Decoding 3rd Degree and the Labour 'conspiracy'

What an interesting online and social media fuss there's been about the 3rd Degree piece on Shane Jones this week. To me it just seems like a misguided argument based on the tired olf 'journalists are so awful' meme

Wednesday night's episode of 3rd Degree revealed a fascinating insight the Labour leadership contest, one which for me showed how the party risks not making the most of its primary season, but for others suggested intrusion and even talk of "endorsements".

Now of course I'm close to this – producing The Vote I'm part of the 3rd Degree hapu, even though I don't work for the programme itself. So take what I say with as much salt as you like (though I haven't talked to co-hosts Guyon Espiner or Duncan Garner about this post). But here's the back story: In this week's programme, Guyon went north to Shane Jones' home to profile the man on his own turf. It was a 'get to know you' piece shot quickly over the weekend.

There's been a wee bit of debate about it in the aftermath, which is always good. One of the good things about seeing politics on primetime is the discussion generated. But it's led to weird suggestions of intrigue and conspiracies by people I usually admire, and more so, those commenting on their blogs.

Danyl at Dim-Post has gone so far as to say:

Oddest thing about this leadership contest: TV3′s endorsement of one of the candidates. In some ways it makes sense: Jones is friends with the journalists who are promoting him and running negative campaigns against his opponents (it would all be an outrageous breach of ethics if their mate had any chance of winning)...

Meanwhile Russell Brown on Twitter initially suggested the track included a faked phone call – something later retracted when he received assurances to the contrary – but went on to blog that the wanna-be PMs have a right to privacy and Guyon and co-presenter Duncan Garner have "taken up the torch for Jones".

In the track, Jones returns a call to David Cunliffe. Cunliffe is asking Jones to say no to doing the 3rd Degree piece, as he and Robertson were declining to speak to 3rd Degree and they wanted a united front. Jones explains that the camera's already there (but not that it's rolling) and it's all too late.

Russell's line – expanded on by those in the comments – is that Guyon and Duncan Garner have "swung in behind" Jones and that perhaps some things were being stage-managed to Jones' advantage. He's critical of Guyon and Duncan's criticism of the Labour hopefuls who turned down the chance to be on the programme, saying they're doing lots of media and aren't obliged to let people into their homes.

Fair enough. No-one's obliged to do media that goes behind the politics to chat to the human being; that's optional. Maybe you agree that potential Prime Ministers have the right to keep their families out of the public eye.

I think that's naive in a 24/7 news world, but more than it's just dumb politics by Labour.

For a start, one of the reasons the party wanted the primary was to get Labour back in the public eye, re-boot the party's narrative and show a different, more vibrant and empathetic side to the party. Surely what anyone auditioning to be Prime Minister needs to do is to introduce themselves to the public and show a glimpse of their character, as well as their policies. Like it or not, politics works on narrative and people vote on likeability as much as plans for the current account deficit.

David Cunliffe might argue he's well known, but he's been out of the ministerial spotlight for years and presumably would want to remind people of the cut of his jib. Grant Robertson is less known, and for me missed a huge opportunity. His home life is of course his own. But if you want to lead the country in the 21st century, you've got to open up and let people get to know you. Remember Helen Clark and Peter Davis cooking curry for Pual Holmes? They might not have liked it, but they did it because it was a chance to show how normal they were, when voters were asking if they weren't a bit odd.

Here was a pretty soft piece handed to them on a plate and they spurned the chance.

Russell was obviously ticked off that Duncan and Guyon had suggested on Twitter the other two candidates had something to hide. Those aren't the words I'd use either, but the contenders made strategic or personal decisions not to open their homes up to one of the biggest audiences (and the longest TV time) they'll get this campaign. Why didn't they want to open their doors? I doubt it's down to privacy concerns alone.

Do we think that Cunliffe simply didn't want people to see how flash his home is and so undermine his new-left, union-friendly credentials? It seems plausible.

Was Robertson uncomfortable opening his home to the public because he fears a focus on his sexuality? Again, quite possible.

If those considerations did influence the decisions, they were bad strategic choices. It suggests those candidates haven't learnt the lesson that John Key understood pretty darned quick. You have to address any perceived weakness early and up front. Worth $50 million? 'Sure, here's the house, here's my back story, there's nothing wrong with being successful and doesn't it show I know a thing or two?' Boom.

Yes, it's easier for National to tell that story, but being Labour shouldn't mean being ashamed of success or being in a minority. But who knows why they opted out?

The point I really want to make to those reading some hidden plot into Guyon's piece is to simply realise that all three candidates were offered the same type of piece with senior journalists; indeed all three were repeatedly urged to accept the offer. Two declined. But how on earth does the decision to go ahead with the Jones track – which was already being shot when the other two, after much delay, finally said no – amount to an endorsement or swinging in behind one candidate over the others?

That's right, the others didn't say no until the Jones piece was being shot. Jones had said yes right away, so it was arranged. The other two dithered – or at least didn't reply – for days. I know this from being in the same office, but you know this because it was showed on the telly. Often journalists get criticised for leaving out the context or for self-censoring. This time some context was left in, the curtain lifted... and it's perceived as journalistic bias and petulance. The comments on the linked-to blogs bang on about all kind of mischief and conspiracy. You can't win! Any journalist would just be happy the camera was rolling to capture that bit, so he or she could show the behind-the-scenes strategising that goes on.

Isn't Cunliffe and Robertson working together part of the story? Make of it what you will – team work, media manipulation, honest protection of their privacy – but it's a telling picture of how a campaign works.

Wouldn't these same nongs be moaning if it was later revealed something telling about one or more of the candidates was edited out? 'Typical MSM!' But isn't the whole point of this primary to get the debate out of the backrooms and into the public? To hear policy and to see the new faces of Labour?

What niggles me the most is the insinuation that Duncan and Guyon are backing Jones. Sure, they've got a rare place in the political sphere (the knowledge of political editors, but with the freedom to share more given they no longer do that job). But they're observers and hardly have a dog in this fight. Saying 'Jones is who the Nats fear most' and 'Jones connects with mainstream voters better' is not an endorsement, it's commentary. Sheesh, that's hardly a complex distinction. Saying someone has a certain talent isn't the same as saying you like or support them.

Russell, Danyl or I might offer exactly that sort of analysis in our blogs. What's more, similar insights would certainly have been offered about the other two contenders, had they gone on camera. It staggers me that people can sit at their computers, ignore years of balanced work by journalists and bash out accusations of bias, endorsements and neo-liberal conspiracies.

Would the criticisms have been the same if the tweets had said 'the Nats fear Robertson' or 'Cunliffe connects with the centre vote'? I've got no idea whether Russell or Danyl have a dog in this fight (yes, I'm enjoying the chance to use that phrase), but perhaps those commenting on their blogs do and simply don't like that Jones is being taken seriously as a contender. Hey, aren't journalists often criticised for writing people or parties off and deciding in advance who will win? Again, sometimes you just can't win.

Anyway, that's my observation from the sideline. I haven't read it yet, but here's Guyon's response to some of the criticism.