Election campaigns are boom time for PR consultants and pundits, but the public need to know if they’re also in the middle of their spin cycle when they appear in the media.
When former National Party president Michelle Boag - currently a PR consultant - appeared as a post-debate pundit on TV3’s AM the morning after last Thursday's leaders' debate, the first question she faced was: "Who won?"
"What happens in these debates is that people on the left say Jacinda won and people on the right say Bill won," she said.
The former TV news chief Mark Jennings wasn’t impressed to see partisan pundits on a panel discussion immediately after the TV3 leaders' debate last Thursday.
"They seemed keener on expressing their own political views rather than a dispassionate dissection of the debate." he wrote on the website he co-edits, Newsroom.co.nz.
These days, many journalists blurt out opinions, reckons and feels on social media. Senior politicians appear as guests on TV3's current affairs show The Project as participants, not interview subjects. The attitude to impartiality has clearly shifted.
In that climate it is perhaps no surprise lobbyists with vested interests are also invited to share their insider insights which can be genuinely enlightening for the audience.
But while many viewers can spot partisan punditry a mile off at election time, some are actively involved in the campaign and it’s not always easy to tell.
Lobbyist Jenna Raeburn, the partner of a National MP, is a frequent pundit on politics shows like TVNZ's Q+A. Last week she also appeared in a Paula Bennett Facebook video singing along with National Party MP's and staff aboard a campaign bus.
"Is any other country this loose with its TV election coverage?" asked Herald media writer John Drinnan.
Back in June, John Drinnan said the use of lobbyists and public relations consultants as political commentators was on the rise.
One who asked to not be named told him that was because they know the issues and they are articulate. Political insiders certainly can shed light on issues in the media in a way that politicians themselves can't or won't do. But viewers, listeners and readers are usually in the dark about the vested interests the lobbyists and PR consultants may have.
"Surely there is room for broadcasters to talk to more real people. Is there nobody with strong views outside the world of PR?" John Drinnan asked back in June.
He said recent elections in the UK and the US had exposed the media as out of touch and he wondered whether New Zealand broadcasters might change the way they cover our upcoming election.
No sign of it so far.
Host Guyon Espiner asked Bill Ralston if it was true he had been hired to help Bill English manage the media. Bill Ralston refused to say and the potential conflict of interest clouded anything he said without such a disclosure.
On the eve of this week’s debate, Mark Sainsbury didn't even bother pressing Bill Ralston on whether he’s actually employed by Bill English on his Radio Live slot Sainso’s Political Chinwag - even though he clearly knew the answer.
Just after Labour’s campaign launch in Auckland Bill Ralston told Mark Sainbury on Sainso's Political Chinwag how he'd just "bumped into Bill English in The Koru Club in Hawke's Bay." If Bill Ralston is Bill English’s hired media man, catching up with him would hardly be a coincidence.At a time when broadcasters make special efforts to be especially fair and balanced, all this seems doubly out of place.
Another regular pundit is Ben Thomas, a former government press secretary who now works at Matthew Hooton’s PR company Exceltium, which currently works on behalf of the ACT Party.
He is a regular guest on the Gone By Lunchtime politics podcast of The Spinoff, and this week the New Zealand Herald published his thoughts on the campaign so far with a footnote acknowledging he had some skin in the game.
Ben Thomas doesn’t deny he has a political party as a client, and the arrangement is pretty obvious from his frequent tweets praising ACT policies - and its leader’s statements.
Dr Brian Edwards is anther former broadcaster who has combined political PR with punditry. He served Helen Clark and other Labour ministers as a professional media trainer in the past while appearing as a pundit in the media.
This week he blogged to say he was bothered by the sight of Bill English being upstaged in the media by Jacinda Ardern.
Why did that bother a Labour man and a self-identified "champagne socialist"?
“The media trainer prides himself on his ability to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. He has a rescuer mentality. He backs losers, and himself, to win,” Dr Edwards wrote.
That makes the job sound almost humanitarian, or like social work - rather than selling skills acquired in serving the public to pick up cheques from politicians prepared to pay for them.