Gordon Campbell on the Peters revelations, and on banning journalists from political parties

Once again, Winston Peters has failed to ignite on the launch pad. These days you have to go back almost 20 years – to the heady days of the Winebox – to find a time Peters actually delivered on his promises. This time, Peters’ claim to have a ‘smoking gun’ loaded with sackable revelations about Justice Minister Judith Collins has turned out to be a fizzer. What Peters revealed was that Collins had certain costs met by the Chinese government on the trip during which Collins’ Oravida-related business was done. Big deal. Yes, such gifts above $500 in value do need to be declared under certain conditions of travel. Some MPs readily declare them, some don’t. When MPs need to but have omitted to declare such items, their returns can easily, and quite legally, be amended to record the missing details. At best, Peters’ revelation was only a reminder of Collins’ far more important sins of omission during the course of this scandal.

Labour must be seething. After beavering away for weeks on the Oravida issue – and putting the government on the ropes – Labour had to sit on the sidelines yesterday and watch Peters single-handedly turn the Oravida scandal into a farce. For its part, National must have been delighted by Peters’ fumbling efforts. They helped to defuse the biggest problem the government has experienced to date, in election year 2014.

If his sweaty, tremulous demeanour yesterday is anything to go by, Peters could probably benefit from a bit of stress leave himself. According to Prime Minister John Key, Peters is ‘barking mad’ – but no, this doesn’t mean that Key is therefore willing to rule out Peters as a potential partner, post election. On the Barking Mad Index, does Peters rate as a bigger concern than Conservative Party leader Colin Craig? Probably not. But yesterday was a reminder of the very strange bedfellows that National seems willing to entertain. They include poor old Jamie Whyte of the Act Party who, on RNZ this morning, still appeared stuck in an early 1980s timewarp as he preached the failed gospel that sweeping supply side tax cuts will trigger economic growth. Well, those tax cuts didn’t work for Ronald Reagan, and they wouldn’t work now, either. (Whyte stopped just short of raving that all taxation is theft.) These are peculiar partners, for a government that is trying to portray itself as the stable, moderate option.

Journalists & Their Beliefs
Monday’s report into the Shane Taurima affair confirmed that Taurima unacceptably blurred the boundaries between his TVNZ job and his budding political career with the Labour Party. But it has also produced proposals by TVNZ to ban any of its frontline political journalists from belonging to a political party and would force other staff to disclose their political allegiances.

This is absurd overkill. It is unnecessary and undesirable for several reasons. One, Taurima’s poor judgment was almost entirely to do with his misuse of TVNZ premises for party political purposes, and did not result in any discernible bias in what was broadcast. If a wider rule was needed, it should be limited to the nature of the offence: and should concern itself with rules about the use of TVNZ property, not with political affiliations.

Secondly, TVNZ have shown no faith in the professionalism of its staff. It seems to have been assumed that political journalists are unwilling and incapable of acting professionally when it comes to separating their legitimate political beliefs and associations from the work that they do. Thirdly if it is good, proper and necessary for journalists to be treated in this draconian fashion, where should it end? Should every bureaucrat running a government department or every official who gives advice to a Cabinet Minister also be banned from joining a political party? Should every public servant be required to publicly disclose their political allegiances?

Some would say that looking back over the past 30 years in New Zealand, ideologically driven behaviours have been a far bigger problem at Treasury than at TVNZ – but even so, people do have a right to join the party of their choice, to keep that choice private, and should be able to expect their professionalism will be accepted as a given by their employers, subject to the existing checks, safeguards and complaint procedures. People fought for these kinds of political freedoms; they should not be swept aside by a TVNZ hierarchy wishing to placate its political masters.

What is also objectionable is the inference that journalism is some kind of priesthood that requires political celibacy from its practitioners. It doesn’t. What it requires is honesty, fairness and professionalism in the coverage of politics and other socio-economic issues. It is difficult to see how creating a staff of political eunuchs helps to further those aims. It seems far more likely to promote a climate of timidity and self-censorship.

Reflexive Country
Yes, Toby Keith readily comes across at times as a flag-waving redneck. Yet I’ve always had a soft spot for him, mainly because of the self- parodying video he did for his breakthrough hit “How Do You Like Me Now?” On paper, it was a simple revenge song: you were the beautiful cheerleader who totally ignored me at school, now I’m famous and your life has turned to shit – so, how do you like me now?

Yet here’s the thing. In the video, the woman and her 20 years ago incarnation both think that Toby is still a total jerk – there’s a beautiful eye-roll at the end between the two of them, and Keith has the wit to act throughout like a conceited, quasi-threatening bozo who entirely justifies their scorn. So is this is a song about getting revenge? Or is it saying that even if you make it big…if you were a dick back then, the chances are you’ll still be a dick now and the money and the white stretch limo and the big guitar won’t make a lick of difference. Who would have thought a Toby Keith video could be so profound? (And so funny.)

Mainstream country music can be downright odd at times. In the 1950s, Ferlin Husky had a string of pop country hits – “Gone”, “Wings of a Dove” and further back, the “Dear John Letter.” Yet in 1961 he also cut this album track called “Living in a Trance”… There’s a thrumming, pre-psychedelic ghostliness to this song; it manages to make the state of romantic rejection and dislocation feel like the afterlife.