Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hey Clint - Here's some democracy

So, there's this video doing the rounds at the moment, about an MP in a political interview refers a question to an advisor:

Now everyone seems to agree that this is a rather unusual occurrence. It appears to have taken the journalists involved by surprise, and it is very understandable how this is noteworthy enough to have been shared around the whole political news 'scene'. It's a different way of doing politics than what everyone's used to.

What is also surprising, is that I seem to have found myself in disagreement with the next conclusion everyone seems to automatically jump to - that this is supposed to be an embarrassing moment, or shows something shady or bad about this MP or Party. For example:

3 News opinion piece by Patrick Gower:
Some people - including even colleagues here in the Press Gallery - have suggested it was wrong to run it, that it was a big call, or even that there were journalistic ethics at stake. [...] 

But to me it showed much more than a bit of humour. It showed what we know - the Greens, like Labour, are trying to act like they are not gleeful that the policy is screwing with the MRP float. [...]

It busted spin, in fact, it blew the spin apart.
It showed that the Greens, like Labour, are trying to come up with 'lines' to pretend that it's not about wrecking the float.
And that's fair enough; the Greens want to emphasise what they see as the good parts of the policy.
But, thanks to Gareth's indiscretion, we could show what they really feel.

Poor MSM journalists, interviewing a young politician to try to 'catch him out', but instead of spitting out words put into his mouth, he uses available resources to give the most accurate answer about what the Party membership feels. These journalists will have to try again later.

And another one from kiwiblog:
Neither have I [seen a politician call out during an interview for a spin doctor to tell them what the answer is]. You ask them for advice before the interview, but you can’t and don’t ask them for lines during an actual interview. At the end of the day the MPs are the ones who stand for election, not the advisors.
That's funny, I thought it was Parties who stood in elections. I mean, how many "vote Gareth Hughes for Ohariu" signs did you see? In my book, parties aren't made up of MPs, they're made up of members.

I'll admit, in the beginning, I was carried along by the sentiments held by everyone else. I also felt that this showed a glimpse into a world of focus groups, spin doctors, and carefully crafted 'lines' misleading people into hearing what they want to hear. As if it had become so ubiquitous they had given up on keeping it an open secret. In short, I bought into the media's worldview, briefly.

But then something happened. I thought about it. I thought about it from a different perspective - what I, as a member of the public (who follows political news), hope to get out of an interview like this. I thought about what would have happened if he didn't check with 'Clint', and just said something random solely from his own opinion. I thought about how I, as a member of a (different) political party, would like the spokespeople representing me to approach a similar situation. And I came to change my view.

Now, when I watch that clip, I don't see an MP and a 'spin doctor' conspiring to mislead the journalists standing right in front of them, I see a man, who happens to be a politician, going about his job of representing the Party's membership (note how he takes the question to be "Is the Green Party pleased?" as opposed to "Is Gareth Hughes pleased?"). I see a politician concerned more with substance than with style (i.e. making sure he gives an accurate answer, rather than making it look like he's sure his answer is accurate). Finally, I see a small element of transparency - unlike politicians who have gone before, he doesn't feel the need to keep this little part of his methods hidden from public view, behind closed doors, in the walled garden.

What I hope to be achieved by political journalism, is a public dialogue between the many large political groups. Not a discussion about particular individuals, but about the collective views of these groupings of many people (to the extent that they have a collective view, as opposed to the situation described here). These groups invariably have representatives, and I would hope that these representatives make the effort to accurately represent the opinions that make up their mandate. This is how I see Gareth Hughs' question to 'Clint', double checking what the view of the Party as a whole is before he risks misrepresenting them, assisting that important dialogue.

As for the journalists involved, I would hope they ask the questions and provide the context that the other political masses would find relevant to that discussion of ideas. Now the question about whether the Green Party is pleased with the effect on the share floats is part of this and is a good question, however, complaining that the answer isn't the one they were fishing for is not relevant. If I wanted to consume a manufactured narrative, I would go to a movie. Directors are better at it than journalists anyway.

As someone who doesn't agree with the Green Party all that often, I think Gareth should be congratulated for this showing of transparency and democratic intent, and I hope it catches on and turns politics into something closer resembling what it ought to be.

I, for one, welcome our new mandate-driven political overtones.