On the uncanny resemblance between John Key and Sergeant Schultz
In the 30-odd years that Judy and I have been providing media advice and training to prime ministers, prostitutes and pretty well every profession in-between, our teaching mantra has remained the same: “Be straightforward, tell the truth, admit your mistakes”. It’s a practical rather than a necessarily moral slogan. Being straightforward with the media, telling the truth and admitting your mistakes is quite simply the only strategy that works. Everything else will get you into trouble or more trouble than you’re already in.
Our experience of our elected representatives – left, right and centre – has led us to the conclusion that most are reasonably honest and that the lying politician is a much rarer creature than the general population appears to think. Persuading MPs, Cabinet Ministers and the men and women who held the top job to be straightforward and tell the truth has not been a difficult or even a necessary task.
But will the buggers admit their mistakes? No way. To avoid the usual accusations of left-wing bias on my part, I’ll cite two examples from my side of the house. Helen Clark and the painting which she signed but didn’t paint; Helen Clark and the police car speeding her to Eden Park to watch the rugby.
Neither of these were hanging offences and reasonable explanations (or excuses if you prefer) could have been offered for both: PMs put their moniker on all sorts of things with charitable intent; the New Zealand Prime Minister arriving late for an international footie match isn’t a good look. And anyway, these cops are brilliant and safe drivers.
But Helen, who had been brought up in a family where lying was just about a capital offence, was unwilling to own responsibility for either of these relatively minor transgressions. She was reluctant to admit that she’d made a mistake or even that she’d failed to prevent others making mistakes on her behalf.
The outcome in terms of public and press reaction was extremely negative in both cases. Simple concessions, perhaps with a touch of humour, could have avoided all the fuss: “Well, I sign a lot of things for charity; but maybe I didn’t make it clear that I hadn’t actually painted the picture. I couldn’t paint like that to save my life; Yes, not a good look, I’ll admit, and not a good example to other drivers. Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.”
The problem with denial when you’ve done something wrong is that far from making the issue go away, it amplifies and protracts it. Admitting your mistakes tends to have the opposite effect. Your opponents may have a field day of self congratulation, but it will at least be brief.
This is the advice that John Key’s advisors should have been giving him ever since the publication of Nicky Hager’s book. Had he been given that advice he would not have found himself in the position he found himself in on television last night: being called severely to account by both right-leaning Mike Hosking on TV1 and liberal/left leaning John Campbell on TV3. The Prime Minister sounded increasingly like Sergeant Schultz, his repeated “I know NOTHING” denials less and less credible or convincing as the interviews proceeded. He looked irritated and out of sorts, frustrated by the inability of these idiots to see his point of view that, though he was Minister for the SIS, he could not be held responsible for the actions of people in his department that impinged on the impartiality of the Service. It had nothing to do with him.
This morning’s papers would have brought him no relief. No-one had a good word to say about John Key. John Armstrong, the Herald’s traditionally considered political correspondent, opined that Key “would do himself and National a power of good if he dropped the feeble charade which sees him in denial of the dirty tricks operation that was run out of his office.”
Armstrong was no less condemning of the Prime Minister’s performance during question time in Parliament which he dubbed “breathtakingly silly”:
“It involved either not answering the questions raining down on him from the Opposition or flinging red herring after red herring at his inquisitors in a vain attempt to divert debate away from what had been going on in his office. It was a display unworthy of the Prime Minister.”
“An apology for the whole episode,” Armstrong suggested, “would, in contrast, make up for the absence of heads rolling. It would show Key took ministerial responsibility seriously.”
Amen to that!
But it’s too late now. Key’s credibility is shot. His defence of the indefensible began with the preposterous distinction he attempted to draw between when he was speaking as the PM and when he was speaking as the Leader of the National Party.
Inspector General of Security Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn’s report, which upholds many of Hager’s claims of “dirty politics” during the Key administration, has drawn the Prime Minister into ever more fanciful and unconvincing denials. Calm, quiet, trust-me, no-worries John has gone. He looks and sounds uncomfortable. He looks and sounds like a man in trouble. He looks and sounds desperate and dishonest. Perhaps for the first time in his term as Prime Minister, John Key is sweating it.
And as if that weren’t enough there’s this fellow on the other side of the room who has a reputation as a straight shooter and an honest broker.
And it was all going so well.
I’m wary of predictions. I’ve got a few wrong. But I think we’re at the start of a political sea change. I think National and its motley bedfellows are going to lose the 2017 election to a revitalised Labour/Green coalition.
I may be proven wrong of course. But I’ll take my own advice and admit it.
Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.