Hooton on English and the media

Matthew Hooton looks at new prime minister Bill English and his media persona:

Mr English has some cheerleaders in the daily print media but he has always struggled with the electronic media, both radio and television. Partly this is because of his sometimes awkward speaking style and Dipton drawl.

Far more importantly, Mr English lacks a certain respect and rapport with the likes of TVNZ’s Hilary Barry and Jack Tame, NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking or Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner and Susie Ferguson.

Paradoxically, though, he also seems to think he has an obligation to answer their questions as fully and honestly as he can.  It is a recipe for a prime minister to come across as weak, indecisive and even bullied by popular media personalities on whom vast numbers of voters rely for their daily or weekly steer on politics.

Worst of all, Mr English’s approach allows the very people he lacks respect for to set the daily news agenda – along with those who quite legitimately feed them with stories aimed at damaging him, including the Labour-Green axis.

Respect is earned and Bill English has failed to earn that respect…he’s the ultimate insider, with so much time inside he makes a ginger look suntanned.

After 27 years in politics, Mr English is not going to be turned into someone he is not.  But he is the prime minister. And that means dealing with the daily media – not as some optional extra that distracts from his real job.  Talking about the issues of the day to Ms Barry, Mr Tame, Mr Hosking, Mr Espiner or Ms Ferguson – and through them to the public – is what his job entails. This is not simply a crude matter of electoral politics. Mr English is the nation’s leader and it is his job to provide guidance and reassurance on all matters of concern that arise on his watch, from a disruption to the global order to a devastating earthquake to a nurse’s strike to an All Black loss.

Except he is ever the analyst and wants data, and more data and even more data before doing anything and then he looks like a prevaricator. His approach is fine in Finance and but as PM. His gut instinct is to have a cup of tea.

On none of these matters is there any technical solution or even much professional advice on which a prime minister can draw.  The only issues that come before a prime minister are those that defy rational analysis and demand a value judgement.  Moreover, in most cases, not even polling will help because of the urgency involved and because often the public has not formed a view but is looking to the nation’s leader for an understanding of what is happening.

Thus, on a matter such as Donald Trump’s order on visa rules, it didn’t really matter what position Mr English decided to take. He could have decided to firmly condemn the new US policy or strongly state that New Zealand will not comment on the visa policies of another country. He could even have decided to back Mr Trump’s tougher line on border control.  It would have been enough for him to have said definitively that the situation in Washington was not clear, that not even the US government knows what the policy is and that unfortunately everyone will just have to hold tight and wait and see.

The important thing politically is not so much what position a prime minister takes but that they choose a path and sell it with confidence. As John Key and Mr Trump have taught us, it will even be okay if they sell the opposite path the following day.

What a prime minister cannot do is try to have it both ways, dither and allow themselves to be pushed around or even be laughed at by the very media personalities the public engages with every day.

Bill English hasn’t changed, he is just the same as when he launched 56,000 policies in 2002 in order to convince the voting public of his brilliance as a policy wonk.

The former prime minister advised the new prime minister to trust his instincts.  Unless Mr English takes that advice and steps up to provide the necessary public leadership in the popular daily media, he will soon be compared not just to the Labour’s hapless current leader Andrew Little but to the even more tragic figure of David Shearer.

And that will be the end of the road not just for Mr English and his government but for the outstanding economic legacy he has bequeathed as finance minister.

Bill English’s instincts on UNSC 2334 was to go on holiday and hope it would go away. You have to wonder why he told cabinet and caucus the polling numbers from David Farrar, something that almost never happened under John Key. Smart members of caucus smell a rat on that sudden turn of events. Maybe Murray McCully is padding those numbers again like he used to do under Bill English’s hapless 2002 leadership.

 

– NBR

 


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