I think there are a few interesting things going on in this John Armstrong piece sternly warning everyone about the disease of ‘gotcha politics’:
It sure ain’t pretty. It sure ain’t enlightening. It is most definitely insidious. It is a creeping cancer of the New Zealand body politic.
Regardless of whether it is John Key or David Cunliffe who has the numbers on election night to pick up the reins of power, so-called “gotcha politics” is almost guaranteed to be the big winner of the 2014 election campaign.
“Gotcha politics” is all about focusing voters’ attention on the gaffes and mistakes of opponents rather than trying to win the election by winning the battle of ideas.
It is personality-based politics, not issue-driven politics. It is all about wrecking your opponents’ campaign by landing major hits on their credibility.
At its worst, gotcha politics can be an old-fashioned witch-hunt dressed up in modern-day notions of accountability. None of this new, of course.
What has changed is the extent and intensity of gotcha politics.
Firstly its a nice illustration of the clueless hypocrisy of Armstrong, the Herald’s political columnist, who was happy – even gleeful – to indulge in ‘gotcha politics’ when his paper revealed that David Cunliffe had forgotten he signed a form letter twelve years ago. Armstrong instantly called on Cunliffe to resign. Now in this latest column he’s outraged that the Greens are trying to hold Murray McCully to account for his role in attempting to cover up the alleged attempted rape of a New Zealand citizen by a foreign diplomat. It’s juxtapositions like this that make Armstrong a figure of bemused mockery.
His continued fury over the Tania Billingsley case also indicates the white-hot fury that National and its admirers still feel over that episode, which dropped out of the actual news cycle about ten days ago. How dare some silly little nobody – some girl – embarrass the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister himself on national television! That’s what has Armstrong so inflamed about the ‘creeping cancer’ of ‘gotcha politics’. The actual people impacted by government incompetence have no place in his conception of political journalism, which is about Armstrong meeting very important, powerful people in their offices and writing whatever they tell him to.
Thirdly, we’ve been hearing this complaint about ‘gotcha politics’ a lot this year, hitherto mostly from left-wing commentators. Every time Labour does something stupid there’s the same collective cry on my twitter feed: ‘Why can’t the media focus on policy? Where are the real issues?’ But the basic honesty and competence of our politicians are ‘real issues’. During the 2011 election the vast majority of voters were opposed to National’s policy of asset sales, but they voted for Key and National anyway because he seemed like a far more competent head of government than Phil Goff, and the exact same narrative is playing out this election (except this time around we have no idea what National plans to do in its next term: that’d be a good story for a political reporter who wanted to focus on ‘the issues’).
Voters care about ‘gotcha politics’ ie the suitability of a political leader to run the country way more than actual policy. Mistakes, lies and gaffes are a really big deal and the media should cover them.