Trial by media versus political self-harming

By Geoff Cumming

The search for a leader to trust is at the heart of jitters for politicians on both sides of the Tasman

Julia Gillard's fate can serve as a lesson to NZ's politicians. Photo / Getty Images
Julia Gillard's fate can serve as a lesson to NZ's politicians. Photo / Getty Images

Overkill analysis of the leader's weaknesses and flaws. The slightest stumble magnified. Speculation based on anonymous inside sources, sometimes from bloggers and tweets, picked up by mainstream media. Political sources giving journalists the low-down but denying it publicly ...

If David Shearer thinks the media aren't giving him a fair go, he need only look across the ditch to the two-year media undermining of Julia Gillard. A new book by Australian political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh condemns her colleagues' complicity in the destabilisation of Gillard by deposed leader Kevin Rudd, his supporters and Labor's right-wing opponents.

Gillard-to-face-leadership-challenge was a script that ran on an endless loop for nearly two years, Walsh (a regular commentator on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report) writes in The Stalking of Julia Gillard. "When another deadline came and went, journalists and Team Rudd simply set another one."

Walsh's verdict is that journalists and commentators have "collectively debased our craft to the lowest common denominator - writing articles confected out of barrel-scrapings and hectoring".

There are obvious differences in Shearer's predicament. Australia's Labor leader was running a government. Unlike Gillard, Shearer did not roll the leader. And since Shearer and the party dealt with David Cunliffe last November, Cunliffe has not behaved like Rudd.

But the renewed speculation over his hold on the leadership has clear parallels in modus operandi - Duncan Garner's "coup on in Labour" tweet and Patrick Gower's earlier claim that Shearer was on two months' notice to perform were both based on anonymous inside sources and accompanied by denials all round.

Is the undermining party-driven, in response to Labour's dismal polling, or is the media creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? In the highly competitive political media environment, the question is crucial - as the Australian experience shows. Garner stuck to his guns on his Radio Live show. "This is how coups work. ... They are not decisive, they are slow, they are unsure."

Professor Claire Robinson, a Massey University specialist in political message communication, says Shearer's destiny rests squarely with him and his party. Before the cameras, and despite media training, his delivery and demeanour remain hesitant - and increasingly defensive in his latest appearances.

Not every leader has an X-factor "connection" with voters and Shearer loyalists continue to invoke Helen Clark's long bedding-in time in Opposition. Robinson says the Blogsphere and Twitter mean he no longer has that luxury. "It's 24-7-52 now." And Robinson has disturbing news for Labour - her current research shows up to 40 per cent of voters' minds are made up a year out from an election and only dramatic developments turn them.

"Voters are looking for someone who's competent and knowledgeable, who they can trust to lead. With Shearer's diffident presentation, it doesn't make anybody who's looking at him think he has any of those characteristics. He should have learnt by now."

His handling of the "man ban" episode - a phrase coined by a right-wing blogger - was another case of responding to someone else's agenda rather than creating his own.

"The media is only responding to what it's given. As long as he opens up this wide hole, the media is going to jump into it."

- NZ Herald

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