Brian Edwards Media

A Media Trainer Muses on John Key, Helen Clark and the Nightmare Prospect of New Zealand under Paula Bennett

John Key

Being a media trainer is a bit like being a singing teacher.You have to have a very good ear. It’s not merely about being able to correct glaring examples of poor pronunciation, diction or tone. John Key’s tendency to insert a ‘sh’ into certain words usually before a ‘t’, producing a somewhat Germanic ‘sch’ sound (Aushtralia), and Helen Clark’s rather mannish tone and overly forceful delivery both invited derision and had the potential to prematurely end their stellar careers.

I once had the opportunity of giving a few pointers to John Key on his interviewee performance. TVNZ had decided to arrange some interview training for its high-profile newsreaders, including Simon Dallow. Each had to arrive with a guest of their own choosing, whom they would interview under the critical eye of Brian Edwards and Judy Callingham. Simon introduced us to his choice of interviewee, a chap called John Key, whom I had not only never met, but never heard of.

The mysterious Mr Key was pleasant, agreeable, made a few nervous jokes and did a perfectly competent couple of interviews with Simon. When it was over, Judy and I make some helpful suggestions to Mr Key, thanked him for coming and then spent some time chatting to Simon about improving his already proficient interviewing style.

John Key would eventually become Leader of the Opposition. I have to say that neither Judy nor I would have considered, let alone predicted that outcome, as he left the training studios in Shortland Street.

In 1997 Jenny Shipley became the first female prime Minister of New Zealand when Jim Bolger resigned rather than face almost certain defeat in a coup which Shipley had brokered while Bolger was overseas.

Helen Clark deeply resented the fact that Shipley became New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister without ever going to the country. It was, she said, like climbing Everest only to find that your opponent had already got there by helicopter.

Our association with Helen Clark began in 1996 when I was standing in for Kim Hill on her 9am National Radio programme Nine to Noon. The schedule included a longish interview with the Leader of the Opposition. In the course of the interview, I said to Helen that I didn’t think she looked very happy.

Later that day her secretary rang to ask if I could spare the time to come and speak to Helen. We met and she told me that she had been taken aback by my saying that she didn’t look very happy. She wondered if I might be interested in assisting her to improve her personal and Labour’s poll ratings which were then dire. I’m not proud of my response which was to the effect that I thought her situation was “unfixable”.

That is one of the more egregious errors of judgment I have made in my career as a media trainer. Fortunately I had the opportunity to put it right. Helen Clark would eventually win three general elections and a reputation as one of this country’s finest Prime Ministers.

My other egregious error was in writing off John Key in similar fashion. As Helen’s advisors, including Judy and myself, sat around discussing tactics for the first Leaders’ Television Debate of the 2008 election, the general tone was to the effect that the outcome was pretty well a foregone conclusion. Key could not possibly win. Helen was his intellectual and tactical superior. It was no contest.

Key won that debate hands down. It was as if he had changed personality overnight. The quiet, gentlemanly, sometimes humorous Leader of the Opposition was loud, interruptive, aggressive, dismissive and contemptuous of his opponent.

Helen would, in our assessment, score marginal wins in the two remaining debates.But it is extremely difficult to come back from a first debate defeat.

Media trainers are bound to get it wrong one day. The closeness to your clients blinds you to their weaknesses and to your clients’ opponents’ strengths.

I have unbounded admiration for Helen Clark who is today a mover and shaker in the much wider world of international politics.

But though Michelle Boag and I have played political conkers on Jim Mora’s ‘The Panel’ for several years now, I also admire and like John Key. I rate him as a highly successful New Zealand Prime Minister, who, like his predecessor, has done great service for his country. Maybe the best thing you can say about any male politician is, ‘Seems like a nice guy’. John Key seems to me like a nice guy. And his resignation from the top job is manna from heaven for the Opposition.

Is that the stirring of excitement of a frustrated political media trainer that I feel coursing through my veins? Or the horror of thinking that our next PM might just be Paula Bennett?

Check the flights to Belfast for me, would you, Judy dearest!

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  1. Paula Bennett as PM might be worth the short term pain because of the damage she would do to the National Party.

  2. Possibly the highest quality politician currently in the western world. Huge loss to New Zealand and I hope his resignation doesn’t release a wave of ideological retards on both sides of the divide.

  3. I think Andrew Little should have you on speed dial.
    He comes over as wooden, with the manner of a Russian Kommissar, a dog chasing every car that passes, and perpetually angry.
    Who ever on the right who tagged him angry Andy really stuffed his chances of making PM.
    That said a woman who has known him since he was a boy tells me in real life he is not at all like that at all.
    So time to bring that side out Brian.
    Kirk and Lange had a ghastly images till someone smartened them up, it has be done and it can be done.

  4. May I first of all say how pleasant it is to read a political opponent of John Key writing such an objective and generous assessment. Similarly I thought Andrew Little’s comments following the announcement were similarly generous. Sadly one cannot say the same for some other political leaders or those on the left with comments ranging from spiteful to tin foil conspiracy rubbish. I have no doubt this column will soon overflow with political vitriol for the denizens of the left.

    I would be surprised (no, stunned) if Bennett got the post but it would assure a Labour victory at the next election.

    Whilst hardly inspiring I imagine the National Party will opt for the ‘safe option’ of Bill English.

    Regardless of the choice the Labour Party has been gifted an unexpected opportunity, one they could only have dreamed of. It will be interesting to see whether they manage to make a dog’s dinner out of it.

    • “I have no doubt this column will soon overflow with political vitriol for the denizens of the left.”
      And with political saccharine from the right.

  5. I think that Mr Key has done a pretty good job. Even by his own admission, he hasn’t achieved everything that he would have liked to have achieved, but there are many, many countries that would like to be where New Zealand is right now.

    And, if I ruled the Labour Party, I might be thinking that now would be the perfect moment for Mr Little to step down. The only question is: who should step up?

  6. To me one word sums up John Key politically
    Teflon John

  7. Whichever way the next election goes, I’d predict that a good number of the Key knockers will find themselves rueing the Government they wished for. I’d also predict that very, very few will have the balls to admit it.

  8. 8

    Belatedly in this article lies a problem NZ has unfortunately now. Similarly since the decade I left, the UK too. When the very people far too many of the public, in my opinion, still trust to give honest or at least accurate appraisals of the characters of political figures or aspirant ones, fail to do so, it is very detrimental for us all.. When many similarly also did very little in the way of ongoing critique or challenge what they did or didn’t actually do while in office as well,it prolongs the damage they can do too. To then continue with the anodyne analyses, post office or tenure and perpetuate the myths about them, incredulity stretching to read at best.

    The legacies of Key the ‘nice guy’ are sleeping in cars a week out from Christmas,or in un or ill repaired homes in Christchurch, still waiting for loved ones’ remains to be returned, semi suicidal youth and now many other peer groups, and are precariat workers barely treading water while many other groups won’t be far behind from what I can see, if National continue policies in the same vein..

    ‘Nice guy’ doesn’t cut it. Any more than the so called MSM confected middle class swing voters I keep hearing still exist and mourning his sudden departure. Still to meet one lately? Those too dense and unable to comprehend why so many other ‘political pragmatists’ are now abandoning ship too presumably are either very wealthy or delusional.
    These MPs departing in my observation of them are not ones who have worked for the collective good of N.Z.the last 4 or 8 years either, they most certainly haven’t done so bad for themselves though. Personally rapt Paula is deputy. She actually is the archetypal epitomy of a Media trainer’s nightmare and a clanger monitor’s and satirists’ gift in every way I can think..