Goff’s gaffe – where’s the story

If blinked you missed it. On Tuesday morning it was Goff’s gaffe and the news media was all over it in a flash. By the weekend it had all but vanished. Had Phil Goff signaled a hidden streak of disloyalty? Was the minister really suggesting that Labour might lose this year’s election? Did he want Helen’s job and was he preparing for a Christmas coup? Or was the whole thing a beat-up? Which ever way you cut it this won’t be the last such scoop/frenzy/speculation drama of 2008.

Let’s start at the beginning with the interview, recorded two weeks earlier, that was to air on Tuesday night on little-watched (despite the nearly naked news) Alt TV.

Would this ever have been a story if Ben Thomas hadn’t mentioned it in a story on the National Business Review website. The straight news item, quoting from the interview was posted at 8.39am.

At 11.51am it was on the New Zealand Herald site in an item posted in political editor Audrey Young’s blog.

Audrey notes that Goff has breached convention by acknowledging that defeat is a possibility, but she adds that he hasn’t said anything thousands of other Kiwis aren’t thinking:

Phil Goff has breached political convention and openly admitted that not only might Labour lose the election but, if so, he could be interested in the leadership.

While both those things are widely known, it is not done speak aloud about alternative leadership or admit the possibility of defeat. That is politics 101.

Just after lunch Colin Espiner over at Fairfax’ Stuff had caught up. He covered the issue in his blog, On the House. Colin’s lead focused on Goff’s leadership ambitions. He went on to comment on Goff’s media performance that morning in response to the NBR story:

Given the opportunity to explain himself to reporters this morning, Goff didn’t resile from his remarks – in fact he said he stood by them. He added that Labour was the underdog going into the election, and that clearly some people felt it was time for a change.

Now, full marks to Goff for honesty, but it’s a well-known political convention that senior ministers don’t upstage their leader by talking about defeat in an election year, particularly when the party is staring down the barrel of a walloping.

And they most certainly don’t start speculating about the process involved in a leadership change, bloodless or not, should that party be defeated.

Colin linked to a non-by-lined story on the Stuff site that had this to say about the Goff’s comment about a possible Labour defeat:

With Labour well behind in the polls, Mr Goff’s comment is a statement of the obvious.

However, it unusual for an experienced politician to acknowledge even the glimmer of defeat.

If he’d denied the possibility of defeat, would that have drawn headlines that he was barking mad and living in a fairytale? And why not a bit of refreshing honesty in politics. Goff’s comments are fairly innocuous and I think that in the Driver interview he was trying to hose down leadership questions. Let’s face it too, ALT TV is not a ratings winner and without the attention given to the comments by NBR and the gallery journalists, it would probably have gone unremarked.

However, it was still a story on Wednesday, Tracy Watkins had a piece in the Dominion Post that contrasted Goff’s ALT TV comments on the leadership with something he said in February that apparently ruled out any leadership ambitions. Tracy’s story was one of the first to start speculating about possible speculation about the Labour leadership:

Though he is widely accepted as Miss [sic] Clark’s successor should she step down after a Labour loss, his opening the door to that possibility now is likely to spark damaging leadership speculation.

It’s usually the media that indulges in damaging leadership speculation. It seems that this time there isn’t really much of it at all. NewstalkZB was reduced to interviewing Chris Trotter on Wednesday to keep the story alive.

Wednesday’s story in the Herald, by John Armstrong, Goff’s gaffe: blunder or power play? tried to spin the Goff made the comments deliberately line. A bit of a stretch really. Surely if such an experienced political operator had wanted to set the hares running on a leadership speculation story he would have taken such a strong story to someone a little more high profile than Oliver Driver.

The “media frenzy” even made it onto the Australian ABC’s news site by 3.13pm on Wednesday afternoon (Sydney time) so about 5pm Auckland time.

There has been a media frenzy in New Zealand over comments made by a possible successor to Helen Clarke speculating the Labour Party would lose this year’s election.

It was a pretty weak frenzy – a storm in a teacup really.

I ran into Ben on Friday night, and he was keen to tell me that he’d done nothing wrong. I can’t see that he has. He was given the story (perhaps because of his personal links to ALT, or friendship with someone there [I’m speculating here, I only had half a beer with Ben and didn’t ask]). It was also clear that the press gallery went into overdrive when the NBR story was pointed out to them. I guess part of that might be professional jealousy. An outsider had got what was potentially the political story of the day, week, month or certainly the election phony-war period.

Retracing our steps

Let’s go back and take another look at the story from the beginning:

Ben’s lead was clear and highlighted the most newsworthy angle on the story:

A senior government minister has for the first time acknowledged that the Labour party faces the prospect of losing the election.

Now go back and check what Phil Goff says in the clip. In response to question from Oliver Driver about losing the election, Goff says “…there’s always a possibility.” He’s basically finishing Driver’s sentence. He doesn’t actually say: Labour will lose, or even “faces the prospect” of losing. He actually goes on to say that he’s not thinking “in a defeatist way” about the election. Then the killer quote: “Sure, there’s a prospect we might lose the election.” But he then continues: “I’m not writing [us] off and I’m not thinking in a defeatist way.”

Isn’t that just common sense.?

In terms of leadership, the comment is very equivocal, hedged and fenced. Goff says he’s not even thinking about it, he’s focused on the election campaign.

What I can fathom from the coverage is that Goff was taken by surprise on Tuesday when confronted with the NBR story and questions from gallery reporters. He’d apparently forgotten the ALT TV interview and didn’t expect it to blow up in his face.

The story then took on a life of its own, as we’ve seen. It also became fodder for the blogocracy – the usual suspects jumped on it. I won’t give them oxygen by reposting their stuff here, but the for the chronically obsessed the links are provided.

The inquiring mind believes The War for Helen’s succession has begun, but just strings together long quotes from the news stories.

The Hive joins the speculation that this had something to do with David Cunliffe and Goff squaring off in the event of Clark stepping aside after a hypothetical defeat.

Scoop agrees if it looks like a beat up and smells like one, it probably is.

Kiwiblog runs through the coverage and adds little of value.

Keeping Stock plays it straight – the comments are interesting.

No doubt there’s lots more. I haven’t the time to chase down everything. Most of you will know where to look for the comments that will float whatever boat you’re in.

Was it a beat-up, a gaffe, or the beginning of the election year sub-plot? No doubt we’ll learn more over the next few months. It will be interesting if another seemingly sexy story goes past the gallery’s frontlines and gazumps them all.

3 Responses to Goff’s gaffe – where’s the story

  1. I just wanted to clarify one point in this post. I was not suggesting anything untoward or inappropriate in Ben Thomas’ handling of the story for NBR. I speculated that he may have a professional/personal acquaintance with ALT TV and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
    A friend has just emailed this which puts it in perspective:

    Hi, Just read your blog on the Alt TV interveiw – and just thought I’d clarify – You’re right – Ben is a regular guest on a Sunday panel show and good friends with a couple of Alt’sters from the Craccum editor days.

    It seems to me a legitimate use of sources and contacts for Ben to break this story. It certainly wouldn’t have harmed ALT TV either to get such fantastic publicity for its programming.

  2. truthseekernz says:

    At first I thought it was a beatup and blogged as much. But then the next day, Goff added that “at the moment” to his reply to a question from the Herald (I think) about the leadership of the Labour party. Maybe Goff was just being playful. Certainly, the question wouldn’t have been asked without the beat up the day before. But Goff adding that “at the moment” certainly did add weight in my mind to the immediate impression he was positioning himself to replace Clark. That would be news, in my view. Bad timing the day before the Budget, too. Still….as Russel Brown said: So what? Well,….I guess it then comes down to what level do you set your “ignore” function to when senior politicians do speculate about leadership changes. Mine would have ignored the AltTV episode, but the one it triggered the following day would make me sit up and take notice. But that would never happened had I ignored the one the day before. Alternate realities can be conflicted. 😉

  3. Rob Hosking says:

    What I found intriguing aobut the debate over the coverage of this story was how many people said it was a ‘non story’.

    A senior politician musing about post-election prospects, the likelihood of loss, and his own leadership intentions should definitely be reported.

    I do think some of the coverage was overheated, but that is not the say as arguing, as a lot of people have, that it should not have been reported at all.

    I suspect it would not have caused quite so much excitement if it was any other day of the week. Because the story broke on a Tuesday morning, most of the gallery asked Goff, and other MPs, about it as they trooped into caucus. (I was not one of them, btw: I rarely do caucus stake-outs, a pleasing state of affairs I intend to continue with).

    That gave the story more legs: there was TV footage of Goff – and other Labour MPs – going into caucus and commenting, or no-commenting, on the issue.

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