The Judith Collins meltdown and the downfall of Maurice Williamson owe much to the role of the New Zealand media. Both ministers have been victims of media coverage and investigation. This is how it should be, and of course the whole sphere of political communications (including social media) is where modern politicians thrive or die. So how well are the politicians handling the media, and how well are the media handling the politicians?
Judith Collins commits 'Twittercide'
'Trolls and bottom-feeders' was the verdict yesterday of Prime Minister John Key on the value of Twitter and the reason for Judith Collins taking a break from the microblogging site - see Claire Trevett's Colourful Twitter feed falls silent once more.
Postgraduate student Matthew Beveridge, whose main research focus is on social media in politics, provides a useful overview of the tension between openness that Twitter fosters and the scripted media appearances often preferred by today's politicians (and their communications staffers) in his blog post, John Key, Judith Collins and Twitter. He says: 'My reading of it all is that John Key has a predetermined position on the use of social media, he sees it as a broadcast media and not about engaging. This is played out by his social media presence, with a lack of engagement'.
Beveridge follows up this article on Collins and Twitter with an essay for the academic-focused Otago Elections Project called John Key, Twitter and popular culture, in which he is sceptical about Key's use of Twitter as a one-way medium: 'The level and type of two-way communication that an account undertakes will obviously be influenced by the person associated with that account.
In the case of the Prime Minister, the level of replies would be expected to be low, and most likely managed by staff. But their complete absence is a missed opportunity'.
Social-media expert Tom Bates has provided some advice for Collins - and politicians in general - about social media use in a six-minute discussion on Tuesday's Paul Henry Show on TV3 - watch: Some Twitter advice for Judith Collins.
While Judith Collins may have left Twitter for now, Twitter has not given up on her. My updated blogpost, Top tweets about Judith Collins, provides a summary of the most interesting tweets relating to the story. One interesting aspect is that MPs have largely been silent on Twitter about the Collins story, perhaps taking their cue from Collins' step back. A notable exception has been Labour MP Clare Curran (@clarecurranmp), who tweeted 'Hands up who's been mean to Judith Collins? Plus hands up who she's been mean to? #fairsfair'. Conversely, commentators have not been reticent in their tweeting, with Herald reporter Liam Dann (@liamdann) being one of many to weigh in: 'I love twitter but it is a PR disaster waiting to happen for those in positions of power who try to use it as if they are ordinary punters'. And Press journalist Glenn Conway (@conwayglenn) possibly speaks for many in the media when he tweets, 'Anyone missing @JudithCollinsMP on twitter? Yeah me too'. New Zealand politics is undoubtedly a less colourful place after Collins' 'Twittercide'.
For more useful commentary on politicians on Twitter and Collin's departure from social media, see David Farrar's MPs and Twitter, Jane Luscombe's PM: Twitter full of 'trolls, bottom feeders', Martyn Bradbury's What was most interesting about National in the house today, and Frank Macskasy's If Key is concerned with "Trolls and bottom-feeders" why does he call Cameron Slater regularly?.
Evaluations of Judith Collins
What does the business community think of Collins? Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan is scathing in her assessment of the embattled minister: 'The nation's top chief executives delivered their verdict on Collins two years ago when they permanently marked her down and out of the top Cabinet rankings in the Herald's 2012 Mood of the Boardroom survey. Their perception was that Collins was a bully' - see: Key pulls chain on Crusher Collins. Of course, it has to be remembered that the private sector also generally abhors cronyism, and will be less than impressed less than impressed with such allegations taking root in New Zealand politics.
One of the most original pieces on Collins' 'Thatcher-style' media image is provided by Rob Hosking in his NBR column, Blonde ambition: the Judith Collins show takes a break (paywalled). Here's the key part, in which Hosking suggests her style is contrived for the media and public: 'No current politician in Parliament is so self-consciously acting a role. Ms Collins continually draws attention to her reputation as a kind of Kiwi Margaret Thatcher. It comes out in conversation, and in many interviews, where she will make reference to her take-no-prisoners, always-front-up, aggressive reputation. The "Crusher Collins" moniker is all part of this: so much so one wonders whether the nickname was planted by either Ms Collins herself or perhaps a staffer. There is also an element of self parody in the persona: it works at its crude, retail politics level, but Ms Collins also plays it in a way which tips a wink at journalists and those "in the know."'
Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan comments on Hosking's article in his blog post, Persona. He elaborates on the creation of her 'Crusher' moniker and identity probably being a PR invention: 'we haven't seen much of Crusher in the last two and a half years. We've seen a faltering MP who used to be Crusher attempting to live up to her own legend and damaging herself even further in the process. I don't know what happened, but in her first term Collins was advised by a very clever, very cunning press secretary - one easily capable of devising the 'Crusher' nickname and the persona that grew up around it - who left Parliament after the last election and went to work in the banking industry. When Nats say that they love 'Crusher', they're probably expressing their devotion towards a fictional character created by a middle-aged man who no longer even works for the National Party'.
Other Collins stories worth reading today include Toby Manhire's The golden age of Judith Collins on Twitter thuds to an end, Gordon Campbell's On Judith Collins' rest and recuperation leave, Chris Trotter's The Semblance Of Rectitude: A meditation on the fate of Judith Collins, and Rob Salmond's blog post, Collins' timeline of meddling.
And the latest news on Collins comes via her good friend and gossip columnist Rachel Glucina, who reports today that 'Friends say she has also been suffering from a private health scare and the additional worry that comes with that, but Collins is reluctant to discuss it right now. She says more medical tests are due' - see: Leave timely as Collins faces health troubles. Glucina says that Collins 'was expected to be a guest at the Canon Media Awards on Friday, at blogger Cameron Slater's table. But Collins says she won't be attending now. Her husband may attend'.
More media digging
Although it was the Herald that revived the Oravida story with the emails to police that brought about the resignation of Maurice Williamson last week, TV3 has also been consistently leading coverage of the incident and its aftermath. On Tuesday, one of no fewer than four political stories leading the bulletin reported on the 'Cabinet Club', a name given to National Party electorate fundraisers which feature appearances by ministers. Reporter Tova O'Brien ended her report by saying the arrangement raised 'more questions about paying for face time with ministers and what's in it for those Cabinet Club members who pay' - see: Paying 'club' gets access to National MPs.
While it was made clear in the report that the practice is not illegal because ministers are not appearing in a ministerial capacity, it is an example of how the Oravida episode - and Collins lashing out at the media - may be having a 'contagion' effect and motivating the press gallery to uncover further perceived or actual wrongdoing.
Blogger Danyl Maclauchlan praises TV3 political reporters for their reporting style in Circumventing the spin: 'I've got fairly huge problems with some of Paddy Gower's journalism, but his team are very good at figuring out ways to get around the media management of modern political parties and deliver strong stories'. Mclauchlan's prediction of a swift response from David Farrar of the National Party aligned Kiwiblog is met. Farrar responds with a lengthy rebuttal of the 'Cabinet Club' story, saying 'to the best of my knowledge there is no central organisation called Cabinet Club. It is a generic term that some use (including me) to refer to electorate level fundraisers where you pay an annual fee for a series of breakfast or lunch meetings with MPs... It's not access to ministers. It's attending a function where they speak and do Q+A. Just like Ministers and MPs do around the country for rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and the like." - see Shock horror - electorates used MPs for fundraisers.
Inside the House, the general consensus is that the Opposition failed to land any significant blows on Collins during Question Time on Tuesday. Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins sums up proceedings as follows: 'Whether under orders from Prime Minister John Key not to fan the flames of the Oravida sideshow, or whether she is truly as beaten as her demeanour suggested, Collins was determined to present herself as a small target and deny the Opposition any fireworks'. Watkins called an unsubstantiated allegation made in the House by Trevor Mallard under parliamentary privilege that Collins' family had benefited from Oravida 'lurid and unsubstantiated allegation...to save the story from turning into one about the Opposition failing to land any punches' - see When the boot's on the other foot.
Interviewed on Wednesday on TV3's Firstline, Labour leader David Cunliffe responded to the Mallard allegations relatively unconvincingly: 'One of the rules of Privilege is that what's said in the House stay in the House, so I can't really comment on that' - see: Cunliffe: Cabinet Club 'beyond the pale'. See also, No Right Turn's Government for sale.
The health of New Zealand's media coverage of politics
The media-politico relationship is also made problematic by the continued crossover of personnel between the two spheres. Maori broadcasters who are affiliated to the Labour Party are the latest example - see Claire Trevett's Taurima's future with Labour riding on TVNZ findings. David Farrar comments on Maori TV's Julian Wilcox, saying: So we have confirmed that Wilcox is or was a paid up Labour Party member and wants to stand for Labour as an MP. Now I'm a big fan of his work on Native Affairs, but it does create a real conflict for Maori TV - that their head of news and current affairs is or was a Labour Party member who wishes to be a Labour Party MP' - see: More Tamaki Makaurau manoeuvres.
TV3 political editor Patrick Gower is one of the leading political journalists of the moment - and possibly one of most influential people in politics for 2014 - and Gower is profiled in a fascinating Listener feature by Karl du Fresne - see: Gower power (paywalled). One of the most interesting parts of the reportage is Du Fresne's evaluation of the more aggressive stance taken by Gower in his reporting: 'On the claim he sometimes makes himself part of the story, Gower pleads guilty as charged. "It's part of my style. Every now and then you have to put yourself out there; otherwise the politicians will walk all over us."'
So is the media being too focused on political scandals? One newspaper editorial thinks that voters aren't interested or well served by this focus - see the Taranaki Daily News' The worthwhile swamped in the abuse. And of course this week we've had the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, on which scholarly media watcher Gavin Ellis gave a lecture warning that 'press freedom in New Zealand is under threat from the mainstream media's drive for profit which is threatening the "substance of journalism"' - see: New Zealand media incapable of serving society, says author. You can also watch Ellis' presentation.
Finally, Metro magazine has just published a feature on Judith Collins by Steve Braunias - which you can read a bit of online (Her Majesty) - but he's now revisited his views and observations of the politician in his online column The Queen is Dead. He says that in writing the original story 'I missed what has become painfully apparent in the past few days - that she's gone kind of crazy'. And for more humour, see my updated blog post, Cartoons of the Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson National Government scandals.