Hard News by Russell Brown

It's not catching, you know

I'm familiar with the Peter Davis rumour, in all its various locations - San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pakistan, Hagley Park; a public toilet, a taxi, an airport - and with its different supporting actors: MFAT, the police and the Diplomatic Protection Squad. The sheer range of flavours available ought to signal to any sensible person that the story is apocryphal. Furthermore, I am given to understand that as a simple matter of record, the story cannot be true.

Ian Wishart is not, of course, a sensible person. In his wretched magazine, Investigate, Wishart tried to stand up the rumours about what he calls "the Peter Davis case", naturally failed to manage it, and had to resort to a bit of lame innuendo around some well-worn pictures of a man embracing the Prime Minister's husband on election night last year: "Smoking Gun Issue ... Peter Davis & mystery man. Captured on candid camera."

As is the way of these things, Wishart's story gave licence to the Sunday Star Times to run the story, and the paper was immediately able to identify the "mystery man". He's party member, and friend of the Clark-Davises, Ian Scott, who is in fact gay. You and I might think that men touching each other in moments of celebration is hardly unusual these days. Look at the All Blacks, for goodness sake. And those of us with gay male friends will know that they're sometimes moved to plant a kiss on the lips of man or woman alike. It's not catching, you know.

Wishart was the subject of a hilarious interview on the "case" on Morning Report, where Sean Plunket put it to him that the "case" was an urban myth. Wishart blathered about multiple sources and overseas investigations and then seemed to admit that his strongest lead was that the PM's office looked at him funny when it answered his questions. Plunket suggested that if he'd been working on it since June and hadn't been able to get any kind of story, perhaps there just wasn't one. The response surely qualifies as an all-time classic:

"How long did to take Bernstein and Woodward to break Watergate?" Wishart yelped. "Months!"

Yeah. Right.

For all the hilarity, this represents probably the nastiest whispering campaign about an MP's spouse in our political history. We do expect members and party leaders to take a bit more fire - and remember, Wishart has already devoted a lengthy cover story to the claim that Helen Clark is a secret lesbian directing the country on behalf of some gay mafia - but a private and capable man who is not part of the Parliamentary-media scrum, and has already sacrificed a good deal for his wife's career should not be expected to suffer this kind of attack.

It seems some Labour ministers thought so too. Two different Weekend Herald stories claimed that Trevor Mallard and other MPs went on the warpath against Brash because they thought National had been pushing the Davis story to the media, after Clark had the story put to her on camera by a TVNZ reporter.

First, Phil Taylor's story included this passage:

Clark's resolve may have been hardened after she was questioned by TVNZ on her way to the caucus meeting about a malicious rumour regarding her husband, Peter Davis. Labour suspects National Party involvement in spreading the rumour. Mallard upped the ante the day after slinging his innuendoes, telling the house he'd had "a gutsful" of having his integrity impugned and being called corrupt (regarding the pledge card spending). "If members opposite, or National Party members outside tell lies about us, we will tell the truth about them," he threatened.

It is likely Labour's goal was no more than to put National off its attack but a chain of events beyond the Government's control then took over.

Then Ruth Berry's column had a little more:

A malevolent rumour about Helen Clark's husband Peter Davis had for weeks infected the body politic, repeatedly flaring sub-surface.

When a television reporter with a camera put it to her Tuesday a week ago to get the firm rebuttals emanating from Clark's office on the record and out of her mouth, Labour determined National was driving it. The retaliatory attack was launched by Trevor Mallard in the House just hours later with sufficient reference to the "Foreman affair" to leave those already familiar with the rumours gasping.

It prompted a late night call from worried National trouble-shooter Murray McCully to Mallard, with assurances MPs in his party had nothing to do with promulgating the Davis rumours.

The media remained at bay until Connell challenged Brash about the affair at Tuesday's caucus after he sought to reassure them that despite marriage troubles, things were under control.

By these accounts, then, Mallard only - to use the lovely British tabloid parlance for such matters - pulled the chain on the Brash story because he thought that National had moved first.

So did National try and shop the Davis rumour to the press? Probably not. I'm sure National MPs gossiped about it, but that's not the same thing. I think it's more a symptom of the present environment.

Bridget Saunders noted yesterday that a man named Chuck Bird - a homophobe and member of the nutty wing of the mens' rights movement from way back, and a regular customer at Wishart's blog - has been emailing MPs with allusions to "the man in the blue suit". The same sorry individual has also been leaving his droppings on Kiwiblog, here and here.

When a rumour so stupid as the claim that a major-party MP has sex with goats can get mainstream media acknowledgement - as it did twice to my knowledge over the weekend - you have to wonder where we're at.

I don't think the Davis and Brash stories are quite the same thing though: the latter is not entirely fictional, for a start. And I do think Brash's public actions and the day jobs of the people involved have some relevance (ask yourself how the story of a liaison with a prominent lobbyist might have travelled had Brash actually been Prime Minister). It was certainly of enough concern to Brash's own colleagues for at least one of them to have leaked caucus proceedings to the press, and for a number of them to have talked off the record after the story broke. And, of course, there's the matter of the leaked emails that underpin it (Deborah Coddington seems to have a suspect in mind in her column).

My purely personal response (to which I don't expect anyone else to subscribe) is that it's not the sex that's a reflection on character (I don't care what consenting adults do), but the apparently prolonged deception of a loved one, and I'm a little surprised at the way that's been normalised. There's been more opprobrium about the way John Tamihere treated his cats than the way Don Brash treated his wife. None of my business? Quite possibly. But that's how I feel.

But I don't regard philandering as a disqualification for leadership. Most of us think Bill Clinton looks pretty good compared to the present POTUS. And on the September 12 Daily Show, one of the best in a long time (torrent here), there was an interview with Gary Hart. Older readers will recall that Hart lost any chance in the 1988 Democratic primaries because his extramarital affairs hit the headlines. He came across on the Daily Show as a good-humoured, decent and visionary man. He would have been a much more interesting presidential candidate than Dukakis, but squandered his chance to maker a greater contribution because he couldn't keep it in his pants. Polls suggested the American public thought Hart had been unfairly pursued, but punished him anyway.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the SST, National Party insider Matthew Hooton continues to lose the plot. This week he's declaring that "It is not too strong to describe Labour's behaviour as quasi-fascist." Yes, Matthew, it is. It's a stupid thing to say. And perhaps you, too, should keep it in your pants. Rhetorically speaking.

PS: Wow! Huge response to the Flying Nun thing. I'll try and knock the responses into some sort of shape for the blog, and compile them for my fellow codgers. Also, Paul Brislen would like to thank everyone who responded to his guest post about living with cancer. He thinks you're a lovely bunch. Of course you are!