Hard News by Russell Brown


"Evil called: Can you make a meeting at 11?"

Oh cool. National is using Crosby/Textor again. According to a Star Times story by Nicky Hager, the political strategists that focus groups are most likely to associate with the word "evil" have been on board with the John Key project from the beginning:

Straight after becoming National Party leader on November 28, 2006, as he was publicly distancing himself from the Brash years, Key contacted the firm and asked to meet them in person. A week later, on December 7, he had a trip scheduled to Australia paid by the Australian Government to meet government ministers. He asked his staff to change the schedule to include a meeting with Crosby and Textor in Canberra and quietly signed up the Australians to work for him. National under Brash had hired Crosby/Textor for only 10 months before the 2005 election; Key hired them for the full two years leading up to the 2008 election. Their focus: his personal profile.

A sense of perspective is worthwhile here. Political strategy is a cynical business by its nature. Labour's people were not appealing to higher ideals when they ran the "slippery" campaign against Key this year. Even the Greens once (in 2002) hired themselves an electoral shitkicker from Australia.

And when Hager says that "the detail of Textor's advice to Key remains secret," well, yes of course it is. Much as we'd love to know what component of the Zeitgeist had its seeds in a memo drawn up in Canberra, we're not going to.

I'm not sure if the same principle extends to the fact of National actually hiring the company. National has declined to respond to a written question about the party's use of Crosby/Textor. Crosby/Textor's clients do not tend to brag about the fact that they have summoned its sulphurous presence, but a straightforward question warrants an answer.

According to Hager's book, The Hollow Men, Don Brash flat-out lied to New Zealand Herald journalists when asked about National's use of the firm (something the paper has been jolly sporting about since, it must be said). By his account, it fell to Hager to forward the Herald journalists a copy of some 2004 party board minutes that "made it impossible completely to deny that the company was involved in the campaign."

Richard Long is said to have subsequently advised Brash to try and avoid answering questions about the firm; and, if pressed, to fudge. So it will be interesting to see what Key's response is if it's put to him. I am assuming it will be put to him, on camera.

As it happens, the Herald's editorial voice has turned impatient with respect to Key. This morning's leader, referring to last week's small burp of imprecision over New Zealand history, says:

If this seems a small thing, the position he seeks is not. A Prime Minister should not depend on the public's ability to presume what he meant or did not mean and finish his sentences for him. His political opponents certainly will not give him the benefits of any doubts, and nor will the media. Their job is not to presume anything and to expose any shortcomings he may have. And he will be running against an incumbent who speaks exceptionally clearly.

Whatever opinion may be held about Helen Clark's utterances, she seldom leaves the slightest doubt about their meaning. Off the cuff, she is quick, considered and concise. Head to head in the campaign, Mr Key will have to match her. If he has not sought some tuition already, he ought to do so. Verbal precision is not only vital in the job to which he aspires, it is a useful mental discipline too. Loose talk bespeaks muddled thought.

Quite. Key can take on all the message discipline the experts can provide; it will likely win him the election. But it won't save him afterwards, and it's hard not to feel, as you hear Key meander and "y'know" his way through unscripted interviews (in general, the longer the interview goes, the more likely that his concentration will dissipate), that he'll get creamed if and when he has to answer the really hard questions as Prime Minister.

PS: This week's Media 7 should be a goodie. We're discussing drugs and the news media with a panel comprised of Ross Bell of the NZ Drug Foundation; Police Association spokesman Greg O'connor; and Nandor Tanczos. If you'd like to join us tomorrow evening at The Classic in Queen St, hit "reply" below and let me know.

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