Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Toxic politics, coups and media pawns

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Duncan Garner. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Duncan Garner. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I blame Australia. It's a safe bet the recent insurrection in its Labor Party inspired someone in New Zealand Labour to this week make David Shearer's life difficult. After all, the ALP poll ratings surged after Kevin Rudd deposed Julia Gillard.

But beyond that, the sheer dramatic thrill of what our cousins call a "leadership spill" appears to have encouraged frenzied conjecture here about an imminent Labour leadership coup. Suddenly we were all saying spill. On Twitter, the fashionable hashtag was given a Kiwi vowel: #spull.

And, in keeping with the spirit of the times, it was on Twitter, late on Tuesday night, that the coup was announced. Just after 9pm, Duncan Garner, former political editor for 3 News and now host at RadioLive, lobbed this grenade into a sleepy evening: "Good source. Coup on in Labour. Letter of no confidence being circulated. It's over for Shearer. Watch for his resignation."

Boom. For a couple of hours the political recesses of New Zealand Twitter resounded with claim and counter-claim. Some said they knew this was coming. Others questioned its veracity. And then Labour MPs piled in. Chris Hipkins was cross. "Your source is full of crap," he tweeted. "No letter. No leadership challenge. Stop making things up."

Suddenly Garner was on the radio, furthering invigorating this strange pyjama party. Patrick Gower had the letter. He would be on the late news to show it to us. His understanding was the majority of MPs would have inked the letter by the week's end. And Shearer? Goneburger.

But still no word from Grant Robertson, Shearer's deputy, without whom it's hard to imagine such a letter getting the numbers. Wait, here he is: "Duncan, I have now confirmed with the whole caucus. There is no letter. This is just made up. Apology?"

Annette King chipped in: "It's a whopper!" Even David Cunliffe: "Coup rumours ridiculous." Oh, and Gower wouldn't be on Nightline after all.

But if Garner looked for a moment like an America's Cup yacht, racing no one but himself, he was undaunted, and grinded on. "Labour MPs denying letter of course," he sighed. "Textbook coup, 60 day warning, man ban, letter, denials, denials, gone."

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I don't for a second believe that Garner made up his Labour caucus source. But it wouldn't be the first time a politician briefing off-the-record had over-egged, or the first time a journalist added a little egg of their own.

And while it pays again to recall the Australian example, where the pool of MPs publicly backing Rudd was tiny until all of a sudden it wasn't, the paradox this week could be that the full-blooded, absolute nature of Garner's assertion did Shearer a favour: had it been the standard-issue "rumours swirling" sort of thing, it's unlikely there would have been such a swift lockstep response from MPs.

Just a few hours before Twitter lit up on Tuesday night, Garner conducted an interview on his excellent afternoon programme with veteran Australian journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh, author of a new book, The Stalking of Julia Gillard. Garner noted that the book was about "a bunch of blokey journalists" doing Rudd's bidding. And, he said, he was "a bit embarrassed when I saw this, but you talk about reporters becoming players, and not reporters".

Walsh repeatedly speaks of senior journalists in Australia having become "pawns" in Rudd's game, "channelling the Chinese whispers of his spruikers and giving credibility and substance to exaggerated claims about the pretender's level of support within the parliamentary party".

It worked for Rudd but it's an ugly way of doing politics. It's the way it's been done in Australia for years.

It's the way it was done for large parts of the last decade in Britain, too. Tony Blair's Svengali Peter Mandelson was routinely "dripping pure poison" about his chancellor, Gordon Brown, behind the scenes. Brown's henchmen were doing the same, feeding selected media with anti-Blair gossip.

It became the norm, unremarkable. And it was toxic, sinking public perceptions of politics and media all at the same time.

I like personality in political reporting. I'm a total sucker for the sport of it all, as evidenced by the callus on my Twitter-refreshing finger. But the British and Australian example is best avoided.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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