Celebrities, confrontation and crime are the three cyphers of media ratings. Politicians have been supplying plenty of the first two and even a flash of the third. Haven’t they done well!
It is a commonplace among the chattering classes and their “commentariat” that the carryings-on of the past two weeks were not a good thing. Fat lot they know about what real people think and want.
We don’t feed Christians to lions any more (just boutique breweries to Lions for homogenisation). We don’t have bear-baiting and bare-knuckle boxing and witch-ducking. Bemoan also the passing of the public execution.
But turn on your telly any evening, almost any channel, and enjoy public executions in multiplicate, from news to nightcap. Even after a good Arm-stronging, TV1’s trailer for its serious current affairs programme, Assignment, promises protest, tanks and titillating mayhem.
We veil murder behind a screen and call it civilised.
When our chaps could go off to real wars, sport could be played. Now “stars” play at combat. Sport is an opiate for materialism, a surrogate for the atavism which no shrink or sociologist can brainwash out of us. It’s democratic.
So of course politicians ape their betters.
Nice Peter Dunne got rare centre-stage billing this month not for merging with the moderate Christians, pressing the case for liberal debate or living out family values in his real life. He got his moment in clover for slagging off Helen Clark’s husband, nice (but in this case naive) Peter Davis.
Nearly as nice Wyatt Creech got spangled in lights — and spattered with prime ministerial ordure — for riding in behind the nice Mr Dunne to flog a drooping horse on which was mounted the nice Mr Davis.
Mr Creech had a point: suspicion would hang over an assessment by Ms Clark’s husband of Mr Creech’s party’s botched health reforms, reforms which took four ministers, including him, most of a decade and many hundreds of millions of dollars to recoup to a workable pragmatism — and which Ms Clark is now discombobulating again.
But Mr Creech’s beef was misplaced. It was not with Ms Clark or Mr Davis. It was with the independent examiners and awarders of Mr Davis’s grant. Did Mr Creech want the Prime Minister to interfere with that independent process? Would that be a good precedent? Of course not. And in any case the project is much narrower in scope than he alleged.
Mr Creech can usually do a convincing line in ingenuousness but this didn’t cut the mustard. So he got whacked.
But did Ms Clark have to whack him so hard? Hearken to tradition: Sir Robert Muldoon had to be held back from punching a Labour MP and Jim Bolger threw a pen at Sir Geoffrey Palmer for remarks about their spouses. Ms Clark could have killed the Creech affair with alpine disdain. Instead, having first told us she told off her husband in a “row of rows”, she gave more than she got.
So we got two hot weeks of celebrities in confrontation and even a whiff of crime — top ratings for politics on the media’s three c’s.
Voters like Ms Clark’s strong-arming. But this was more than strength. It was Muldoonist excess of the sort that got him in the end.
How should we read this? Should we score winners and losers?
Perhaps, because real folk probably did, just like the Super 12. But does it matter?
No. What we have had these past two weeks is entertainment. Sure, some people got hurt, but so did Christians, lions, bears, boxers, witches and common criminals in “uncivilised” times. All in a good cause, pepping the proletariat.
But does this drugged populace think this is the real thing, ballot box stuff? Not bloody likely. The commentariat’s sanctimonious clucking missed the point.
What matters is the state of the household budget, whether it will get better or worse or be abruptly ripped up by a random globalised economic act. What matters is stability, security and hope.
Over-indulgence in mud-wrestling by politicians can disturb that stability, security and hope. But we are miles short of that point. Ms Clark could risklessly blow her top over her husband.
The three c’s of the media do not determine votes, any more than does the Super 12. For votes we have to look in the real politics that affects real people in real ways.