IN AMERICAN JOURNALISM there’s an expression: “The story was too good to check!” And every journalist knows what it means. A story so compelling; so freighted with significance; so certain to sell newspapers (or generate page-views) that you don’t want to go through the usual processes of verification – in case it turns out to be untrue.
You can imagine, then, how Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury felt when he heard the story about the Prime Minister and the pony-tail. A journalist can work in the industry for forty years and stumble onto something like this maybe once or twice – if he or she is lucky.
There’s a temptation to rush such a story into print, or post it immediately on the web, but in the age of Dirty Politics that is the last thing you should do. A story as big as this one could be a VRWC set-up: a complete fabrication designed to entrap the unwary blogger and explode his credibility forever. The watchword in such circumstances is always: caution.
And Bomber was as good as his watchword. He checked and double-checked. He sought advice. He pondered the consequences of getting it wrong. But in the end, he did what all journalists do. Having checked the story, he checked his gut. Did he trust his informant? Did her story ring true? If the answer to both of those questions was “Yes.”, then he had to publish. And publish he did.
No one now can say that Bomber’s trust was misplaced. Barely an hour up on The Daily Blog and the pony-tailed waitress’s story was being read by thousands. Twitter thrummed with comments and questions. Other blogs linked to it. And by mid-day the mainstream news media’s reporters had forced a clearly spooked Prime Minister to get off his plane at LA International Airport and deliver a public admission and apology to the young woman he’d repeatedly pestered in a Parnell café.
Even before his admission and apology, however, John Key’s friends and allies were leaping to his defence. The PM was only being playful, they insisted. It wasn’t at if he’d touched her breasts or backside. Tugging a girl’s pony-tail – what male hasn’t? (Not many, it’s true, but most of them were under twelve years-of-age!) There was nothing sexual in it. For God’s sake – the man’s wife was present! Seriously, who could object to a little friendly fun?
Well, the young woman did – as was her right – and she let him know by shooting him a filthy look. Did he stop? No he didn’t. She tried to avoid him. He crept up behind her. She told her boss, who told the PM. He kept on tugging. Finally, exasperated, the waitress summoned up all her courage (and if you are a young woman, and the man pulling your pony-tail is the Prime Minister, a great deal of courage is required) and told him to his face to cut it out. Even then, the prime-ministerial banter and teasing continued. Finally, someone – his wife Bronagh, one of his security detail, a neighbour who dines at the same café – managed to convince him that his behaviour was unwanted, unacceptable and must cease. He returned to the café, bearing two bottles of his own wine as a peace-offering. Turns out it was too little, too late.
Will the PM’s prompt admission and apology put this story to bed as swiftly as his spin-doctors are clearly hoping? Probably. By chance, the story broke when the PM was out of the country, en route to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. That sombre event will, in all likelihood banish “tailgate” from the nation’s front-pages.
But, it makes you wonder.
According to Bomber’s informant, the hair-pulling antics of the PM began in September of 2014, during the election campaign. So let me leave you with this little thought experiment. Had the man doing the pony-tail pulling not been John Key, but the Leader of the Opposition, David Cunliffe, and the story had broken before election day (let us say, for the sake of argument, on the Whale Oil blog) how do you think the mainstream news media would have responded? Would David Cunliffe have been permitted to get away with an admission and an apology? Would his political opponents have conceded that he was guilty only of a little playfulness, a little friendly fun?
Of course not! Every honest New Zealander knows that if it had been David Cunliffe who’d repeatedly pulled a waitresses pony-tail, and been found out, then the story could only have ended one way – with his resignation.
What does it say about John Key and his relationship with both the news media and the wider New Zealand electorate that, public admission and apology delivered, he will almost certainly walk away from this scot free?