The teapot tapes story (seems that’s the name that’s been settled on, despite the story involving neither teapots nor tapes) has evolved two distinct strands: the contents of the Key-Banks conversation, which is gradually coming out through the media, and the very aggressive, poorly conceived response of National which is making it worse for them.
If we listen closely to the questions that Banks was asked on 3news on Monday, Key asked on Campbell Live on Monday, and Key was asked Firstline and 3news yesterday a clear indication of what was on the tapes emerges. TV3 is boxing very clever. They’re sounding Key and Banks out by putting very specific questions to them that give them the opportunity to directly contradict what is on the tapes. If Key and Banks so contradict what’s in the recording, it could serve either as basis for releasing the recording on the basis that they are saying one thing to the public and another in ‘private’, or it could be used for compare and contrast once the recording is released anyway this weekend.
Key and Banks, knowing this, have been very careful to not answer the questions, to avoid and deflect rather than outright disagree with a position they held in the recorded conversation.
So, on the basis of that, what do we know was in the conversation:
Key made a disparaging comment about why New Zealand First’s support has been, until recently, declining. “They’re dying off” and possibly something more. Peters certainly is talking this up not only as a grave insult to older New Zealanders but also an insight into Key’s underlying callousness. Key’s now saying he can’t recall if he said that (but he is sure what he said was bland).
The other aspect seems to be around rolling Brash post-election and replacing him with Banks. The quote here is “restructure”.
That’s disastrous for ACT and their hopes in Epsom. Those who were prepared to vote John to get Don now have no reason to do so, and everyone else just sees yet another ACT shambles. Key’s endorsement of Banks is completely overshadowed.
There’s so much blood in the water around ACT now that even a bottom-feeder like Peter Dunne feels he can take a nibble – labeling a Banks-led ACT “even scarier” than a Brash-led one.
Key may also have said something arrogant about Epsom voters falling in line.
This is big, powerful stuff. This conversation, all in one, kills ACT, brings NZF back to life and does enough damage to the carefully cultivated “Brand Key” that soft voters will be looking for somewhere to go, which will benefit Labour, the Greens, and, yes, maybe even United Future.
Tonight’s minor leaders’ debate just became required viewing. Brash and Peters! Expect to see Winnie go big – this is his chance and he knows it. Brash, on the other hand, will be a sorry sight.
So will the recording come out? Of course it will. I reckon TV3 will get ‘new legal advice’ and run it on Saturday as a teaser for full transcript in HoS. Really, if this is important material, and we know it is, they have a duty to the public to reveal it before we vote and damn the legal consequences (there won’t be any, despite the Police’s stand-over tactics).
We give the msm a hard time sometimes on The Standard, but they wouldn’t take such a momentous decision as to withhold this conversation, the contents of which the public has a right to know, just before the country votes.
Make no mistake, the Nats have done the same calculations, that’s why they’re running at this so hard. They want to, optimally, kill the story and turn the focus off content on to how the recording was obtained.
I think the Nats’ initial thinking in laying the Police complaint would have beenthat the public would back them for looking strong and decisive, it would cow the media, and it would give them an excuse not to discuss the contents of the recording.
The bully tactics have proved popular in the past (Bennett and the DPB mums, for example) but this has happened at the height of an election campaign when people are paying more attention and expect greater transparency from their leaders, and when the media assumes more of its 4th estate role. The conversation happened at a photo-op conceived by National for their unpopular Epsom rort. The public is hardly going to have sympathy for Key when his attempt to use the media to his own ends blows up in his face.
The media clearly aren’t cowed. And it hasn’t allowed National to refuse to talk about the conversation because the Police investigation isn’t about what Key said to Banks it’s about a recording of what they said. Everyone can see the difference.
So, far from looking strong, by going to the Police while refusing to comment on a conversation he insists was ‘bland’ (although he can’t remember it, even though he was paying such close attention to it that he didn’t notice the mic bag) Key looks like he has something to hide, which he does.
Calling the recording “News of the World tactics” has also backfired. Key looks shrill and callous.
As was noted on Firstline:
Smalley: “Hacking into the phone of a girl that’s been murdered is very different from leaving a microphone on a table”
Key: “no it’s not”
In fact, the lawyer for the family in the most famous News of the World hacking case has said that the teapot tapes is “good journalism” and not at all akin to what the News of the World did. It’s more like, he says, when Gordon Brown got caught on an open mike calling a woman an “awful bigot”.
The News of the World also presupposes that the recording was intentional. It’s part of National’s strategy of attacking the cameraman to distract from the conversation. Let’s unpick that assumption, because no-one really has -
Would anyone have intentionally gone out and broken the law to record a conversation that everyone assumed would be totally banal? Nobody thought Key and Banks were arrogant enough to discuss their secret plans a metre from the press gallery, so why would anyone break the law to get it? It’s even more ludicrous to think that, having decided to record this conversation and, therefore, expecting there would be something juicy to record that Key and Banks would want to keep secret, the master plan would be to leave a mic in a bag a couple of centimetres from Key’s cup of coffee.
Key wants you to believe that Bradly Ambrose broke the law to record a conversation he says is “bland” and he didn’t try to hide what he was doing. How stupid does he think we are?
Besides, this attack the messenger tactic only works when the messenger is weak or compromised and the media can be turned against them (eg. the Worth affair). Key isn’t just picking a fight Ambrose, he’s up against 2 major news organisations – they’re not going to make the story about how the recording came to be made, so it won’t be.
When challenged over why he is wasting the Police’s time on an investigation that can never succeed because they’ll never be able prove intent on behalf of the cameraman, Key ran a ‘I’m defending everyone else by drawing a line in the sand‘ line: “What happens if a couple of high profile New Zealanders are married, they have a conversation about their son or their daughter being suicidal, a Sunday paper reports that, and that child takes their own life.”
I just find this analogy despicable. There is nothing similar between the PM and the man he has just endorsed to win a seat, having a conversation, about political issues, at a publicity stunt of their own creating, in a public cafe, metres from journalists and the tragic (fictional) scenario Key describes. To try to equivocate his position and that of the victims in that scenario is disgusting.
The only other time we know of when a reporter recorded a PM’s conversation unknown to the PM and it became public was when Joanne Black recorded Geoffrey Palmer in Malaysia in his hotel room getting a telling off from his press sec for not giving good soundbites. National got hold of it and made fun of him in the House ever after. Black apologised to Palmer who said it was no big deal. Compare how over the top Key has been over a recording of a publicity stunt of his own making, and it tells you Key has something serious to hide.
For all his bluster, Key still can’t answer a straight question convincingly: if there’s nothing to the conversation, why not release it? The only conclusion you can reach is there is something to it.
The Nats aren’t stupid. They know how bad and dishonest Key looks insisting he has nothing to hide while refusing to answer simple questions, making outrageous comments comparing himself to victims in real tragedies, and running to the Police. They just think it’s the optimal outcome ahead of having the recording come out.
Right now, they’re playing for time and hoping against hope that this will all blow over. It won’t. In fact, all Key’s actions at the moment are doing is magnifying the damage to Brand Key done by the conversation itself.
What Key said to Banks when he thought we couldn’t hear will dominate the debate tonight, the weekend news, the final major Leaders’ debates, and, ultimately, do more than anything else in this campaign to shape the outcome of the election.
It might sound incredible, but that’s what happens when you say one thing to the public and another in private, and get caught out.
[there's an interesting subplot with Fairfax and TVNZ trying to playdown the importance of the story, which they don't have but their competitors do, while also trying to get it - a lip-reader? Seriously? - but that's for another day]