How to explain the way the story around the prime minister’s partner exploded? Danyl Mclauchlan counts the ways
As a National Party smear campaign
As far as the Labour Party is concerned: they’ve been here before. Last time Labour were in government a group of National Party activists and their fellow travellers on the right – the Exclusive Brethren, Investigate Magazine – were obsessed with Helen Clark’s husband Peter Davis. The exact nature of the story they told about him changed, mutated, transformed over the years, and rarely made much sense, but Davis had definitely done something, they insisted, something really bad, probably overseas, definitely, and the prime minister and the media covered it up, whatever it was. They repeated endless variations on the story, published it on the then-nascent social media especially Whaleoil and in the comments section of Kiwiblog and hounded journalists demanding to know why they were concealing it all from the public. Eventually a heavily redacted version of the story made its way onto TV3 News then died away.
The sustained and malevolent nature of the rumour enraged the prime minister who indicated very strongly that she blamed the National Party (“my political opponents”, was her exact phrase). As it moved into its third term the direction of the Clark government drifted towards insularity and paranoia – never a long trip on the political left. Serious and substantial allegations against its ministers were treated as if they were all just part of the same baseless conspiracy. The government lost touch. The Davis rumours played a significant role in that. They weren’t just rumours: they were psychological warfare.
That was the suspicion, anyway: that the smears were strategic and came directly from National. The theory gained enormous credence with the publication of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, which revealed that National were conducting covert smear campaigns against their political opponents right out of the prime minister’s office. Clark was right all along!
And now here we are again with Labour in government; another woman prime minister, and yet another smear story targeting her partner. And the smears are being spread by social media accounts that parrot National Party talking points which very, very few people outside National even know about: many of them, for example, have “teacher” in their usernames to reflect their outrage at The Education (Protecting Teacher Title) Amendment Bill. From Labour’s perspective you’d have to be pretty dumb or deliberately blind not to see what’s happening here.
As a deeper, perhaps more troubling social phenomenon
And yet. Two journalists I talked to who chased down the great Clarke Gayford scandal only to find out there was no scandal pushed back on this when I suggested an orchestrated National Party conspiracy, both making the same point: that the rumours about Gayford were identical in tone and scale to rumours circulating about National MPs in recent years: one about a senior cabinet minister, the other about the family member of a senior Nat.
There was the exact same frenzy on social media, they said; the same allegations of a massive cover-up; the same endless demands made of reporters to reveal the alleged truth, which changed every day; the same lack of substance to any of the stories.
And all of these rumours, they claimed, seemed to trace back to figures on the peripheries of the parties: the supporters and activists not the strategists and leaders. ‘The nutters who come up to you at party conferences and haven’t washed for two years,” as one journalist put it. So maybe this is a broader phenomenon that crosses party lines? Political parties are big, factional, chaotic organisations and they attract a lot of weird people. The leaders and strategists can’t control their activists; generally they don’t even like their activists. Maybe this is driven by a convergence of fringe weirdos, the increasingly bitter, partisan nature of politics and the ascent of social media?
As a mainstream media phenomenon
And yet. Those anti-National rumours didn’t make the mainstream media and the Gayford one did, sort-of, in the odd, self-righteous form of the New Zealand Herald trumpeting the announcement that the rumours were totally untrue. If journalists reported on every rumour that wasn’t true they’d never have to write about anything else. Why this one?
The Herald is a good newspaper but it’s also famous for a right-wing editorial bias. Maybe it’s as simple as that. But the paper seems unusually obsessed with Gayford who is a celebrity in his own right and whose brand is a lot more valuable of late but is attached to a rival of NZME, the media company which owns the New Zealand Herald. So maybe there’s a commercial incentive there.
And another reason it’s a story is because the police took the “unprecedented step” of releasing a statement rejecting the speculation. The reason for that, I’m told, is that in the past when reporters approached the police regarding a political rumour the police would refuse to comment but would often advise the reporter off the record if the rumour was baseless. Only now the police have a strict policy of never commenting off the record. So the only way to deny a rumour is by releasing an official statement, which the media can then report on.
As a sign of the media apocalypse
It’s tough out there in the media. Newspapers used to come out once a day; they competed for advertising revenue will billboards and radio. Now they’re generating copy for a continuous news cycle and they’re competing for revenue with an infinite amount of cat videos on Facebook, a war that Facebook and the cats are winning. So if a journalist chases a lead there’s a lot of pressure to turn it into a story, especially if they know their rivals are all chasing the same story. Even if it turns out there is no actual story.
As an excuse for Wellingtonians to take cheap shots at the gullibility of Aucklanders
Another reason the Herald gave for reporting on the untruth of the rumours is, arguably, that everyone had already heard them: that the country has talked about nothing else for months now! But, full disclosure here, I still don’t actually know what the Clarke Gayford rumours are. I’ve heard a couple of theories in the last few days since the Herald’s story broke but they’re not very salacious.
There’s lots of gossip around Wellington – there always is – but people haven’t really been talking about this. It seems to have been a mostly Auckland-based phenomenon. One gallery journalist suggested that the way the story has proliferated there points to the inability of Aucklanders to handle political gossip. “They don’t know there are always stories like this flying around and that they’re mostly bullshit, so they think, ‘Wow! If hundreds of lunatics keep saying this on social media it must be true!'”
As a brilliant move in a ten-dimensional chess game
It’s also not impossible that, because of the whole Peter Davis saga described above, the Prime Minister’s Office wanted the police to go on the record and the media to run the story so they could kill it early on in the term, instead of dragging on for years the way the Peter Davis thing did. For some National supporters this is the real dirty politics!
As a grubby incident we should maybe stop paying attention to
Slightly tangential to Clarke Gayford, but I really like this old Wallace Stevens poem at the moment. If we all posted it in comments sections of news stories and hounded journalists to tell the public the truth about blackbirds I think the world would be a better place.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
By Wallace Stevens
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
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