25 Oct 2019

Parliament TV attack ads: Speaker reprimands academic over comments

8:26 am on 25 October 2019

The Labour Party has been labelled a "dinosaur" for trying to keep some restrictions in place around political attack ads during a tense exchange at Parliament.

Massey University Professor Claire Robinson.

Massey University Professor Claire Robinson. Photo: RNZ/Craig McCulloch

Both Labour and National laid out their arguments to Speaker Trevor Mallard and a committee of MPs on Thursday afternoon in a bid to end a heated dispute over the use of Parliament TV's footage in their advertising.

The hearing was mostly cordial, barring a stern rebuke from Mr Mallard to Massey University Professor Claire Robinson after her criticism of Labour's position.

The review was initiated after Labour complained that the Opposition had used official footage of Labour backbencher Deborah Russell without her permission in breach of one of Parliament's rarely enforced rules.

Labour MP Michael Wood told the committee his party supported "greater flexibility" in regards to the restrictions - but not so much as to allow the video of Dr Russell.

"Basically, we think the footage needs to be naked. No fiddling with the footage," he said.

Parties should be permitted to use the footage without requiring an MP's permission, Mr Wood said, but should not be allowed to overlay any commentary, text or music.

"If parties want to use footage and then have commentary before or after it ... fine, that's fair game, but the footage itself should not be edited."

Mr Wood also objected to the "jamming-together" of a series of clips from a single speech in a mash-up video.

"Deborah Russell gave a 10-minute speech which made a number of illuminating, philosophical references," Mr Wood said.

"They were all stuck together over an about 45-second segment which made it look as though the member was just one-after-the-other making these references in an attempt to make her look out-of-touch and elitist."

Mr Wood said that was "misleading", but Mr Mallard retorted he had considered it merely "trivial".

Labour's position prompted ridicule from political marketing academic Dr Robinson, who said it beggared belief that Labour wanted to prevent the use of video mash-up, text overlay and music.

"It actually singles Labour out as a dinosaur - sorry Michael [Wood] - when it comes to the latest forms of political communication," she said.

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Speaker Trevor Mallard. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

"Labour may not like the way that it is being attacked by National at the moment ... and Labour may consider itself above that form of attack. But this is insufficient reason to revise the Standing Orders simply to suit Labour."

She went on to say Labour was being "dangerously undemocratic" in seeking to censor the ways in which political parties could critique statements and ideas.

"I have to admit to being slightly embarrassed for New Zealand politics that we are even having this discussion in 2019."

Mr Mallard quickly admonished Dr Robinson for her comments, saying he was "exceptionally unhappy" with her characterisation of his review of the rules.

"Your frankly offensive description of me... I was offended by it. The decision to have this inquiry was mine," Mr Mallard said.

"Your mischaracterisation ill behoves someone who claims such a title."

Dr Robinson later tweeted that she was "somewhat stunned" by the dressing-down and could not believe she'd been "yelled at" by Mr Mallard for making comments he did not want to hear.

Earlier in the session, former National Minister Chris Finlayson QC laid out National's position, arguing the current rules were "redundant" and did not reflect common practice.

All political parties used such footage for political advertising, Mr Finlayson said, recalling an occasion "many years ago" when a National MP was accused of falling asleep during a late night debate.

"A video [of the MP] was circulated with the music Wake Up Little Susie," he said.

"And was that Member of Parliament annoyed? Well, I was at the time," Mr Finlayson said. "The answer to that is: bad luck."

He went on: "Frankly, laughing at people who hold privileged positions is, in my opinion, a good thing."

Responding to questions from the committee, Mr Finlayson agreed that videos of speeches should not be doctored in such a way that they are untruthful.

He also acknowledged that National's position had significantly shifted, given it opposed more liberal rules the last time they were reviewed in 2017.

Mr Finlayson said the "great conservative force in New Zealand politics" was adapting given the quick advances with social media.

"Times are changed. We are changed with the times," he said.

He continued: "Or as the erudite MP for New Lynn would doubtless say: Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis."

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