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Opinion: Broadcasting 'Hey Clint!' was right move

Wednesday 24 Apr 2013 12:34p.m.

Broadcasting 'Hey Clint!' was right move

The "Hey Clint!" moment - where Gareth Hughes stops mid-interview and asks a spin doctor what to say - has generated a bit of chatter here and there.

Some people - including even colleagues here in the Press Gallery - have suggested it was wrong to run it, that it was a big call, or even that there were journalistic ethics at stake.

To be perfectly frank, I don't think this was the ethical issue of the century, or the year, or the week.

Because screening it was the right thing to do. In fact, it was the only thing to do.

I cannot believe there are journalists out there who would think otherwise.

However, I do understand that some in the public like to understand what goes on behind the scenes of political reporting: How we interact with politicians, what's on and off record, how anonymity and background works. It's not a secret society - and it shouldn't be.

So Monday went like this: As soon as my colleague Tova O'Brien finished the interview for my story, she told me what she had.

She'd asked one of the critical questions in the power policy struggle, that after putting a dent in the Mighty River Power sale, potentially wiping hundreds of millions of dollars off it, "are you pleased?"  

Hughes had stopped mid-interview, called "Hey Clint!" and asked political advisor Clint Smith what the answer was.

My thoughts, like Tova's, were "that's incredible". I have never ever before seen a politician call out during an interview for a spin doctor to tell them what the answer is:

Now I know a lot of people watch "Hey Clint!" and find it funny.

But to me it showed much more than a bit of humour. It showed what we know - the Greens, like Labour, are trying to act like they are not gleeful that the policy is screwing with the MRP float.

In fact, it looked like Gareth Hughes was stoked. It was in the public interest to run it. No question.

It busted spin, in fact, it blew the spin apart.

It showed that the Greens, like Labour, are trying to come up with 'lines' to pretend that it's not about wrecking the float.

And that's fair enough; the Greens want to emphasise what they see as the good parts of the policy.

But, thanks to Gareth's indiscretion, we could show what they really feel.

It's pretty basic stuff - when the camera's rolling, and you can't answer a crucial question - don't yell out to the spin doctor.

Both Gareth and Clint have reacted graciously:

If it was a National/Labour/NZ First/ACT/United/Maori MP we'd do the same.

These politicians sit in rooms and practice, literally reading out 'lines' given to them by taxpayer-funded spin doctors before they come on camera and it is very hard to pierce the veil.

Often, and by this I mean daily, it is damn frustrating when you know a politician is hiding behind 'lines'.

But sometimes they forget their lines. For instance, just this week, David Shearer in response to a question about John Key's increasingly bitter criticism of the Labour-Greens alliance reacted by saying "John Key is talking out his...mouth", when he clearly meant another part of the Prime Minister's anatomy.

That certainly wasn't in the lines he was given and gives some insight to the sensitivity Labour has around what will be National's main attack line through to the election.

In case you missed it, John Key's been getting pretty grumpy with us lately about being called out on stuff he's let slip in interviews.

And there was a certain ACT Party leader who called me a "deceitful bastard". I'm sure that wasn't a 'line'.

Now, sometimes when we are doing interviews and the cameras are rolling, MPs may mis-cue or mis-speak slightly and say "blah, can I do that again ?"

That's just basic courtesy - and of course we usually let them because that is totally different to calling out to a spin doctor for the answer to a question.

Or realising they have said too much and trying to say "can you please not use that" (interpreted as "we must use that").

 

                                                                                                          Meme courtesy of The Listener

On the subject of anonymity and background - we often talk to politicians or spin doctors and get information 'off-camera', 'on background', 'off the record' or 'non-attributable'.

This is always a sensitive exchange because we have to be to careful that we are not being 'overly spun' while the politician or political operative has to take the risk that we don't reveal their dark arts.

All this helps gives us an understanding to add to all the other information that comes in through releases, reports, press conferences, leaks, Official Information Act requests and so on.

Through this, we get to know things that we wouldn't if we just relied on the lines that politicians gave us on camera or through press releases.

So we sometimes have to attribute it as from a Beehive source, anonymous MP, or as part of political analysis - they wouldn't be so frank if we identified them.

It's called 'contact work'. It's a journalist's stock-in-trade and can be a point of difference that sets some journos apart from others.

We have to use all this information responsibly. And, yes, we get flak for the way we do it - from all sides.

Voters and political supporters are passionate and they don't like it when their side is in the gun and that's fair enough. As I've said before, bring it on guys.

That's the responsibility we have as political journalists - we are here for the voters and the taxpayers, we get the access they don't, and we have to use it responsibly on their behalf to tell them what is really going on here.

So in the 3 News Press Gallery office, a politician gets no special privileges - they are our stories, not the politicians. It is that simple.

And the alternative is this - to sit in front of a computer and wait for the press releases from either side to come in.

Or let the politicians call on spin doctors to give them answers when the camera is rolling but not show it.

Or not seek the inside word from politicians when we see them walking around the place to try and get a better understanding of what's going on here.

That all sounds ridiculous - because it is.

That's not a job I want to do - and that's not the job the public wants or needs us to do either.

 
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