POWER PLAY with Brent Edwards

8:49 am on 25 July 2014

It appears the opinion polls and many news media organisations have already decided the outcome of the general election on 20 September.

In the polls the Labour Party and the Greens are now trailing well behind the National Party.

Those poll results appear to have convinced most reporters Labour has no chance of doing well enough to have a chance to lead the next government. That, in turn, is influencing some of the coverage of Labour's woes, with its leader David Cunliffe at times being subjected to ridicule.

Mr Cunliffe is no longer seen as a credible leader by some media and the Prime Minister, John Key's, dream run at the top continues.

The Labour leader has done himself and his party no favours since taking over from David Shearer. His leadership has been marked too much by indecision and botch-ups.

Remember the criticism of Mr Shearer was that he was too accident-prone and a poor performer in front of the cameras.

Mr Cunliffe's supporters believed he would improve the party's performance and lift it in the polls from what they then considered to be the doldrums of the low thirties. Now Labour is wallowing in the twenties in the polls, Mr Shearer might not look so bad to some of those who were so keen to dump him last year.

John Key's dream run at the top continues, while David Cunliffe is no longer seen as a credible leader by some media.

John Key's dream run at the top continues, while David Cunliffe is no longer seen as a credible leader by some media. Photo: RNZ

But is it now fair to write off Mr Cunliffe and Labour? Are his mistakes as egregious as they have been portrayed?

He and his colleagues concede that there have been mistakes and improvement is needed. That concession in itself has led to even more jokes at Mr Cunliffe's expense, following on from his apology for being a man more than two weeks ago.

Mr Cunliffe has also been pilloried for taking a three-day break with his family last week to ski at Queenstown.

Earlier he had faced news media attacks over his alleged links to Donghua Liu. Stories that ran for days reporting Liu had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Labour were eventually proven to be wrong. Yet despite that the mud stuck.

Compare Mr Cunliffe's difficulties with John Key. Mr Key took a ten-day break in Hawaii and received no criticism.

Mr Key refuses to apologise to the woman at the centre of allegations against the Malaysian diplomat yet faces none of the ongoing publicity Mr Cunliffe faces for apologising for being a man.

The Prime Minister's refusal is made worse by the fact three weeks ago he said he would apologise if he knew the woman's name. Tania Billingsley subsequently came out publicly but Mr Key says he only apologises if the matter is serious enough.

One of National's MPs resigns after revelations she had misused her work credit card. Mr Key takes no responsibility and says he does not know how much money is involved.

And one of Mr Key's most senior ministers, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee, caused a flurry by offering his resignation after breaking aviation rules at Christchurch Airport.

Mr Key does not get off scot-free but certainly the intensity of the coverage of his missteps pales in comparison with the roasting Mr Cunliffe gets.

The bigger question is not whether this is particularly fair to Mr Cunliffe or not. Politics is a bruising business and he will have to just shrug it off.

But with a general election just eight weeks away do the public deserve better?

Much of the media focus is on the game of politics, little of it on the substance. There is coverage of the debate about policies - which affect people's day-to-day lives - but far more about the trivia.

To be fair Labour does not help itself.

On Thursday it released its information and communications technology policy. This will have an impact on people's access to the internet and is a vital component in any political party's economic strategy.

At the same time though Labour is arguing with TVNZ about whether presenter Mike Hosking should chair the television channel's leaders' debates between David Cunliffe and John Key. Labour objects because Mr Hosking has publicly endorsed the National Party.

On one hand Labour has a point. But is it worth giving the news media another distraction to focus on rather than - as Mr Cunliffe said Labour would earlier in the week - on the issues that really matter to voters?

In the final weeks before the election the public deserve an open debate on policies which matter to them - health, education, the economy, law and order, climate change, the environment and social issues to name a few.

News media have the responsibility of ensuring voters are fully informed, even if some organisations - based on their polls - have already made judgements about the outcome of the election.

But to paraphrase John Key there's only one poll that counts.

Follow Brent Edwards on Twitter @rnzgallerybrent