There are journalists in the parliamentary press gallery (and I’m sorry, but the name Tova O’Brien springs to mind again) whose modus operandi is to probe constantly for any sign of weakness, conflict or contradiction, and to pounce triumphantly when they uncover anything that looks remotely capable of being blown into a scandal. They then sanctimoniously editorialise about it to an audience that often can’t see what the fuss is about and probably couldn’t care less.
Their mission is to make mischief. Paddy Gower was another master of this game. As I wrote in a profile of Paddy years ago for The Listener (remember The Listener?), political journalism in the 21st century has become essentially a form of sport.
Exposing hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards is a legitimate function of journalism, but something’s out of kilter when catching politicians out begins to look like its raison d’etre.
O’Brien – and possibly other reporters too, although I got the impression she was the principal provocateur – sprang a trap for the new National leadership team and they obligingly walked straight into it.
If they deserve ridicule for anything, it’s not that Muller failed to include a Maori in his shadow cabinet; that’s just another confected outrage stirred up to produce a lead item for 6 o’clock news bulletin, like the MAGA cap. No, the reason they should feel embarrassed – and why questions should be asked about their judgment – is that Muller and Kaye (and even more astonishingly, their media advisers) apparently failed to see this coming. Did it not occur to them that in an era obsessed with identify politics and minority grievances, someone would demand to know why they had an all-white front row?
As an aside, Muller could have easily avoided this by promoting one of the party’s capable Maori MPs to the front bench; perhaps Shane Reti, who seems an impressive performer. It needn’t have been seen as tokenism, since Labour appears unembarrassed by having Kelvin Davis as its deputy leader – a status presumably acquired on the basis of his Maori roots rather than through ability and achievement.
By this morning, Muller seemed to have regained his equilibrium and was saying what he should have said yesterday: namely, that he chose his front-bench line-up on the basis of ability and merit, and with a focus on broad issues. End of story. Voters can show at the ballot box whether they agree with his choices; isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?
Advancing transparently absurd pleas in mitigation – such as citing Paula Bennett at No 13 in the rankings, and even more comically identifying the palpably Pakeha Paul Goldsmith as Ngati Porou – was playing the media’s game. It looked desperate and pathetic – but worse, it looked weak.
Muller should have taken a lesson from Boris Johnson, another conservative politician with his feet to the fire, and stood his ground. The public would have respected him more for it. He should at least give the impression of having faith in his own judgment even when he doesn’t.