Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's the story?

The media flurry over what Maurice Williamson said on
Sunday is of no great significance in itself, but I would
like to write about it at some length, because I think it
illustrates the way political stories get blown up and
distorted these days. First of all, Williamson—National's
spokesperson on transport and communications—was
interviewed on TV1’s Sunday-morning current-affairs
program Agenda. In the course of what for New Zealand
television these days is a very long interview (about 12
minutes), talking about how to fund new roading projects,
Williamson said he thought that many motorists would be
happy to pay anything from $3 to $5 to drive on a toll
road if it saved them money, ie, by not having to spend
time and petrol by taking a slower non-tolled route. The
interviewer, Rawdon Christie, quickly worked out that at
10 trips a week that could add up to as much as $50 a week
for a commuter, but Williamson thought that, all things
considered, that wasn’t unrealistic. At all times he located
this (theoretical) cost (for some, not all) within the context
of economic choice. It wasn’t as if anyone would be forced
to pay up to $50 a week in tolls, just to get to and from
work; the law already stipulates that where there are toll
roads there must always be a free alternative route, and
National has given no sign of repealing that provision. It
would be insane to do so, in fact.

My impression of the interview was that Williamson
wasn’t laying particular stress on the exact amount of any
potential toll; rather, he was illustrating the case for tolls,
and doing it by citing overseas examples he'd personally
seen in action, notably a French toll road. He struck me as
enthusiastic about the topic and reasonably well-informed.
It was a good strong straightforward interview, reinforced
by another 12 minutes of questioning from Christie and
two senior journalists, Brent Edwards and Brian Fallow.

Next morning, however, the New Zealand Herald turned
Williamson’s comments into a front-page lead story under
with the subheading “Williamson predicts $50-a-week bills
for tolls, but says we’ll like it.” Well, it was clearly not a
plan, nor even a prediction; it was a speculation about
possible costs—and, again, Williamson, interviewed by the
this time, put the “$50-a-week bill”—already taking
on the status of hard fact—into context by saying he thought
people would gladly pay if it amounted to “a lot less money
than you’re currently burning just sitting going nowhere.”

In her Monday-morning spot on Newstalk ZB the Prime
Minister seized on the $50 figure and implied it would eat
away the gains that people might make from National’s
proposed tax cuts; even though this was false arithmetic, it
must have scared the National Party, because two minutes
before Williamson was due to go to air with Kathryn Ryan
on Radio New Zealand National that morning, she was
told he was unavailable; shortly afterwards, party fixer Bill
English went on the program making soothing noises,
rejecting $5-a-trip tolls and saying that Williamson (whom
he didn’t actually call by name) had been "over-exuberant."
For the rest of the day, that was the message from National,
with John Key saying that Williamson had got too excited
and Williamson himself saying he had let his enthusiasm
run away with him. Senior Labour ministers like Michael
Cullen and Annette King had fun at National’s expense, as
if Williamson had made a colossal mistake (Cullen says
"Maurice" as though he were talking about a clumsy child.)
Political journalists ran with comment using words like
gaffe, blunder, blurt; National was said to be in damage
control. Sad. There’s a perfectly valid debate to be had
about how we fund roads, such as Wellington’s notorious
Transmission Gully, but what we’ve wound up with,
instead, is the usual petty point-scoring that so often
elbows intelligent exchange out of the spotlight.

This is not about whether or not you agree with Williamson
and/or National. I for one don’t: I think it madness to be
planning new roads when car use is dropping, and I wish
that line of questioning had been pursued (only Edwards
raised it, and he didn’t press the point). What it is about is
letting political discourse take place in a grown-up way
without jumping on every slip, inconsistency or off-hand
remark. The media should have put Williamson’s remarks
in context and not let Labour get away with exaggerating
them. Ironically, it wasn’t till this morning’s New Zealand
editorial that some of this context was provided by
any media outlet at all since the original interview.

We badly need enlightened debate that goes beyond
soundbite level. Agenda provides it, and did provide it on
Sunday; but what's happened since has been a dismal
combination of Labour politicking, National pusillanimity
and media imprecision. Do we have to go right through to
the election this way?

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