The higher echelons of Labour don’t keep me abreast of their latest strategic thinking, and nor should they. But I will give the team around Jacinda Ardern the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not party to the wrongheaded efforts to jostle Mike Hosking from his moderating spot in a coming leader’s debate. Given Ardern has made more shrewd calls over a couple of weeks than her predecessors made in close to a decade, there's every reason to expect Jacinda herself isn't about to fall prey to this misguided campaign.
Among New Zealanders without a hearing impairment, I doubt you could find anyone who has heard Mike Hosking’s voice less than I have. This is not especially personal — since leaving NZ for Melbourne in 1998, I have lived overseas for all but a few months here and there. And I'm not a radio or breakfast telly kinda guy; in fact, the only time I ever encounter commercial radio is when I'm being interviewed on one. Please don't mistake this for snobbish elitism. I don't listen to Radio NZ, either, unless insomnia demands it — the dulcet tones of an exquisitely trained public broadcaster never fails.
I'm aware Hosking is loathed on the Left for his conservative views and belligerent manner — in fact, even my resolutely moderate Mum detests him with an unusual ferocity. Perhaps due to this lack of exposure, I hold no personal animosity towards Mike Hosking, who I have always seen as a fairly unremarkable archetype: a talkback blowhard with a knack for outrage. You can find a Hosking equivalent in any given media market — or ten thousand of them if you get satellite radio in the US or download a podcast app.
But whatever you (or me or my Mum) think of Mike Hosking, this much I know: his presence on the debate stage is far more likely to help Ardern than English. Here's why.
Leader’s debates are not really debates in the traditional sense at all, but performance art. You don't win them merely by mounting the strongest argument or scoring rebuttal points off your opponent. Success for any leader is how they perform relative to expectations going in.
Go back and watch Obama’s notoriously disastrous first debate in 2012. Viewed from today, Obama was stylistically and substantively miles better than most politicians could dream of. But he performed so much worse than expected that nobody in their right mind could conclude other than that it was a defeat for the President and a triumph for Mitt Romney.
A more recent, and perhaps more pertinent example: Donald Trump was catastrophically bad in all three debates, but it barely left a scratch. Why? Two reasons: one, nobody expected him to be any good to begin with (as opposed to Clinton, whose assured performances merely conformed to expectations); and, two, his riled-up base quickly blamed the liberal mainstream media elite moderators for rigging the entire exercise. In the end, Trump’s ignorant, rambling, stalking, wildly incoherent debate showings hurt him where it didn't count, and helped him where it did. For the exquisitely prepared and super confident Clinton, the needle didn't budge — in fact, the insistence by members of the liberal, coastal, possibly homosexual, almost certainly Jewish elite that she crushed Trump worked against her.
Let's game this out in the context of Hosking v Ardern.
He goes hard on Ardern. She holds her nerve. That's the story. Labour wins.
He bullies her. Labour wins.
He goes soft on Ardern in an effort to quell criticism, keeping the Rottweiler in the cage. Labour wins.
He goes soft on English. That's the story. Labour wins.
In other words, Labour benefits whether Hosking plays naughty or nice. Pitching his questions in such a way as to hurt Jacinda without inadvertently helping her carries an exceedingly high degree of difficulty.
Now, as long as the bleating about Hosking doesn't force him off the stage, I'm happy for them to keep it up. It will just heighten the buzz around the Great Hosking-Ardern Showdown. If that is the prevailing dynamic (not the perfect word, but streets ahead of 'narrative', 'framing, or 'narrative framing), Jacinda can't lose.
Finally, for the Hosking critics, a genuine question on bias — something they seem to equate to a war crime: you realize you have it too? That it is a ineradicable feature of human thought. You get that, right? (Sometimes I worry you don't).