Key’s ‘knucklehead’ outburst has been interpreted by the more sycophantic parts of the press as a clever ‘wedging’ of the media from the public. The supposed logic, which a few journos surprisingly buy, is that the media is much less popular than him, so attacking the media when he is criticised is a vote winner (or at least voter retainer). Nah.
If you actually look at Key’s history of dealing with the media, he has sucked up to them long and hard. Going out drinking with them, giving them wine, lots of goofy photo-ops for nice easy stories, and junket after junket after junket overseas. It’s a strategy of getting good coverage by giving the journos – who are only human – warm associations with him (which is exactly why some journos refused his wine to avoid being compromised, while others ran excited stories about it). And you would have to say it’s worked.
Problem is, Key himself is starting to break with the strategy as the job wears him down. That leads to outbursts and, no, the image of an angry, bitter PM doesn’t play well.
The first time Key went against the consistent media strategy that his team had run for five years was at the famous cup of tea with Banks. The event itself was a classic example of the strategy as it’s meant to be played – a nice photo-op but also a chance to give the media the feeling of being up close and personal with the kind of talks that usually happen behind closed doors. But it all went sour when the tape’s existence came out. Key went nuclear, because he knew he had said some pretty ‘frank’ things. His over-reaction led to weeks of negative media coverage for him, the jaw-dropping sight of police raiding media outlets during an election campaign (by god, I still can’t believe any self-respecting journo acquiesced to that), and the reanimation of Winston Peters. Some media at the time reckoned it was Key’s plan to – nah, it was Key’s temper with later spin from his media people that is a planned.
Why would a guy cruising to victory purposely pick such a high risk action as a war with the media two weeks from the election? That kind of play only works for underdogs and only attracts a small segment of the population (a la Peters). It happened because Key panicked at the existence of the tape and then reacted angrily because he believes that he shouldn’t be accountable for his actions.
Same with the Fletcher appointment. He lied about his involvement. We all know that. He was asked what role he played in the appointment of Fletcher and denied he had any when he was actually the person who called up Fletcher to tell him to apply after rejecting the other candidates.
Once he was caught out, Key’s argument shifted. Now, he said he had forgotten that he had called Fletcher but that in calling him he had done nothing out of the ordinary (rather than doing nothing, as he claimed previously). Journalists saw that shift and the contradiction it holds and asked about it. Key lost his temper again, calling them knuckleheads on RadioLive and saying that they couldn’t ask him surprise questions any more at stand-ups (and then having a long moan about how long his working days are – have you ever heard any PM moan about their work hours before? Ever heard anyone moan about the hours they work for $400,000 a year, in a job that they begged for, which happens to be the most powerful job in the country?).
Smart politics, nah? The Fletcher story is beltway and was dying. Now, it’s a story of the journalists’ right to ask questions on the public’s behalf of our Prime Minister. That’s a far more visceral attack on the journos than even the police raids on their offices were – and it strikes the gallery journos direct. No-one worth their salt is going to take that laying down, especially not when Key’s given them the perfect opportunity to frame themselves as the people’s eyes and ears.
Key has gone and picked himself a wide and unpredictable fight when what he had was a wee scandal with the stink of impropriety.
It wasn’t strategy, it was Key losing his temper after getting caught out.
These out of control outbursts from Key seem to be coming more regularly as the polls tighten and he comes in for more scrutiny on his awful, shitty record of running the country. And that could throw up some fun come the pressure of the next election campaign.