Politics

Politics: #PeakCray – Making Current Affairs TV During NZ’s Strangest Election

From the legalistic urges of Colin Craig to Dirty Politics to the Kim Dotcom Town Hall spectacular, the unstoppable weirdness of the 2014 New Zealand general election was best encapsulated by the hashtag #PeakCray. In this chapter from the new collection Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, Nicola Kean recounts the bizarre period from her standpoint as producer on The Nation.

On 19 September 2014, the day before the election, Labour leader David Cunliffe made a last-ditch appearance on TV3’s late night Paul Henry Show. Apparently overtired and on a campaign high, he gave what Henry called, to his face, a “bizarre” performance. He encouraged viewers to party vote Labour in a pirate voice.

When Henry asked him if bad weather meant Labour voters would sit by the fire instead of casting their ballots, he shouted that his supporters couldn’t afford fires. He mocked the Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. “Cunliffe. Paul Henry. Wow,” tweeted 3News press gallery reporter Brook Sabin. “We’ve finally reached #peakcray,” his colleague Tova O’Brien replied.

The #peakcray hashtag, a reference to the colloquial term for crazy, developed on Twitter as the campaign took one weird turn after another. After all, the election year began with the then ACT Party leader Jamie Whyte saying that he had no issues with consensual incest and ended with a world-famous rapper suing the National Party over a campaign ad that used music suspiciously similar to his. In between there was Dirty Politics, a ministerial resignation, a spying scandal, and the ill-fated marriage between the Mana Party and a party founded by a German millionaire facing deportation on copyright charges.

And it wasn’t just Twitter users who thought the 2014 election had reached new levels of crazy. During the interview with Cunliffe, Henry presented a graphic of the more bizarre episodes of the campaign and asked for his thoughts. “I think it will go down in history as the craziest, and in some ways the most unfortunate, campaign in recorded memory,’ he replied. It certainly wasn’t unfortunate for the National Party, which initially gained an unprecedented parliamentary majority but subsequently found itself reliant on a support partner after the special votes came in.

For Labour it was a different matter: the party gained its lowest vote in decades and the result triggered a leadership contest. In the post-defeat positioning that began with his comments on election night, Cunliffe blamed Labour’s inability to break through to voters partially on “forces outside mainstream politics” sucking oxygen out of the debate between the two large parties. While Labour’s problems went well beyond not being able to get a word in during the Dirty Politics saga, did Cunliffe have a point? Did the media focus too much on the bizarre and not enough on policy?

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The Hi-Vis Election

The Nation, TV3’s weekend politics show, was relaunched at the beginning of 2014 with new staff and an election to cover. The long-time TVNZ reporter and former foreign correspondent Lisa Owen came on board as the presenter, with 3News political editor Patrick Gower frequently cohosting. Under executive producer Tim Watkin, formerly of TVNZ’s Q+A, the Auckland-based team consisted of senior producer Catherine Walbridge, reporters Torben Akel and Lucy Warhurst, and video editor Stuart Mackay. As the Wellington producer, I work alongside the 3News political team in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In such a competitive industry, the Press Gallery is oddly collegial. Political journalists from all of New Zealand’s major media organisations work cheek by jowl in a small annex of the Beehive. In weeks when Parliament is sitting, the day is generally structured around opportunities to question politicians on the fly – the Prime Minister’s post-Cabinet press conference, the Tuesday caucus meetings, and on the “bridge” before Question Time, where Ministers and their media advisors run the gauntlet of the press pack on their way from the Beehive to the House.

But during the campaign period the gallery became something of a ghost town as the action moved away from Parliament and on to the campaign trail. Organisations with larger staff numbers, like Radio New Zealand and the two main print companies, assigned a reporter to a particular party or two for the length of the campaign. Other media, such as TV3, made the decision to send reporters out to party campaign events on merit. Both approaches had their advantages and disadvantages, but it also reflected the differing requirements of the organisations. The election coverage tended to be a mix between the proactive and reactive – events such as major policy announcements were covered, but having journalists follow politicians on the road provides opportunities to dig up other stories. O’Brien’s exposé on the falling out between Internet Mana’s Hone Harawira and Laila Harré was one example.

For The Nation, covering the election was a matter of balancing long-planned set pieces with breaking news. The process began several months out from the election, with planning sessions among the production staff and the placing of bids with the relevant ministers – what would be the most important issues of the campaign? Who would be the best people to debate them? The economy was a no-brainer. Housing was something that affects everyone, whether you’re a struggling first-home buyer in Auckland, a tenant facing massive rent increases in Christchurch, or a baby boomer with all your retirement savings invested in a house. It was also, like education, an area where the two parties likely to be leading the government had vastly different policies that reflected their respective philosophies. The environment was more of a sleeper issue, but one that is intrinsic to New Zealand’s future wealth and security.

The Nation is split into four segments, with advertising breaks splitting up the content. The usual format is one interview or track per segment, which results in interviews between 10 and 13 minutes long. With a panel of experts and commentators taking up most of the final segment, the campaign debates in the six weeks before the election were allocated between two and three segments — depending on what else had been in the news that week. That’s a significant amount of time in television solely devoted to discussions about party policy and the contest of ideas. But while two politicians debating policy was the aim, it didn’t always go to plan. The Nation’s election coverage began officially in August, when the House rose, with the infamous wealth debate between the Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and Labour spokesperson Grant Robertson. What was intended to be a debate about New Zealand’s economic future quickly descended into the pair shouting over each other, largely at Joyce’s instigation. Things got even more heated during the ad break, when Joyce reportedly called Robertson an “angry little man” and Robertson responded by telling Joyce to get out of his face.

Owen tried to calm the men during the break, while Watkin told them they would each have 30 seconds at the top of the next part to sum up their arguments thus far. Devised as a way for both men to shake off their frustration, get their main points off their chest, and re-engage viewers, Robertson later acknowledged it was the TV equivalent of being “put on the naughty step”. So by the second break it had quieted down, but it was too late to stop Joyce’s performance in particular becoming the “talk of the Beehive”. Having spent several days reading economic reports and brainstorming questions, this was a disheartening result for the producers.

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Most of the debates pitted National and Labour candidates against each other. The Green Party co-leader Russel Norman represented the left wing in the environment debate with the then Minister Amy Adams, as a way of recognising the Green’s status as the biggest of the minor parties. The reason we gravitated towards the two larger parties wasn’t because we misunderstood MMP, which was an accusation leveled at us via social media. Debates are not easy things to organise, and in order for them to be worthwhile the government has to be represented. In order for the government to be represented the minister has to agree to appear. It’s a process that can sometimes take weeks or even months of delicate negotiations. We already had to contend with a government-wide rule that ministers would not debate prior to the official campaign period.

But we were very conscious of the role smaller parties had to play during the campaign. During the year The Nation ran two debates with the leaders of the minor parliamentary parties – one about the economy, just before the Budget was released in May, and another, which took a dramatic turn, during the campaign. We also held an Epsom candidates” debate in June, and in July, before the House rose, we hosted a debate on Māori issues between Te Ururoa Flavell and Hone Harawira (their first other than on Māori Television) and another between Jamie Whyte and Colin Craig (“the fight for the right”).

The Nation vs Colin Craig

The first indication that The Nation’s minor parties debate was not going to go smoothly came on Tuesday, 5 August, in the form of an email from the Conservative Party’s press secretary Rachel MacGregor. Planning for the debate had started a few weeks previously, and we were in the process of eliciting final confirmations from the leaders, carrying out research, and brainstorming questions. In the early production meetings there was discussion about who should be invited; the consensus was the leaders of the six parliamentary parties. We had six podiums, room for six speakers plus a host, and 34 minutes of airtime. Given the polling and deal-making, all the parties included were virtually guaranteed to make it back into Parliament. And anyway, once you went outside of those parties, where did you stop? What threshold could you set that didn’t rely utterly on the vagaries of polling? There had to be a line in the sand, as executive producer Watkin later wrote in his affidavit to the court:

We felt that this criteria would be readily understandable to The Nation’s audience. We also considered that a line needed to be drawn at some point – to invite parties outside of Parliament would have resulted in us being required to make incredibly difficult assessments as to who ought to be included and to develop any cogent, consistent and readily understandable selection criteria.

Under those criteria, both the Conservative Party and the Internet Party were excluded from the debate. Craig objected to his exclusion. He would later argue in court that the decision was arbitrary and unreasonable given that the Conservative Party polled higher, both at the previous election and in media polls, than other parties invited and that it had “enjoyed significant media profile” in the campaign (Gilbert 2014, p. 2). Indeed, the Conservatives had enjoyed significant coverage – Craig had already been on The Nation four times in the lead-up to the debate, as many appearances as the Prime Minister himself. But it was the inclusion of the ACT Party and New Zealand First in the debate that Craig seemed to find problematic. His lawyers noted during the court hearing that with John Banks” resignation ACT no longer had a sitting MP:

Mr Craig complains that there can be no proper basis for inviting the ACT Party but excluding the Conservative Party from the debate in circumstances where, he says: a) Neither ACT nor the Conservative Party has an MP in Parliament; b) The Conservative Party won more votes in the 2011 election than ACT; and c) The Conservative Party has consistently polled higher than ACT since the last election.

Craig and MacGregor met with Watkin and TV3’s Head of News, Mark Jennings, on the Wednesday. In that meeting, Craig also complained that we had not chosen to interview him about the sale of the Lochinver Station to Shanghai Pengxin (a story he had broken) the previous week, instead speaking to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters – who had a better chance of being involved in a future government – in the hope of moving the story along. When this was explained he said he could not accept his direct competitor being on the programme two weeks in a row on the issue of foreign ownership. The discussions continued over the next few days, with Watkin attempting to make other arrangements in a bid to avoid legal action. But on Thursday evening, just one working day before the debate was scheduled, Craig told us he’d see us in court.

On Friday afternoon Watkin and Jennings donned ties and headed down to the court. The rest of the team continued with the debate preparation. Hours passed without word. Then suddenly, before anyone from our team had a chance to call, it was all over Twitter. Auckland High Court judge Justice Gilbert had found that Craig had a case – it was arguable that the decision to exclude the Conservatives was unreasonable – and he restrained The Nation from holding the debate without him. He said:

If Mr Craig is excluded from the debate, his prospects and those of his party at the forthcoming election are likely to be diminished. He is therefore likely to suffer irreparable damage which cannot be adequately met by an award of damages. The public will gain the impression that MediaWorks has determined that Mr Craig does not “make the cut” and is not eligible to participate in the minor leaders” debate.

And:

It seems to be the additional cost and inconvenience to MediaWorks of rescheduling the debate at another venue, if necessary, is clearly outweighed by the harm that Mr Craig is likely to suffer if the injunction is not granted.

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Even though it was an interim injunction, the timing of the court action meant the full case would never be argued. We had no choice but to go ahead with Craig, a worrying intrusion into editorial independence. The first reports out of court said differently, however. As the judgment was handed down, social media had exploded with rumours that the debate would be cancelled. That was never really an option – we couldn’t just cancel the debate and have an hour of static or, a running joke within the production team, Lisa Owen filling in by tap dancing. Outside broadcasts (“OBs” in TV speak) require weeks of work, a venue, extra crew, various trucks carrying the necessary technology, tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it all, and production experience that our team didn’t have. So that option was out. Should we squeeze him in with a podium different to the others, so he stood out? We had to accept a ruling against us with good grace, and that meant somehow finding seven podiums with 24 hours’ notice.

This was much easier said than done, and how I found myself desperately cold calling furniture rental companies. The end result, as one viewer wrote in to my despair, was a set of podiums that looked akin to Fisher and Paykel washing machines. But, frankly, we were lucky to get those.

Dirty Politics

Late in the afternoon of 13 August 2014, what seemed like half of Wellington attempted to cram into Unity Books for the launch of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s new book. The subject was a well-kept secret and a topic of discussion among gallery journalists. The best guess was that Hager had got his hands on some of the Edward Snowden documents relating to the activities of intelligence agencies in New Zealand. The reality was more like a sequel to his earlier book The Hollow Men and would propel the election campaign into a whole new level of cray.

As the clock ticked closer to the 6 pm bulletin and journalists jostled for position, Hager arrived and gave a short speech. He had obtained a series of emails and instant messages between the Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater and other political figures, including the former Prime Minister’s Office staffer Jason Ede, public relations consultant Carrick Graham, and former Justice Minister Judith Collins. It revealed, among other things, that Ede had accessed a supposedly secure database on the Labour Party’s website; that Collins had supplied the name of a public servant whom Slater had gone on to attack on his blog; and that the Official Information Act had been misused in Slater’s favour.

It was a fast-moving story. The two major news channels went live from Unity Books with the basics. Further details, along with responses from various parties involved, emerged over the next few days. Hager’s Dirty Politics was a short book, but there was a lot in it. The first step to figuring out how to cover it on a weekly show was to read it. The book had only been released in Wellington so, like many in the Press Gallery, I stayed up half the night working my way through it.

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Then it was a question of who would be on the show. With breaking news of this level, the plans we had for that weekend were thrown out and we started from the beginning. We wanted to give our viewers something new and interesting about the Dirty Politics revelations, beyond commentators providing analysis of the political implications. But while most of the politicians mentioned in the book would front for so-called “stand up’ press conferences from the campaign trail, they would not come into the studio for an extended interview. We requested interviews with John Key, Judith Collins and Steven Joyce, who all declined to appear. Slater was travelling in Israel, but we managed to get in touch with him and he agreed to be interviewed remotely. Hager also agreed to fly to Auckland to be interviewed in the studio, along with former Labour leader Phil Goff, who was the subject of a number of the messages between Slater and others, and Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, who had laid a number of complaints over the content of the book. Our reporter Torben Akel also summed up the main events of the week in a short taped piece, following that up with an in-depth piece on Dirty Politics the following week.

After the rush of the first week, we continued to cover Dirty Politics as more emerged from the “Rawshark” leaks and as the initial allegations continued to develop. When Judith Collins resigned on 30 August – a Saturday afternoon, after we had broadcast the live show but before the repeat the next morning – we remade the show rather than screening an out-of-date version on Sunday.

During the Dirty Politics coverage there was a recurring theme of feedback from some viewers: why aren’t you covering the issues that really matter? And it wasn’t just ordinary viewers – it was an almost constant refrain from the National side and what David Cunliffe was referencing when he made his “forces outside of mainstream politics” comment. Victoria University political scientist Kate McMillan has completed qualitative research on the Dirty Politics coverage elsewhere in this volume, but at The Nation we made a great deal of effort to cover policy through our debates and interviews. A total of 123 minutes of the show was devoted solely to policy debate during the campaign period, with 42 minutes about Dirty Politics.

On TVNZ, Q+A had a similar debate format. Other current affairs shows like Campbell Live tackled policy. On Radio Live’s evening show, Andrew Fagan and Karen Hay ran lengthy discussions with MPs. Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon aired probing interviews with party leaders. Across the media, there were journalists and producers working hard to ensure New Zealanders were informed about policy when they walked into the polling booth.

Secondly, Dirty Politics is an issue that matters. While I don’t endorse the hacking of anyone’s personal information, what was revealed highlighted some ethically dubious and inappropriate behaviour by politicians and others involved in the political sphere. It was about leadership and trust, two factors voters often rank as high priorities in election campaigns. Further, it led to the resignation of a high-ranking government minister and spurred a number of investigations. One, by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, found that a spy agency had released inaccurate information in an Official Information Act request that led to “misplaced criticism” of an opposition leader. Policy is important, but so is the way political power is wielded.

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The Morning After

After an exhausting campaign period, 20 September felt oddly quiet. The rules around broadcasting political content on election day meant that it was impossible for The Nation to stay in its usual Saturday slot. It would also have been much less interesting had we done so. Instead, we planned a one-and-a-half-hour special show beginning at 8am the morning after. Most of the main players had been lined up in advance, barring John Key, who had declined all interviews for that morning. Between the politicians we had two panels organised: a media panel with Radio Live host Duncan Garner and political scientist Bryce Edwards, and a pollster panel with Labour’s Rob Salmond and National’s David Farrar. The final shape of the rundown, however, was largely dependent on the result. If National was the most likely to be able to form a government, we wanted to speak with Steven Joyce first. If Labour looked like it could claw together a coalition, David Cunliffe was a natural top interview. Around midnight we hit the phones to confirm the final line up – or as final as it could be.

Back at the studio later that morning, getting the show to air was like a game of Tetris. Everyone was operating on little or no sleep and the order had to constantly be revised, with some politicians only available at certain times, some arriving late, and others wanting to leave. The late arrivals of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Internet Party leader Laila Harré required a reshuffle of the whole rundown, and changes had to be made when we decided at 1am to add an interview with former Labour leader David Shearer. The restrictions of the set we were using added another level of complication. The presenters, Lisa Owen and Patrick Gower, were doing interviews at opposite ends of a single studio desk, which meant we only had short windows of time to get the guests in and out, and microphones on and off. But while the adrenaline was pumping in the control room, the end product came out relatively smooth.

In the midst of this, Mana leader Hone Harawira had gone AWOL. The plan initially was for him to fly down from Te Tai Tokerau, the electorate he no longer held, late on Saturday to speak in the morning. Calls to him and his press secretary went unanswered. By the morning we received a group text message saying he would not be doing interviews. We had planned to squeeze Harawira’s rival, Labour’s Kelvin Davis, into the show, but now we needed him. Davis had already scheduled back-to-back interviews, including one at Māori Television, during the time slot we had open. I jumped in a cab and went to the Māori Television headquarters in Parnell, where I spoke to Davis and a very kind producer. We could do the interview while he was waiting to go on air, but the catch was that the truck that would beam the interview back to TV3 couldn’t get reception outside the Māori Television studio building. We ended up having to run up the street and do the interview outside a random Parnell apartment block. Then, of course, it started to rain.

Conclusions

My own personal peak cray came on the morning of the 21st, standing in a late September sun-shower on a street in Parnell, holding an umbrella over the head of a newly elected Member of Parliament while he did a sound check for a live interview with a presenter who’d had emergency retinal surgery ten days prior and was reading the autocue one-eyed.

But the examples I’ve discussed here are just the tip of the cray iceberg. There was the “Moment of Truth”, the “Rawshark” Twitter dumps, the resignation of Colin Craig’s press secretary Rachel MacGregor two days before polling day and, not to be forgotten, the Eminem lawsuit. Some of those things mattered more than others, but they all helped shape the course of the election. Dirty Politics and the “Rawshark” revelations had the largest impact on the campaign itself, even if the scandal didn’t appear to affect the final outcome. It dominated the headlines, and rightly so, given the seriousness of the book’s contents. Did all the attention on the more bizarre aspects of the campaign mean the coverage of policy was neglected? For once David Cunliffe and John Key have something in common: their answer to that question is yes. Cunliffe argued that “forces outside of mainstream politics” hamstrung the policy debate. Key’s constant refrain during the Dirty Politics scandal was that the issue wasn’t one that mattered to New Zealanders.

From my perspective the answer is no. The Nation ran six debates about policy from the first week we were able to get representatives of the government into a studio, plus five other debates prior to that. We continued those debates throughout the campaign, providing substantial screen time to a contest of ideas – although it didn’t always work out as intended. We ran two minor party debates, one almost solely devoted to economic policy. And we weren’t the only ones to do so; as pointed out above, the debate format was a popular one across a variety of media organisations. At the end of the day – to use a popular election campaign phrase – the unprecedented amount of cray undoubtedly took some media time from other issues. Nevertheless there was a generous smorgasbord of policy debate on the menu for anyone wanting to consume it.

moments-of-truth-coverThe Nation is a weekly politics and current affairs show on TV3 9.30am Saturdays, 10am Sundays and 7pm Saturdays on Radio Live.

Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, edited by Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine, is the latest in a series of authoritative election studies published by Victoria University Press. Contributors include political party leaders, campaign managers, political commentators, pollsters, consultants and academics.

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