How to talk to the media

Successful governments use the megaphone, not the piccolo, to talk to the public. Put another way, it is the headlines, not the fine print, that count with voters.

Of course, the fine print is what the voters get. But they think they are or should be getting the headlines. In 1996 Winston Peters’ pre-election fine print was not to rule out coalition with Jim Bolger. But the headlines were all anti-National and that was the message most supporters took into the polling booth and the basis on which they punished him later.

This government risks similar rough justice. Too many of its ministers have spent too much time arguing policy detail in backrooms while in Opposition. They risk forgetting that voters decide on headlines.

Helen Clark is just such a policy wonk. She is adept at arguing fine points – as you would expect of a capable academic.

Take her injudicious comments over the Waitara police shooting. These were widely condemned as an attack on the police.

In fact, they were an attempt to placate her furious Maori caucus. Moreover, she didn’t say that police attitudes to Maori were poor, as one news article reported her and which she denied saying, but that the police relationship with Maori had a bearing on the shooting.

“Attitudes” would have been a statement about race, which is slippery ground for a Prime Minister, as the radio talkbacks subsequently demonstrated, especially when it became known the police marksman was himself Maori. “Relationship” was a sociological statement, which, as National brainbox Simon Upton pointed out in an article, “kept her in a morally neutral zone”.

But who registered the distinction?

Clark and Forestry Minister Pete Hodgson also defended the government’s trashing of the West Coast rimu logging contracts as permitted by force majeure clauses which empowered Timberlands to exit the contracts if government policy changed.

But what did foreign investors and local business hear? That the government was prepared to breach contracts, so they concluded doing business here is not safe.

Jim Anderton similarly discombobulated foreign investors when he criticised the Reserve Bank after its interest rate rise in May. He also said in the same radio interview that Alliance policy would not prevail over Labour’s support of the independence of the Reserve Bank. But what got reported in Asia was the Deputy Prime Minister threatening the independence of the Reserve Bank.

The result was the funds managers put the phone off the hook to New Zealand brokers.

Next take the Employment Relations Bill. The plain words struck fear into small business and indignation into big business across the land. In vain did Labour Minister Margaret Wilson protest that the words meant what she intended the bill to do and that the select committee would fix ambiguities.

That was the fine print. The headlines of union power, intrusions into business plans and contractors forced to be employees did sweeping and possibly irreparable damage to the government’s relationship with business – which it needs for revenue and jobs, without which it will at election time in 2002 be deemed to have failed.

Moreover, the ERB headlines got so big ordinary folk noticed. The honeymoon came to an abrupt end. It was no help to the government that the economic easing accompanying that was at most only marginally attributable to politics, that even Europe’s mighty euro’s slid against the bubbling American dollar and business confidence in Australia slumped when ours did. The headline in the New Zealand Herald read: “Nosedive”.

Take another line the parties and pressure groups of the right banged away on: this is a leftwing government.

The fine print Clark taps out in her detached way has her moving left, to be sure, and the likes of Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder moving right. But Clark’s fine print shows the government still to the right of a raft of European governments and in some respects to the right of the Australian conservative government.

Nevertheless, the headlines trumpet the leftward direction, magnifying it greatly by the Alliance’s efforts to rescue its brand and projecting it forward to a socialist purgatory (or paradise). To those who voted for a moderate centrist government such headlines are disconcerting.

How does the government get out of the fine print and into the headlines? The Hawke-Keating government had a hyperactive media liaison unit which targeted business. Even welfare increases were spun as putting money in local retailers’ pockets.

This government’s media campaign is Clark herself. Is that enough?