Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Labour's leadership being decided by media pundits

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Some pundits see the rise of Jones as being a reflection of a rightwing or Establishment response to the leadership contest. Photo / Natalie Slade
Some pundits see the rise of Jones as being a reflection of a rightwing or Establishment response to the leadership contest. Photo / Natalie Slade

The Australian media elected Tony Abbott as prime minister in the weekend. Is the New Zealand media about to do the same here with the leader of the Labour Party? Critics of the so-called mediacracy allege the corporate mass media monopoly and its political journalists sway public opinion and, therefore, elections. This view is not without its problems but certainly the media plays a role in determining or influencing politics. The question is to what extent, and how appropriate is that role?

Despite the fact that the Labour leadership contest is an internal matter for the party much of the campaign is being played out in the media, not least because the candidates are desperate to use the media to win over supporters. There have certainly been some fascinating media appearances.

One particularly memorable example is the 5-minute video: A night out with Grant Robertson. In this, Robertson stages a meeting with TVNZ's Seven Sharp reporter Heather du Plessis-Allan in a very non-beltway Wellington pub to watch the rugby.

About one minute into the item, the tragicomic scene occurs with Robertson declaring that his partner Alf isn't at the pub, only to have Alf walk past the camera. du Plessis-Allan naturally milks the bizarre event, partly because exposing politicians' less than truthful statements resonates with both the public and political journalists, who believe that politicians are constantly lying to them. du Plessis-Allan also covered the other two candidates in Fishing with David Cunliffe and Breakfast with Shane Jones.

Alleged media bias towards Shane Jones

Another television item has been more controversial - at least with some pundits. TV3's Guyon Espiner reported on one of the leadership candidates in his 3rd Degree profile - see the 12-minute video, The Jones Boy: Shane Jones at home. The most critical response to Espiner's programme has come from media specialist Russell Brown - see his critique, Jonesing, in which he suggests that Espiner and collegue Duncan Garner have 'taken up the torch for Jones' in a 'Bromance three-way'. Equally suspicious is the Herald's media reporter, John Drinnan who says 'Mediaworks and TV3 are starting to sound like the Jones channel in covering the Labour leadership campaign', arguing that '3News political editor Paddy Gower has been plugging Jonesy while Duncan Garner talks him up on RadioLive' - see: It's the Shane Jones show. See also Danyl Mclauchlan's post, Labour leadership, in which he says the 'TV3 endorsement' of Jones is 'an absurdity, and its hard to get wound up about it all'.

The harshest verdict on both the media and Jones comes from Brian Edwards in his blogpost, On Shane Jones - Cock of the Walk. He says: 'Espiner's piece certainly had little journalistic merit. It was a shameless promotion of a politician currently involved in a contest for the leadership of a political party who, if he wins that contest, will next year be involved in a contest for the leadership of the country. Yet Espiner asks not one remotely probing question. He is too busy tending the barbecue for his host and laughing at the sexual innuendo that peppers Jones' answers'. Edwards also outlines why he has 'nothing but contempt for Jones'. Similarly, Fran O'Sullivan also complains that Jones gets a pass on the third degree, saying that the candidate received a 'free ride' from journalists who she says have performed a 'political snow job' when they should be 'strongly grilled on where he really sits on major economic issues facing New Zealand'.

In answer to these allegations, Guyon Espiner has penned a blogpost, Shane Jones on 3rd Degree - a response to critics. He justifies the approach taken in the programme, and clarifies that the televised telephone call between Jones and Cunliffe was definitely not a 'set up'. But an even better defence of Espiner - and an excellent discussion of the issues - comes from Tim Watkin in his post, Decoding 3rd Degree and the Labour 'conspiracy'. Of particular interest is his discussion of whether politicians should invite the media - and therefore the public - to view their private lives. Also, see Paul Casserly's insightful review of both TV3 and TVNZ's political profiles of the Labour candidates: Date night with Labour's men. He emphasises the tendency of modern (male) politicians to 'fall overthemselves being seen to do blokey things'. See also Tim Selwyn's Daily Blog TV review, 3 monkeys and the gorilla.

The Rise of Shane Jones

Jones has emerged as a surprisingly strong presence in the leadership contest, and a lot of punditry reflects that at the moment. Claire Trevett has written that Jones shows every underdog has his day, and examines the interesting role that the unlikely contender is playing. Matt McCarten also focuses on Jones' rise in his weekend column, Kingmaker Jones stealing show. Others that have come close to endorsing Jones are Duncan Garner in Should Labour members vote Shane Jones?, and Willie Jackson in Shane Jones for leader?. And while it is overwhelmingly men who see the positives in Jones, one female anarchist blogger thinks that it's time to have a Maori leading Labour and the country - see Ellipsister's The potential for Maori leadership should not be understated.

Of course, there are still plenty of people who regard Jones as boorish and offensive- for the latest see Andrea Vance and Harry Pearl's Jones 'wants to string up Key'. In this regard, Jones is suitably parodied by Ben Uffindell's blogpost, '50 Million Dollar Gorilla' was best porn film Shane Jones ever saw.

Some pundits see the rise of Jones as being a reflection of a rightwing or Establishment response to the leadership contest - see, for example, The Standard's The Jones surpremacy and Chris Trotter's Democratic Distempers: How Labour's Leadership Election is Unsettling the Neoliberal Establishment.

The role of pundits

So are media pundits playing too much of a role in influencing the Labour leadership debate? Is it becoming a case of pundit versus pundit? Chris Trotter has taken umbrage with the column I wrote a week ago in which I argued that, although the Labour candidates are presenting as leftwing, they will shift back towards the centre after the leadership vote, and even further rightwards in government - see: Labour's lurch to the left. In response Chris Trotter used his newspaper column on Friday to suggest that some academic pundits should be swallowing the hemlock as Socrates was forced to - see: Labour returns to its roots and a plague on cynics.

Danyl McLauchlan also considers the media's sphere of influence in his retrospective blogpost examining what the pundits were saying during the last leadership contest - see: Labour leadership punditry, 2011 edition.

The role of opinion polls

The media published two opinion polls over the weekend, which could have a significant influence on the contest. Both heavily favoured Cunliffe, but also reflected the rise of Jones - see TVNZ's David Cunliffe favourite to be new Labour leader - poll and Patrick Gower's Surprise contender in Labour leader race.

Of course, these polls reflect public support rather than support amongst internal party voters. Nonetheless, the polls will influence Labour Party members with their message about which potential leader will be best received by voters in the contest next year. In this sense, it could be argued that the influence of polls is just as anti-democratic as having external pundits influence the race.

The role of Labour MPs

Labour MPs not only have a disproportionately large vote in the leadership contest (40% of the total vote) but, in addition, play a strong role as opinion leaders in the wider party. It could be argued that MPs should resist any attempt to influence how the wider membership vote, but increasingly Labour politicians are coming out in favour of their preferred candidate. For example, in Dunedin, Dene Mackenzie of the ODT reported that the local Labour MPs came out ahead of the local meeting to bolster support for Grant Robertson - see: Clark, Curran name their man. Such announcements - especially in light of their timing - could be perceived as attempting to preempt local decision-making. But this strategy also carries the risk of backfiring, and casting Curran and Clark in the role of top-down anti-democrats. It also probably didn't escape the notice of Dunedin activists that the 'neutral' venue chosen for the meeting was Robertson's own high school.

David Farrar continues to catalog support for the contestants from both Labour MPs and pundits in his post, Who's supporting who. He also has a post that analyses the complex preferential support that is likely amongst the MPs - see: Labour caucus vote closer than I thought.

Tracy Watkins also has a very good write up on the factions and the 'key movers and shakers within the party' in her recap of the race so far - see: Labour leadership race too tight to call.

The role of Unions

The affiliated trade unions are also influencing the debate by announcing their voting recommendations. Tova O'Brien reported last night that four of the six affiliated unions have announced support for Cunliffe, suggesting that this is 'a potential game changer' - see: More union support for David Cunliffe. For a further update on union support, as well as Ruth Dyson's declared leader vote - see Audrey Young's Union support for David Cunliffe. And, characteristically, David Farrar crunches the proportionate power of the various affiliate support in Union update for Labour vote.

Deal-making

Will backroom deals help decide the election result? Certainly backroom arrangements were in play when the coup against Shearer was being planned - as has been documented by Jane Clifton - but these were thwarted by the party organisation and activists insisting on a full contest. This doesn't mean that there is no deal-making in play at the moment of course, and much of the commentary at the moment is about which candidates might lend weight to the other in the contest to achieve a desired outcome. It's the preference voting that makes a real difference in the contest, and there are some signs that those members supporting Jones might give their crucial second preferences to Cunliffe - see Katie Bradford-Crozier's Cunliffe seems to be streaking ahead.

This is the focus of a very intelligent analysis by Gordon Campbell about the preference voting inside Labour, and speculation about who might be doing deals - see: On the Labour leadership race. The key part is this: 'Right now, one important question has to be - who inherits Jones' ballot preferences? From the outset it has been clear that Jones will receive the fewest votes and drop out, and then most of his second preference votes will go to...who, exactly? It would be interesting to know if and whom Jones may be suggesting to his followers they should place second on their ballots. I would bet the bank on the bulk of the Jones vote swinging behind Robertson - with the payoff being that the new leadership team would be Robertson as leader and Jones as deputy. The Beltway Insider and the Man of the People. The Gay Guy and the Dude. It is the kind of politics that gets dreamed up in an advertising agency'.

The support of union-related MPs is particularly sought after, as Andrea Vance points out: 'Where Shearer, finance spokesman David Parker and former EPMU boss Andrew Little decide to place their votes is crucial. Little obviously has huge sway with the unions but is keeping his choice close to his chest. He spent Friday in New Plymouth with Robertson, who is quietly confident of his support' - see: Porn scandal muddies Shane's mana.

One of the 'old guard' MPs, 'Trevor Mallard' is supporting Robertson, and is Spoiling for a fight according to Steve Kilgallon. Seen as strongly hostile to Cunliffe, some speculate that should Cunliffe win then Mallard would be demoted and/or forced to depart at the next election. But this profile suggests that he's unlikely to let himself leave without a fight. It could be that Mallard is actually still maneuvering for the role of Speaker in the next Labour-led Government - an argument put by Rob Hosking in Wellington Faultlines: Trevor Mallard's Job Application (paywalled). Hosking says: 'If Mr Cunliffe becomes Labour leader after the current drawn out primary, it is an equally widely believed Mr Mallard's chances of hanging on to his high list place, his front bench position, and his parliamentary salary, expenses and superannuation contributions are roughly the same as Horowhenua taking the Ranfurly Shield off Hawkes Bay. His sliver of a chance of hanging on rests in becoming Speaker. The bid is getting increasingly blatant'.

Speculation about David Shearer's likely vote points to a preference for Jones, with the assumption that as leader Shearer was undermined by both Robertson and Cunliffe. That perception was hardly dismissed in Shearer's very interesting and impressive interview yesterday on Q+A - see TVNZ's David Shearer prefers war zones to politics. But Shearer's complaints are not going down well with everyone, with the reaction summed up very well by Scott Yorke's blogpost, So who's to blame for Shearer's failure? An Imperator Fish exclusive.

If that's enough of pundits and maneuvering, and you want some policy discussion from the candidates, then it's worth visiting the Young Labour Facebook page The youth activists are doing a good job of getting some policy-related answers from the candidates - the results of which are nicely analysed by the 'Ideologically Impure' blogger in When you think you have the answers, I steal your questions and I steal your questions, part 2.

Finally, for humour, Sean Plunket attempts to make analogies between fashionistas and the three Labour contenders in Party primary vs Fashion Week, Scott Yorke parodies the missing option in the Labour race in David Shearer: Labour's future, and best of all, Steve Braunias has The Secret Diary of Shane Jones.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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