The trouble with David Cunliffe is his first response to bitchiness and provocation is to adopt the measured tones of a reasonable man who believes a truthful argument will always win the day.

Consequently he is flayed unmercifully for appearing weak unsure and vapid because reasonable men with fair arguments are instant snack-food for the ravening junkie horde that is today's political media.

Watching the Labour leader being harshly put down in every part of every question that dripped from TVNZ political editor Corin Dann's lips a week back, I found myself shouting at the television: "For all our sakes, get savage, David!"

But no. Dann's bullying put-downs were met by an almost-relaxed smile and a sensible on-point response that endeavoured to say, "I will not be baited or stoop to your level". All well and good, except Cunliffe tried to argue his way off the barbs, instead of ignoring them altogether.


This is where he goes astray, by responding as a reasonable man. Affronted that someone could think such things, he politely attempts to convince them how wrong they are.

Nice guys very rarely win in politics, and haven't a snowball's chance when the mood of the media is to target anything remotely benign with a loaded flamethrower. Roast, blacken, then bury.

Contrast this with the generally-inclusive approach some journalists display when questioning John Key. Key is the master of never actually answering a question except with another question and does it so flippantly and charmingly that even vastly experienced interviewers like John Campbell are fooled into thinking he has said something substantive, when in fact he's said nothing.

They are fooled because they want to be. Because Key is "in the game" with them, and that allows the journalist to be persuaded their bait is being nibbled, and with a good jerk they'll catch a flounder; but all they hook is a bit of flotsam.

Key's fire-retardant foam diverts the flamethrowers nearly every time. Which is just as well for National, given the endless parade of gaffes, rorts, conflicts of interest and dubious deals members of his party have dabbled with over the course of this government's terms.

Regrettably certain media outlets are no longer self-critical enough to eliminate bias in their reportage indeed, they champions it.

So they happily invite Key inside for a slow dance and a nightcap while leaving Cunliffe in the alley to get beaten up by strays.

When National goes off-topic, it's a shared joke. When Labour does, it's barbecue time.

Staunch Labourites uttering pitiful cries of "don't blame the media" do so in vain attempt not to own their errors but to suck up to the journos pillorying them.

It won't work. Having cornered its prey, the media scrum is too intent on finishing it off to listen to reason. And reporters have no pity.

But at base, Labour has itself to blame. Cunliffe has not waved the bright new red flag he promised - he is more apologist than activist - and the party has foolishly snubbed the alternative agenda destined to become the Right's true opposition.

That of the Greens, of course. As socialism was the counter to capitalism, Green ecologism is the natural counter to neoliberalism, and the politics of this century will be defined by that ideological clash.

So it is not enough for Labour to be reasonable; it must re-focus itself on being radical - else it slips into apology for those who are ruining the world. That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.