Brian Edwards Media

‘Photo-Op PM’ Revisited



Pic: Maggie Tait
Pic: Maggie Tait
Pic: Maggie Tait
Pic: Maggie Tait





 More than 20 years ago Judy and I ran a 2-day media training seminar for 150 business executives in Wellington.  The final session took the form of a panel discussion, which included former Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. During the discussion Sir Robert referred to the diffiiculty cabinet ministers often faced in responding to what he called ‘television’s forceful visual images’.

From memory, he used the example of an elderly woman complaining about the inadequacy of the pension. The pleasant looking woman is interviewed in her little pensioner flat. She is seated in an armchair with a blanket around her shoulders. A raggedy looking moggy is asleep in her lap. She complains of the cold and of not being able to afford to keep a heater running in the flat. She often stays in bed to keep warm. It’s impossible for her to afford anything but the barest necessities. She regards a banana once a week as a luxury. She’d love to get out a bit more, but could not possibly afford the expense of owning a car. It’s heartrending stuff and there’s more, much more.

After the film has been shown, the Minister of Social Welfare is interviewed in the television studio. He expresses sympathy for the elderly woman and outlines a number of services and special benefits that are available to someone in her situation. But he might as well not bother. His coolly rational responses, delivered in the hostile and sterile atmosphere of the television studio, cannot match the emotionally charged scene which the viewer has just watched. Television’s ‘forceful visual images’ almost invariably take the day. 

Watching last night’s television news I was reminded of Muldoon’s words. But also of what he had failed to say, that few practitioners are more adept at exploiting television’s – and the print media’s – forceful visual images than politicians.

In a post last August I called John Key ‘the photo-op PM’, citing recent clips and photos of him dancing, playing footie and hanging on the end of a rope in a tug of war. I noted that he could do these things and not look silly or undignified, unlike Don Brash or even Helen Clark.

Last night we saw Key looking positively James Bond-ish in an army helicopter on his ‘secret mission’ to Afghanistan, distinctly Clintonesque as he chatted with United States Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, and decidedly Dubya-like fraternising in combat helmet and flack-jacket with our SAS troops ‘over there’. Forceful visual images from the front line.

At home Key would receive criticism for this sortie to Afghanistan and for his earlier decision to return from an important overseas trade mission to attend the funerals of three Air Force servicemen killed in a helicopter crash en route to Anzac Day services in Wellington.

Key’s 180-degree about-face on extending New Zealand’s military presence in Afghanistan must be difficult for even his most ardent supporters to defend, while his decision to return home from the trade mission reeks of PR cynicism.  So you might think that the Opposition would have almost as great a field day with these events as with the government’s proposals to mine conservation land.

But against the forceful visual images from Afghanistan and Key’s quite moving words at the service for the three airmen, political argument, however cogent, was likely not merely to fall flat but to seem churlish.

As Phil Goff faced the usual gaggle of reporters in some dreary parliamentary corridor, to tell them that Key’s about-face on Afghanistan was ‘wrong’, it occurred to me that, in all probability, he too ‘might as well not bother’. In the PR stakes, Prime Ministers have a natural advantage, but  Key, the ‘photo-op PM’, is a master of the art. He and his advisors understand the power of the forceful visual image. And they understand that there is more  payback in appealing to the voters’ emotions than to their rational faculties.

These are the values of the hollow men.

In that earlier post I concluded: ‘If I were Phil Goff, I wouldn’t be too worried about this. I’d be biding my time. After a while, people really start to take notice of the U-turns, to weary of the distractions, to see past the frontman to the real show that’s going on behind the scenes.’

It just might be time to start worrying now.

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  1. “It just might be time to start worrying now.”

    If I was a Labour supporter I think I would be worrying now. For all Goff’s obvious skills as a politician, he hasn’t mastered the art of coming across as an ordinary, decent bloke to the electorate. In fact he has come across to me as somewhat ham-fisted on occasion, which was surprising given his experience. Stunts like the Axe the Tax fiasco just set him up to look like the village idiot of NZ politics when he subsequently doesn’t promise that Labour would reverse any GST increase. I’m sure he’s a nice enough man, but John Key is clearly more at ease in the mixing-with-the-hoi-polloi stakes.

  2. He risks becoming Labour’s Jim McLay – a capable leader in the right place at the wrong time. Maybe he should have used some of Chris Carter’s air points to go to Afghanistan and made those points over there. His media appearances seem staged and awkward – a bit like John Banks without the irony.

  3. I was amazed at how awestruck Johnkey (rhymes with donkey) was after meeting a 4-star general from the US. I would suggest to any New Zealand Army generals (I assume we actually have one or two?) that they pursue a meeting with our easily-persuaded Prime Beef Minister (Chief Meathead). If they let Johnkey pose for a photo, I’m sure he will give them anything they want: a few new tanks, holidays in Afghanistan, an extra star or two, or maybe a KBE.

  4. Well it did take nearly 9 years for the electorate “to take notice of the U-turns, to weary of the distractions, to see past the frontman to the real show that’s going on behind the scenes” with the last Labour government so it is a bit much expecting the voters to see what is happening after less than a year. The ills, real or perceived of the last Labour goverment are still fresh in their minds.

    Governments are generally bullet proof in the first term; there is the perception that they are sorting out the mess left behind by the previous administration.

    In the second term providing the government is careful it can still maintain that aura of “we are not to blame”.

    By the third term the gormless electorate has reached the end of its attention span and “it’s time for a change” and unless the government is exceptionally lucky it is doomed.

    It is no good Goff or the Labour Party worrying about what is happening, because short of the National Party making a monumental cock up there is no chance of a Labour governmet at the next election; there never was a chance.

    As for JK’s return from the trade mission, Chris Trotter’s Dom Post column on Friday summed it up perfectly. It’s no good blaming Key or any other politician; blame it all on the silly sods who have been given the vote and generally have not the slightest idea why they are voting. Several years ago in a poll 10% of the British electorate believed that the Labour Party supported the preservation of hereditary principle in the house of Lords. What hope is there?

  5. I would agree with most of what you’ve written; not too sure about the last statement, though. These photo-ops can only drive John Key’s popular
    momentum for a limited time. The benefits, I believe, are ephemeral. It doesn’t take long for the visual resonance to ring hollow. You only need to look back to ‘Dubya’, when he was taken by helicopter on to the aircraft-carrier, alighting in full aircraft combat regalia, to proclaim U.S. victory in Iraq. That artifice was to become the defining metaphor for the miserable failure of his presidency. Style isn’t able to trump substance, indefinitely.

    And, I think, it’s beginning to show up, now. John Key’s lustre is fast-diminishing, judging by the feedback on the Herald’s “Your Views”
    column. He has been a major disappointment, since being elected into Government (this, coming from a cheerleader prior to the election).

    Examples: Irrespective of your position on the anti-smacking legislation, Key’s U-turn
    revealed that his promised undertakings are — largely — meaningless. Words seem never to be congruent with action. He’s a man of the moment — saying whatever he feels is appropriate for the occasion. And it has been shown up,
    time and time, again. His “One law for All” has been bastardised to allow
    for his pandering to Maori interests, by way of the proposed amendments to
    the Seabed and Foreshore legislation, displaying the Maori flag on
    government buildings, Sharples’ recent covert sojourn to the UN; separate
    Maori social service entities etc; proposed raising of GST; the
    reinstatement of the antiquated “honours” system, (having his own post-PM
    title in mind, no doubt); the reinstatement of Phil Heatley in to his
    ministerial position, after the whitewash report from the AG (to rival Noel
    Ingram’s report on Philip Field). The list goes on and on. And the latest?
    You can’t help, but think, that Key’s decision to return to NZ, for the
    funerals, was made on the basis of being more beneficial — in boosting his
    political stocks, domestically; rather, than bolstering his cachet,

    Sadly, for Phil Goff, Key is a bit more than a one-trick pony; more
    probably, he will be a two-term PM.

  6. It is Perception that counts, and as Brian says, this often little to do with logic or common sense. I wonder if the ranks within the National Party might get a bit sick of Key utterances in the public forum which are left for ministers to fix up. Cycleway. Whaling.Mining. Lower workers wages. About turn on troops in Afghanistan. (He said tonight that the troops will be there for at least 5 years???)
    So the perception is from photo ops that we have a friendly fun loving PM who gets on well with VIP all round the World. There are heaps of people who are too busy to look or care beyond that- for now.

  7. So the perception is from photo ops that we have a friendly fun loving PM who gets on well with VIP all round the World.

    The perception I’ve got is that we have a PM who would travel the World to be photographed shaking hands with some foreigner, who can’t actually do anything to improve New Zealand’s access to markets, but has a nice smile. I’m sure you feel much the same Ianmac.

    Brian, please don’t despair. A Prime Minister who agrees with the last person they spoke to has to be a liability. Increasing troop deployment in Afghanistan, after talking with a four star General after saying a week before such would not happen, surprising his own Ministers of Finance and Defence! Key seems to be running our New Zealand’s foreign commitments as if he is a character in a Tom Clancy novel*.

    I know that it was a good photo-op for Key, I believe he only took journalist who could take images of him. This cut a number of media outlets out of the loop, and they can’t be happy being treated that way.

    The media is starting to shift, more government critical stories are making it to publication. The government’s agenda is raising concerns now. It has long been indicated that the second term will be the big change term. Just as was the plan when Dr Brash was leading the National party**. Now the election for that term is closer, real questions about the National/ACT government’s agenda will be asked.

    *In a Tom Clancy novel, all sensible politicians do what the U.S. military men tell them is best.

    **See the ‘Hollow men’.

  8. On Media Watch this morning on National Radio, the importance of having TV crews present for the trip was raised. Chosen no doubt because the Perception is from images onscreen, showing the PM in “harms way”, consulting with important people and being decisive. Control the Media and win the hearts and minds.Huh!

  9. Ah. It was all so much better between 1999 and 2008.
    Am I the only one who remembers our then Prime Minister visiting the troops in the Middle East and being photographed wearing camouflaged battle dress.
    So much more impressive and commanding that what I assume was a bullet-proof vest.
    Ah but she was one of your clients was she not and I am sure you never complained then.

  10. 10

    Clifford Gretano

    Ahhh, but our “then Prime Minister” had fear etched all over her face and her body trembled (a fear only a woman can have). While our present PM stood staunch, having the air of manly insouciance.

  11. The term “Hollow Men”, has a ring of honesty, substance, and truth in it, tho it be the title of a Tom Clancy novel.
    I started working, paying taxes, from 1964 onwards. National were far right, Labour were far left, the choices between the two were more black and white.
    Not so now, both parties are centre, staffed by “hollow men” whose lack of morals and ethics and human compassion, leave much to be desired.
    You say that elections will equalise this; that the “gormless public” will vote without understanding…
    What’s to understand??
    The labels may change…the product remains the same…