Out of a teapot and into hot water

John Key's famous cup of tea is at risk of leaving a sour taste as the story drags on and public opinion turns. But what does it mean for the election?

The teapot tape fuss seems to have turned in the past 24 hours; not in John Key's favour and not entirely due to anything he's done wrong. His famous antennae my have let him down and for the first time since the debate over mining on conservation land he risks being squarely on the wrong side of public opinion and the headlines in an ongoing story.

The Prime Minister’s political management has been notable for his ability to come across as the everyman and, rare in politics, his willingness to change his mind. The money trader’s skill of cost-benefit analysis has served him well; if it looks like he’s backed a loser or got himself into a tight spot, he’ll act quickly.

Remember back in 2009 when Q+A revealed he owned shares in a company that mined uranium? He’d sold them by Sunday teatime. Story over.

Or think about the mining issue itself. When the opposition built and dragged on, he changed his mind and went another direction. Key is nothing if not flexible and judging by history, you’d have expected to have just released the tapes, apologized and move on.

But this is a campaign and he chose another path, confident that his stance would seem reasonable to most voters.  And it would have. They don’t have an especially high opinion of journalists, so by painting himself as the victim of media skull-duggery he had nothing to lose. Voters would have seen him as standing up for himself, not whining to police like a tell-tale. They would have thought ‘I wouldn’t want someone poking into my conversations, so fair enough’.

And to be fair, this seems to be something Key felt genuinely angry about; he felt put upon and tricked. And if the cameraman left that microphone at the table on purpose, he’s got every right.

Then it all changed.

First, the law wasn’t quite as clean cut as it first looked. While it’s clearly illegal to record a conversation you’re not a part of, there are defences around public interest and whether it’s reasonable for those having the conversation to expect privacy.

Therefore, a conversation about politics and the make-up of the next government held as part of a publicity stunt, in a public place, surrounded by media and in the middle of an election campaign, well, the law wasn’t clear cut at all.

Then the point was made, repeatedly and across the media, that this wasn’t like prying into an ordinary person’s private life. This was the Prime Minister. This was material to the make-up of government. This was different.

That gave people permission to admit they were curious – because people always are, whether the thing made secret really matters or not.

Finally came two news angles that re-framed the discussion.

Key had compared the teapot taping to the News of the World’s phone hacking, so TV3 got the lawyer of murdered teen Milly Dowler to say it was no such thing. Barrister Mark Lewis said it was good journalism, more like Gordon Brown’s not realizing his microphone was one when moaning about “a bigoted woman” than phone-hacking. The Herald then splashed that angle across its front page with a damaging ‘PM’s cheap shot’ headline. (I can’t remember the Herald being so anti-Key, but then it’s the Herald on Sunday that started all this and blood is thicker than water).

In Key’s defence, he never mentioned Downer. The News of the World hacked into the phones of footballers, royal staffers and politicians, which was what Key as referring to. No, the comparison still doesn’t stand, this wasn’t hacking. But the Prime Minister never compared himself to a murdered teen.

But then Key got caught up in another unhelpful comparison, one entirely of his own making. He suggested this recording was the top of a slippery slope and asked people to imagine a celebrity couple talking about a suicidal child and that conversation being reported and that child then committing suicide… It was the most bizarre and incomparable comparison you could imagine. Is the PM just another celebrity? Was John Banks feeling suicidal? Was there a child involved in that conversation?

Those two twists in this tale have turned the tide against him. Regardless of fact, he risks looking like a man who doesn’t respect the elderly and who compares himself with a murdered girl. He’s trapped in an unedifying spectacle, he’s given ammo to Winston Peters and is backed into a corner where he's lost control of events.

So what now?

Key would have been hoping to keep his head down and play it safe until election day. Instead he’s been lured into an unedifying spectacle and has given ammunition to Winston Peters, a man with every reason to dislike him personally and politically.

So what does the calculating trader PM do? Release the tape and hope voters laugh off the comments about dying New Zealand First supporters and Don Brash’s leadership of ACT? Release the tape because it’s better he do it than someone else? Hold his ground, because it could finish ACT once and for all? Hope the police lay charges so the whole thing becomes sub-judice?  

And what do TV3 and the Herald on Sunday (or even the daily Herald) do? Release the tape and take the legal consequences? If they wait too long, the police could prevent any release. At the same time by waiting they’ll be hoping to build a clamour for release – and thereby their public interest defence.

Those are the tactical questions. But the ultimate point is whether it changes the way anyone votes. Ultimately, that’s what matters. And one point leaps to mind:

Perhaps it gives people pause for thought as to whether they want John Key and National to govern alone. Perhaps it sends people off looking for a coalition partner for National. Peter Dunne, anyone?