01 May 2008

Satellite spies

Imagine the apoplectic relish with which Muldoon would have reacted to the popping of New Zealand’s spy-base balloon. One element in particular: that the protestors used a sickle to “deflate Dolly Parton” (as one of their colleagues put it).

After Muldoon demanded television time to hector us all over dinner, later that night he would be prepared for round two. On some talking-heads interview programme, he would have snarled at fellow guests and the interviewer, then reached into his jacket pocket for a document to name names. Whoever made that Dolly Parton sound-bite would be declared a fellow traveller, and that piece of paper would prove it.

The RSA generation, anaesthetised by a superannuation bribe that we are now all regretting, shell-shocked by a Springbok tour that just proved him right, and remembering the reds-under-beds frenzy of Truth in the 50s, would have responded at the ballot box. Muldoon was Winston’s greatest mentor.

If there is a theme to these posts it is that history always repeats, like a bad belch. I often feel our political reporting doesn't reflect this. History goes back further than last month’s poll, or sideshows like Marion Hobbs or Dover Samuels. At a guess – if one leaves Ian Templeton out of it – the average age in the press gallery might be 35. This means they would have been 11 when Muldoon drunkenly threw a snap election, six when Winston went to court to get into Parliament, and three when Muldoon became PM.

They weren’t watching Eye-Witness News to see how power was being abused on a daily basis. Signing a painting you didn’t paint, or having your minders break the speed limit to make a photo shoot, doesn’t really feature in the moral corruption hack handicap. Neither does making a decent public servant such as Hugh Logan the fall-guy for a crude attempt at ministerial bullying compare to the vicious personal attacks of Muldoon. These led at least one top public servant to commit suicide and caused a brain drain that lowered the IQ more than any tax exiles ever would.

Last night I watched the film Good Night, and Good Luck, about the pioneering TV journalist Edward R Murrow, who took on the red-baiting junior senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. I didn’t see it when it came out because I felt I didn’t need to; when I was a teenager – not long after Muldoon came to power – I wrote my first feature on Murrow for my journalism tutor. He liked the ending, in which the chain-smoking Murrow’s death from cancer was announced by his former TV channel, then followed by an advertisement for cigarettes.

I thought of our excitable political reporters chasing terriers, and how inadequately their predecessors confronted the great counterpuncher, Muldoon. The journalist he most feared was the satirist Tom Scott, and he reacted by legislating to remove the Listener’s monopoly on programme information. (I also remember US cartoonists rueing the arrival of Jimmy Carter, wondering how – after Nixon – they could caricature someone with a face so bland.)

The forthcoming election is going to be our ugliest, and it is up to the media to lift the level of debate: Trevor Mallard and Gerry Brownlee won’t be doing it.

I’m not hopeful. The lead letter in the Listener this week suggests that much of it will be at the level of talkback radio or the rabid end of the blogosphere. According to someone from Remuera, we need to maintain our constitutional monarchy because “slowly and surely the system is being corrupted”. He then segues from Hitler and Mugabe to write:

Helen Clark has taken enormous strides during her time as Prime Minister to enhance the power of her own position. She now selects the military chiefs and the head of the police, controls the Security Intelligence Service, has absorbed the Governor-General’s office into her own department, and time and time again has trampled on the expressed wishes of the people.

Let us keep our MMP system but grant to the Governor-General the right to refuse vice-regal assent to bills that he/she thinks could be contrary to the people’s wishes. The bill should then be put to a referendum for a final and binding decision.

Was this the most intelligent response to the use of Hitler on the cover in Anzac week – or just the most provocative? The prime minister has always selected the heads of the military and police and controls the SIS. That’s why we have a prime minister. And let’s remember, history buffs, Muldoon’s first acts when he got into power. He tightened up the SIS act, and then transferred Keith Holyoake from his sinecure as “Minister of State” – an invented role – to Governor-General.

Or was it the other way around? With the cutbacks in media research libraries, reporters will have to use some legwork as Wikipedia won’t have the answer.


poneke said...

Muldoon feared Richard Long of the Dominion, too, and barred him from his press conferences more than once.

The average age of the press gallery might be 35, but the average age of newsroom journalists is much younger.

In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of Lange's election, I was allowed to write a feature article on that momentus occasion, as nobody else in the newsroom had been around when it happened. Some had not even been born.

And I am hardly old.

Chris Bourke said...

Thanks, and I've just remembered he refused to be interviewed by Ian Fraser as well. At least we had moved on from providing politicians with the questions in advance.