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

Claire Trevett: Lessons in John Key stunt wash-up

PM and his advisers, radio jokers and petitioners all need to reflect on their roles, writes Claire Trevett.
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Dean Purcell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Dean Purcell

On the case of the Prime Minister and the cake of soap, it may just be time for people to take a sip of chamomile tea.

Somehow the story has morphed into calls for John Key to be stripped of his ambassadorship for the White Ribbon anti-domestic violence organisation for failing to speak out against sexual violence because he had not stopped a radio stunt that referenced prison rape in jokey terms.

It has since emerged that the reason Key did not do this was that he had not realised the "joke" was a reference to prison rape, but that has not stopped the baying for his head.

READ MORE: PM caught up in radio station's stunt

To reprise, Key agreed to get into a cage with The Rock radio host Tom Furniss, who dropped a cake of soap and asked the Prime Minister to pick it up for him.

"Don't drop the soap" is an old "joke" reference to showers in communal areas, which has been known to allude to prison rape. Soon after that, commentators, including myself, criticised Key for his part in it.

I have a relatively high level of tolerance for the Prime Minister's shenanigans. But he can go overboard.

Even without the prison rape allusion, getting into a cage with a man with chains about his neck is not an elegant proposition. But the overwrought reaction among his detractors since then rather lends to the feeling the Prime Minister is not getting a fair cop.

A petition was launched, signed by about 10,000 people, calling for him to lose his White Ribbon status because he had taken part in the stunt and failed to condemn it. At the time, it was not known whether Key had picked up on the allusion to prison rape involved in the soap scenario. Since then, he has told White Ribbon that he was not aware of it. Stripping the Prime Minister of his voluntary role as an ambassador for the White Ribbon campaign is no small matter.

To its credit, White Ribbon responded proportionately. It sought an explanation from the Prime Minister and upon receiving assurances he had been unaware of the nature of the comments being made, it instead pointed the blame at those who were responsible for them in the first place - The Rock radio station.

Whatever his detractors think of his politics, even the Prime Minister is entitled to a bit of natural justice. Without evidence to the contrary, Key has effectively been declared guilty for a joke he did not make and did not even know was a joke. And there is no evidence to the contrary.

There was nothing in his reaction to the soap that indicated he detected such overtones, just bafflement as to why there was soap there at all. There is no reason to doubt his denial to White Ribbon, no matter what his detractors say. I knew of the reference, but several acquaintances had to Google it.

This could be a generational thing, naivety or simply because Key has not had the exposure to the types of environment in which the "joke" is referred to - such as sports-team changing rooms or university hostels and other such communal living environments.

Things got so ridiculous that one person even suggested if Key did not know it was a prison rape reference, he was not qualified to be a White Ribbon ambassador - as if one of the qualifications was knowing jokes and obscure references to sexual violence.

There is a time when you should just shut up and cop what has come your way. Key did that with the claims made around his actions in pulling a waitress' ponytail - a situation in which he did not pick up that something he regarded as larking about was something different to the person concerned.

On that, the less explaining he did, the better once the apology was over. But Key's own silence on this cake-of-soap issue hasn't helped. The only comment to come from his office in the aftermath of the stunt was some tripe about the degree of joking involved in the Christmas round-up of radio networks. If it were not for the White Ribbon campaign asking for an explanation, we still would not know whether Key had realised what "pick up the soap" alluded to. Nor has he condemned it or expressed a view on the appropriateness of it once it was pointed out to him.

WATCH: Should Key be stripped of White Ribbon ambassadorship?

It is doubtful the Prime Minister will give up that valuable air time on commercial radio on the back of last week. But of one thing we can be sure - his advisers will now be checking what stunts he's in line for in advance.

It beggars belief they did not do that already, given journalists interviewing him on more serious matters like, oh, running the country, are asked what topics they intend to cover.

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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