin with, but increasingly impatient, interruptive, petulant, hostile, overbearing, accusatory, rude'.

Sean Plunket has an even more critical assessment in PM gives Campbell a masterclass. Plunket - an employee of the same broadcaster as Campbell - says that 'Never has an interviewer who has almost gleefully proclaimed his right to practise advocacy journalism been so comprehensively and obviously "owned" by his intended victim' and 'In 17 minutes of compelling viewing Mr Key either answered every question put to him or explained why he couldn't. He maintained his dignity and focus throughout in what anyone who knows anything about the art of the interview has described as a masterclass'. Plunket makes some interesting comparisons to an interview/debate from three decades ago involving Muldoon and Lange, which you can watch here: The 1984 Leaders' Debate.

One of the best summaries and analysis of the John vs John interview came from television reviewer, Paul Casserly - see: Fumble in the jungle. Casserly sums up the interview: 'Key was in top form. He was on his front foot, and it was Campbell who spent most of the next 18 minutes swinging and missing'.

John Campbell himself hasn't publicly reviewed the interview-debate, but he is quoted on the subject in John Drinnan's column, Campbell congrats for Key. Four quotes from Campbell stand out: 'In terms of the politics of the interview the Prime Minister was absolutely brilliant'; 'There were moments when I found the Prime Minister frustratingly not answering the question but looking for all intents and purposes like he was'; 'The Prime Minister was on prime time for 17 minutes answering concerns - and that is f***ing phenomenal'; and, 'Good on the Prime Minister for getting one in' [in terms of knifing the interviewer]. Drinnan also quotes a media trainer who lists Key's strengths and weaknesses in the interview.

Of course, not all were impressed by Key's performance, - see some leftwing reviews: Martyn Bradbury's 'Everyone is wrong except me' - we have a psychopath as a PM - Key vs Campbell TV review, Chris Ford's On that interview between the two John's - Campbell and Key, and Tim Selwyn's Campbell's shambles v Key's cheese. But as media blogger Peter Aranyi points out, 'people's view of the encounter largely fell into the realm of "What you see depends on where you stand"', and his own interesting observation was that Key 'generally made great use of his unflustered, no-worries demeanour. He didn't come across as aggressive or defensive' - see: Have you voted in Campbell Live's GCSB poll?.

So how did Key come to do so well against Campbell on Campbell Live? Russell Brown mostly puts it down to expert media training: 'What happened was a study in media training. Key never let his interviewer settle into a question line. He rattled out well-briefed points - some of them solid answers, others more in the nature of assertions - and insisted ("we'll get back to that", "let me finish my last point") on finishing them even after Campbell had asked another question. Follow-up questions simply got lost as he moved on. He bridged expertly back to his talking points' - see: Fluency, ease of manner - and Norton Antivirus.

Danyl McLauchlan, however, sees a more basic explanation: 'His success wasn't about any kind of media training Jedi mind trick, so much as it was about the PM enjoying a huge strategic advantage over John Campbell. Campbell Live had done clips on the GCSB bill all week. Key's team knew exactly what their objections to it were. All they had to do was have a couple of people from their comms team watch each episode, break down each issue and craft a rebuttal' - see: All glory to the hypnotoad. And Brian Edwards' view about Campbell's defeat is even more basic: 'Sometimes even the finest journalist can get too close to a story. That, in my view, is what happened here'.

2) The state of the media

The Campbell Live debate is being used as a springboard to discuss the bigger issue of the health of the New Zealand media, and to what extent it adequately performs the role of watchdog for democracy. In the column cited above, Sean Plunket is incredibly dismissive of the Campbell episode, saying it amounted to 'an abject failure' in 'providing a forum for the important business of political debate'. Do others agree? Business journalist Fran O'Sullivan had her own review of the John vs John debate, which is a must-read, not just for her verdict on their performances, but more because she uses the issue to argue in favour of a return to the days when mainstream television provided 'top-notch mainstream daily current affairs'. She concludes that both Key 'and the television channels could enlighten us much more on issues of the day if they abandoned the formula entertainment and got back to the journalism' - see: Blindsided by Smiling Assassin. O'Sullivan also elaborates on the brilliance of John Key, disputing the argument that 'Key is the product of his press minders or media training, as left-wing commentators claim'. Instead she claims he does worse in the media when he over-prepares.

Brian Edwards has another blogpost on the issue, which uses the Campbell interview to discuss the bigger issue of television as a medium for covering politics, and dismisses it as nearly useless for dealing with complex matters - see: Campbell vs Key - the wider issue. Therefore, Edwards concludes that the John vs John episode was of questionable use in understanding the GCSB issues: 'But were we any closer to understanding the significance, for good or ill, of the GCSB Bill? I very much doubt it. Too complex. Too hard to take in or even remember the arguments for and against, put by Key and Campbell. A transcript you could read at your leisure, at your own pace, might have helped'. In fact, there is a transcript available on The Standard blog - see: Key vs Campbell: the transcript.

I was interviewed on Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch programme in the weekend regarding the role of media as watchdog, and extended the canine metaphors to some further conceptual models of Guard Dog for the Rich and Powerful, a Lapdog for the Government, and Junkyard Dog for infotainment - you can listen here: Mediawatch for 18 August 2013. For more on this, see also Max Rashbrooke's Media like 'junkyard dog' says politics lecturer. And another very useful evaluation of the state of the media is put forward in John McCrone's feature article, Did NZ journalism fail in Afghanistan?.

Has the media and public been conned by Key's Machiavellian use of the Snapper issue? Colin Espiner makes an interesting argument that perhaps the whole Snapper issue was deliberately and cynically allowed to occur, in order that the subsequent bad publicity for the Government would turn into good publicity and that it would overshadow the GCSB debate - see: Key's snapper attack swallowed whole. Espiner says that 'Key is at the very peak of his powers'... 'Even six months ago I wouldn't have credited the prime minister with the political nous to pull off such a ruse. But Key is finally coming into his own as a politician of considerable skill and finesse'.

On the Snapper-GCSB divide, Cameron Slater blogs that Actually John Key is right, Kiwis do care more about snapper than GCSB, and on The Civilian, Ben Uffindell publishes the views of a fish - see: Opinion: I'm rather more concerned about spying, actually.

3) The strength of John Key

The mastery of John Key is very clear to leftwing commentator Chris Trotter, and he's written an important blogpost lamenting the failure of the left to take Key more seriously - see: Clear Superiority: Why does the Left consistently underestimate John Key?. Like Trotter, Toby Manhire was also incredibly impressed by Key's Campbell Live performance, and pointed out, 'It was a striking reminder of John Key's ability as a political performer. He understands his audience - no, his audiences - as well as any politician in recent times. For a prime minister halfway through the second term, his command is astonishing' - see: Chameleon Key delivers a masterstroke.

The nature of the John vs John debate naturally leads to speculation about next year's leaders campaign debates. As Plunket points out, the interesting aspect of the 'interview' was that 'it was two politicians going toe to toe, not a politician and a journalist'. So what does the debate say about David Shearer? According to Russell Brown, it's a reminder that the Shearer 'seems to almost entirely lack' that same competency, and that 'It's hard to see how he wouldn't be destroyed by Key in a one-on-one debate'.

But it's worth remembering that not everything has gone Key's way lately. This is vividly illustrated in my own blogpost, Recent John Key images - the insightful and interesting. The blogpost includes an image from last weekend's Herald Political Report Card on the National Government, which rated John Key's performance in the last year as only 6 out 10. This assessment by John Armstrong and Audrey Young ranks Key as the 15th best performer in his Cabinet, only just above Hekia Parata. See also also David Farrar's analysis of the Herald's report card, Herald report card on Ministers, in which he agrees with some of it, but not all. For example, Farrar says 'it is beyond ridiculous to have the Prime Minister in the bottom quarter of Cabinet'.

One satirical parody suggests that John Key is currently in such good form he should be given an entirely different GCSB bill - The Getting Shit Done Bill, in which the current PM is allowed to get his way on everything - see Scott Yorke's Shizenhausen's Law.

4) The GCSB reforms

One of the major flaws in John Key's Campbell Live appearance was his mistake on the question of whether the state will be able to view the public's communications in the GCSB's cyber-security role - see Audrey Young's John Key nailed it - almost and Key pledges to restrict spy agency's probe rights.

Such issues are delved into in some important items such as Thomas Beagle's Does the new GCSB Bill give them the power to spy on New Zealanders?, Tim Watkin's John Key and those GCSB questions and Rodney Harrison's Wholesale spy power is precisely what GCSB bill means for Kiwis.

Another useful addition to the debate was provided by yesterday's Sunday Star Times editorial (not online), 'Complex GCSB bill so loose it's dangerous', which argued that the oversight provisions in the legislation are not adequate: 'If you think of sections 8A, 8B and 8C as dogs, and section 14 as their handler, the handler puts the muzzle only on Section 8B. Sections 8A and 8C can bite whoever they like. Sections 8A and 8C allow the GCSB to access our mobile networks and to collect all phone calls, texts and data'. The editorial concludes: 'All in all, it points to a piece of legislation cobbled together in a hurried fashion and those lawmakers assembled in Parliament this week, especially Dunne, need to stop and think before pressing on'.

Much of the opposition to the GCSB reforms has come from the political left. However the NBR's Rob Hosking has made the case for classical liberals of the right to oppose the legislation and ignore what he sees as the hypocrisy of some on the left - see: GCSB Bill: why small govt conservatives should be worried. The NBR has also published Vikram Kumar's very interesting article, Revealed: govt plans secret orders to service providers once spy bill becomes law.

If you're still interested in the GCSB debate, you can have your say online in the Campbell Live poll. But, some think there should be some wariness about the results of the survey - see: Campbell Live GCSB poll commits the ultimate sin of survey research - and about your own privacy if you participate on the poll - see Cameron Slater's On Campbell Live's crusade for privacy.

For more old-fashioned participation, in Auckland tonight there is a meeting organized by The Coalition to Stop the GCSB Bill - but which you can also watch online here: Live Video Stream Here of the GCSB Bill Public Meeting Tonight.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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