But I wonder whether the public thinks the same. Political events often look different from a distance than they do from the close proximity of the press gallery, and what journalists think is often wildly at odds with public opinion. As I’ve argued before, they’re ill-equipped to know what the public thinks about anything.
They also have a natural interest in remaining onside with their sources. All this needs to be taken into account in assessing press gallery opinion, which is often suspiciously homogeneous.
Even accepting the government line that Sharma is a problem child who got himself into trouble with his own staff and apparently refused offers of intervention, some aspects of the controversy remain unsettling.
My own antennae twitched when the story first broke. Not only did the full weight of the Labour Party machine come crashing down on the hapless Sharma – that’s politics, baby – but the media, almost without exception, obligingly parroted the government narrative from the start. The hit job on the Hamilton West MP was not only instantaneous and overwhelming but gave the impression of having media buy-in. Guilty as charged; done and dusted. It looked to me as if reporters were briefed and primed to go.
I couldn’t help but contrast the press pack’s apparent acceptance of the government line with their refusal to cut National any slack over the Uffindell saga. The difference was striking.
The secret caucus meeting on Monday night certainly wouldn’t have helped. Gang-ups are never a good look. The irony is that this controversy arose out bullying claims and ended up showing in plain sight exactly what political bullying looks like.
Even accepting that Sharma broke caucus rules, the manner of his punishment – no, let’s call it humiliation, which is what it is – doesn’t play well to a public concerned with fairness and due process. It’s the ugly face of politics laid bare, and the government can’t escape being damaged.
As a talkback caller said, whatever happened to Ardern’s kindness shtick? Her earnest, imploring facial expression, so wearyingly familiar to viewers of news bulletins, has never looked more strained – some would say fake – than when she was defending the brutal demolition job on her wayward MP. The empathetic look has worked remarkably well for her, but its magic may be wearing off.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.