Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: No tabloid tactics - except in politics

Collins has served a useful purpose for Key. She is a useful fall guy. Photo / NZ Herald
Collins has served a useful purpose for Key. She is a useful fall guy. Photo / NZ Herald

Back in 2011 Prime Minister John Key stood before the media and said "there is no place in this country for News of the World-type tactics".

At the time he made that statement, revelations of hacking emails and phonelines by some British media were at their height. It was also the day after a recorder was left on the table during the cup of tea between Key and then Act leader John Banks.

Key wanted to pit the level of trust people had in him against the level of trust they had in the media, and that involved trying to lump all New Zealand media, and the Herald in particular, into the same camp as those under fire in the UK.

It now appears that what he meant was while there was no place for tabloid tactics by the media, there was plenty of space for them by his own office, a minister and a handpicked selection of bloggers.

There is nothing that directly implicates Key himself in the book, beyond an implicit sanction of staffer Jason Ede's modus operandi.

That included using bloggers such as Whale Oil's Cameron Slater to run angles and stories that most mainstream media, with all their pesky requirements of checks, balances and proof, wouldn't touch.

If Key wasn't caught by the book itself, he has been caught in the wake. This time Key could hardly resort to deriding the tabloid tactics of the media.

He called on several lines of defence.

He claimed, probably accurately, Labour also fed its friendly bloggers. He claimed that by leaving a hole in a website, Labour had virtually laid out the cucumber sandwiches and tea for National to saunter in and vacuum up what it found on to a memory stick. He pointed out, with some validity, that hacking Slater's emails and messages was a worse tactic than any of those used by the people named in the book.

He also stuck up for Judith Collins, making yet another withdrawal from his own bank of trust to try to shore her up. He claimed Collins was a victim of a left-wing smear campaign, apparently forgetting Collins herself was implicated in Slater's smear campaign against public servant Simon Pleasants by forwarding what appears to be Pleasants' email signature to Slater. Slater had used it the very next day in a post linking Pleasants to Labour.

Key issued a meaningless retrospective penultimate warning to Collins, and said it had been "unwise" to pass on those details. She had already been put on a last warning after the Oravida debacle. Key argued that because the Pleasants stuff pre-dated that warning, it could not be used as a go-straight-to-jail card. He then went on to say the claims against her were "historic and low-rent" and voters would be more interested in other issues of the day.

His apparent unwillingness to condemn Collins is not only because his own staff member was engaging in similar exchanges with Slater.

Back in 2011, the teapot tapes involved a conversation he had not expected or intended to be made public, despite the public nature of the cup of tea. The same was even more true of Collins' emails.

In 2011, Key justified his decision to call the police in saying to let such a recording slide would be the thin edge of the wedge, and open the way for all kinds of skulduggery against public figures in New Zealand.

In the hacking of Slater's emails and messages Key's prophesy has come to fruition, although not at the hands of the media, tabloid or otherwise, and not in the way Key expected.

Collins has served a useful purpose for Key. She is a useful fall guy. The focus on Collins has given the impression it's all down to one rogue minister. English's comments that it wasn't his way, or John Key's, of doing politics appears designed to reinforce this and confine the damage.

Collins is not the only one who emerges looking rather venal as a result of the emails which were never meant to be made public. But she was the highest-stakes player.

The manna is falling on Labour. Leader David Cunliffe has long been called "tricky" by senior National ministers after inaccurate claims in his CV and revelations he used a trust to take anonymous donations for his leadership campaign. This week the tables were turned. Cunliffe got stuck into Key's credibility. Why wouldn't he? Cunliffe also accused Key of overusing rugby analogies to try to wriggle his way out. This has long been a feature of Key's lexicon for the ordinary voter on the street.

In 2011 and again this election he has hauled out the trusty old comparison of elections under MMP as similar to the Rugby World Cup - regardless of who's the favourite, one fluke of a dropkick can take you out of the game.

Collins appears to have taken up his analogising by taking on the role of Suzie the Waitress. Suzie stood accused of poisoning the All Blacks before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in South Africa. Collins might need to work on her method acting. Her attempts to poison the opposition by colluding with Slater over stories, passing on details of public servants, and the immoderate language used in their communications have resulted in a spectacular own goal. She has poisoned herself.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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