The Dim-Post

June 29, 2008

Anatomy of a non-story

Filed under: media,Politics — danylmc @ 12:29 pm

I just arrived back from a week long scientific conference in far-north Queensland (with a satisfactory amount of snorkelling and sun-bathing in between presentations). The papers in the Koru lounge were all abuzz about John Key’s ‘gaffe’ about New Zealand history. The whole pointless story is an interesting exercise in how communications staff interact with the media. It started like this:

1. Labour (this seems to have originated from Cullen’s office) releases a press statement attacking John Key on the basis that he made the following statement on NewsTalk ZB

We’re not a country that’s come about as a result of civil war or where there’s been a lot of fighting internally, we’re, we’re a country which peacefully came together.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of New Zealand history knows that this is not the case, and if a party leader did make such a statement it would raise serious questions about their suitability to become Prime Minister.

2. The media decide this is obviously a story and call Pita Sharples, Parekura Horomia, Helen Clark and various left-wing academics for comment. All of them pile onto Key and attack him mercilessly. TVNZ have a fine example of this stage of the story here.

3. National responds with a press release claiming that Cullen has ‘scored an own goal’ and made identical statements to those Key is alleged to have made. Claire Trevett at the New Zealand Herald kindly rewrites the National Party statement into the Heralds in-house style for them.

4. Inconveniently for National Cullen’s speech is publically available and its instantly clear that the Nats have quoted him wildly out of context, so everybody except the Herald ignores this rather desparate ploy. The Nats then look back at Key’s transcript and figure out that he did in fact mention the New Zealand Wars and land confiscation. Key, it appears, was quoted wildly out of context too. The Nats release the transcript.

5. At this point it is apparent that the political media have now spent an entire day chasing a story with no news value whatsoever. This is entirely an exercise in political spin on Labour’s part and incompetent media management on the Nats. There is NOTHING to see here. But . . . they did spend all day on it, so off to the front pages it goes.

Ah . . . the life of kings.

*UPDATE – NZPA political reporter Ian Llewllyn presents his own version of events in the comments. Since Ian is in the gallery observing things first hand and I am sitting at home in my underwear making shit up his perspective is slightly different from mine. I stand by my methods.


  1. You are right about a few things, but the truth is even stranger and says more about the media tactics used by National than it says about the Gallery.

    Key makes the comments on Wed evening in a pre-record for Sky and NewsTalk ZB.

    They are played the next morning. National then goes on an all-out attack on ZB accuses it of a beat up and makes threats.

    Any queries are met with an attack on the journalist’s news judgment etc..

    There is no substantive response to the questions such as does he believe it and if not why did he say it.

    I don’t recall when Cullen statement came out, but it was not a prime mover in the story’s development.

    There is no real response until question time, when the Nats say Cullen and the GG have said similar things so it must be alright.

    They seem to think they have won some brilliant game of political chess.

    Problem is this approach presents the argument that Key stands by what he says and believes it is okay because Cullen said it.

    The second half of the argument collapses immediately as Cullen puts out his very old speech in which he is clearly talking about an unbroken history of Parliament and talks at length about the troubled history of NZ.

    It is getting late afternoon by now and TV and newspapers are well into doing their pieces.

    NZPA story goes out… furious reaction from Nats and they finally say but he did say the same stuff about troubled history… here’s the transcript.

    It takes about nine hours for them to say this.

    By that time TVNZ have cut their piece, it has too roll and they only get to mention he did say other stuff in the live cross.

    I agree it was a non-story to a degree and as far as I can tell very few newspapers went big with it.

    Comment by Ian Llewellyn — June 29, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  2. This is entirely an exercise in political spin on Labour’s part and incompetent media management on the Nats.

    Ha! It’s quite often the other way around.

    I too believe that this was a case of the media making a mountain out of a teacup. I’m starting to thoroughly dislike the Herald and their coverage of certain events and find myself leaning towards more independent news sources to get my fix. Needless to say the evening news, if I watch it, holds no sway with me. How about Campbell Live’s deep look into the dark life of Heath Ledger tonight? Gimme a break.

    Comment by Chris S — June 30, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  3. It did play out like a three ring circus.

    Where was that independent news source you were talking about? I haven’t seen one of those for 10 years or so.

    Comment by expat — July 1, 2008 @ 2:26 am

  4. What bullshit, if you can see a substantive difference between what Cullen, the GG, and Key were talking about then you are using mighty fine glasses. I suggest you are grossly distorting NZ’s history for your own petty ends. Circus it was, but with Labour trying once again another smear attack based on nothing, and fell flat on their faces, again.

    Comment by Ed Snack — July 4, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

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