Michele Hewitson interview: David Lewis

By Michele Hewitson

The Auckland Mayor's spin doctor has had a torrid time dealing with his boss' recent dramatic excursion on to the front pages

Lewis says he's fairly sure there are no more skeletons in the mayor's closet. Photo / Greg Bowker
Lewis says he's fairly sure there are no more skeletons in the mayor's closet. Photo / Greg Bowker

David Lewis, who is Len Brown's spin doctor and was Helen Clark's chief press secretary (which is the same thing), doesn't do interviews - at least not about being a spin doctor. He gives quotes, designed to hose things down when one of his clients has been playing up.

His job is to move a story from the front page of a newspaper, or from the lead item on the news, to as far back in a newspaper or as far down in a news bulletin, as possible, as quickly as possible until, poof!, the story disappears.

He said: "Well, this is a fairly unique experience." I'll say. I put down two recorders. He later emailed to say he'd have been "a little more relaxed" if the recorders hadn't been there. As it is an old trick of press secretaries to put their recorder down next to yours, there may have been a little payback involved.

I did like that "a little more relaxed". He is given to qualifiers (that "little") and to lean, dry humour. He is quite, surprisingly, blokey, I thought - having only met him in chief press secretary mode, which is formal, if not severe.

At home sans suit and tie, talking about his home brew, which he claims is "horrible", he is a little more relaxed. I asked what he had strong opinions about in the vain hope he might opt for, say, good moral character. He said: "The All Blacks."

He is given to putting Ys at the ends of people's names. Grant Robertson, a good mate, and who got his vote for new Labour leader, is Granty. He calls Helen Clark, Clarky. I bet he's never called her that to her face. "I bet you're right."

He offered a drink. It was 4pm. I should have said yes, I thought later. Later still I thought: It wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference. You don't get to be a top spin doctor without learning how to drink with journalists while keeping your mouth shut. We later did have a drink. He kept his mouth shut.

He knows, if not where the bodies are buried, what the bodies have been up to, and with whom. A senior political journalist said that he is the closest we have to a Malcolm Tucker, the sweary and powerful spin doctor from The Thick of It. "Except without the swearing and the power." I told him this and he said: "It's a good programme." Does he take that as a compliment? "Ha, ha, It's a very good programme."

He sent a very sweary text message to RadioLive's Duncan Garner: "Fckn hell Duncan. You're feeding utter fckn bullshit."

Garner, of course, put this on the station's website. I was amazed he'd sent it. He appeared to have lost his cool, which is considerable and considered. He said: "We've sent blokey texts to each other for years ... So I thought that I could send a text like that to Duncy and he'd understand."

He gets on well with journalists (mostly) having, briefly, been one himself - he wanted to be a sports journalist - and a big part of his job is knowing how to get on with journalists.

So that text seemed like a rare miscalculation to me, given that tempers are running hot over the Brown story. He immediately apologised, by text, to Garner for any implied abuse, and I'm certain it was a heart-felt apology.

But he did look rather pleased when he told me that after Garner put his text up on the website, "in a fit of rage ... [he] got a whole lot of comments telling him he should harden up". How very silly of me to assume that he'd slipped up. He came up smelling of roses again then. He gave me one his little dry smiles.

He said: "The problem with texts is that you don't get tone, do you?" I'm pretty sure he seldom has difficulties with tone.

Which brings us rather neatly to that mysterious text. The threatening one sent to Bevan Chuang, Brown's former mistress, that nobody can trace. Did he send it? "Ha, ha. No." Is he sure? "I'm very, very sure." Does he know who did send it? "Who knows? I have no idea whether it's somebody connected to us, or somebody connected to Whale Oil or Stephen Cook." Wouldn't he know if it was somebody connected to the Brown camp? "I would think so."

But would he? He says he hadn't heard so much as a rumour about the mayor's affair before the story was about to break, in the last week of the campaign. Shouldn't he have?

"Only when it came out. If it was going to come out ... In Wellington half of Parliament's carrying on, you know. Half of the Labour MPs I used to work with would have had matters in their private life they didn't want public." There was absolutely no point asking him to tell me. "They don't tell me about it, do they?"

He must go around with ear plugs in, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he does. If you don't hear things, you can plausibly say you don't know them.

I asked if he'd heard from Helen Clark about the Brown scandal and he said, very carefully, that "she might have sent an email". A cackling one? "She's got pretty high moral standards, Helen. She thought MPs who were fooling around were idiots, and I think that judgment applies to mayors as well." So you can take from that what you will. I had another go later at getting him to tell me what she said in her email and he said: "Oh, I can't remember."

He never tells lies. "Aah. You'll get caught out if you tell lies. So you don't tell lies in this business." Half-truths? "Sometimes you'll answer questions in a way which might deflect the question." Has he done that today? "No. Not today."

He and "Clarky" are friendly but not go out to dinner together friendly, as you'd expect. He and Len are friendly, but not hang out together and watch the footy friendly. He calls Len, Len, or mate. He might also have called him an idiot. Has he told him he was an idiot? "Yeah ... But not in a vicious or nasty way."

He says he doesn't think he could work for a politician he didn't respect (he has never worked for a right-winger and probably never would.) He likes Len; he says he's a good guy. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But honestly, I don't see how you could have read that affidavit and not have lost respect for him, on the grounds of pure yuck, if nothing else. What did he think when he read it? "Oh, you stupid bastard." Did he also think "yuck"? "Oh, I thought, 'why did you ... ?' Any time any of these intimate private details are put on a piece of white paper, it's going to look pretty ugly. If I sat down and wrote about my intimate life and put it on paper ..." He's not the mayor of Auckland. "I know."

I don't believe him about his intimate life. I asked his girlfriend, Angelika Cutler, who is communications manager for Waterfront Auckland, whether he was at all romantic. He said: "God!" She said of course he was; why, he had let her put the caps on his bottles of home brew. She also said that he's useless at gossip. She is also in PR, but I tend to believe her. Loose lips sink ships, and all that.

He claims to have "blanked" the details of that wretched affidavit. "I don't need to know the details." But you can't unknow what you already know. "I'm repressing it because I don't want a mental picture of some of those things."

That seems wholly understandable. Still, I'd have thought that there must be a frisson of excitement, being in the thick of a major scandal. After all, managing scandals is what he does.

"Yeah, but with this one it was less frisson and it was just, 'Oh, shit'. I could do without the frisson of the current, um, troubles."

You did have to ask if there were going to be any further, um, troubles. So, are there any more girls? "No. Not that I'm aware of." Has he asked? "Yes, I have." And he said no? "Yes." And he believes him? "Yes." Well, he has to, doesn't he? "Yeah."

I asked the same question again, a different way (I don't know why I bothered; he knows all the tricks). Was he absolutely certain there were no further scandals in Len's closet? "I certainly hope so ... I'm pretty certain ... Yes. I am certain. I guess." That little qualifier at the end ... "But Len's told me there's nothing more. That everything is out there, so ..."

You don't usually go to interview somebody and spend half the time talking about what their client, who happens to be the mayor, has been getting up to on mayoral couches. So it was a funny sort of interview. As in: Where did you go to school? questions interspersed with the mayoral ego ("Len sometimes tells people I'm there to try to dampen down his enthusiasms"; with scant success, I refrained from saying) and whether he was the brains behind the open letter written by the mayor's stepdaughter, Sam. He snorted and said he wasn't. People ascribe conspiracy to what is actually chaos, he said.

Some things, then, about him. He went to Wanganui Collegiate; his father was Deputy Chief of Staff in the Navy; his parents are firmly right-wing and so was he until he was turned left by living in Thatcher's Britain. He had an amicable divorce from journalist Josie McNaught in 2005; they have two teenagers, a girl and a boy.

Another reason you don't usually interview spin doctors: they are not by nature given to volunteering information. You have to drag out of them the scandalous intimate details of their private lives, of the sort above.

I'm not much the wiser as to why he did agree to an interview. He said he always advises his clients to talk to me (with the obvious exception, I assume, of the mayor, this week), so he took his own advice. Also, he has his own PR business, which consists of him, and he says he's not very good at marketing himself. There's nothing like the expert handling of a scandal to market a spin doctor, not that he requires any marketing.

How good is he? He might even be as good as a Malcolm Tucker. So good that I can't even mind that I have only very belatedly realised that the story is on the back page of the newspaper.

- NZ Herald

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