Helen Clark and the media: it’s like a thesis subject. She cowed them, bossed them, milked them. How did she get away with it? Extracts from Helen Clark: Inside Stories by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon explore the phenomenon, with views from Clark’s former media advisor and (authorised) biographer Brian Edwards and journalist and (unauthorised) biographer Denis Welch.
BRIAN EDWARDS: Helen did have a media honeymoon, but I think it was a different sort of media honeymoon. If you look back on Helen’s career from when she came into Parliament in 1981, there were very few women in Parliament then, it was a very difficult time for her and she was treated extremely badly by the men in Parliament.
There was an extraordinary amount of sexism, she was accused of being lesbian, there was never any truth about that, jokes were made about her voice, her hair, about the way she dressed, you name it. That was an absolutely miserable time and I think that probably set it firmly in her mind that being in opposition was a dreadful thing.
She experienced all that opposition and lack of respect, and some quite nasty stuff that came not just incidentally from the National Party but from other areas as well.
HELEN CLARK: You can’t be available every minute of the day or night, but inevitably in public life, if you’re out and about, you’re going to have stand-ups. The media are going to want to have access so you have to organise around that. I had to turn out to a press conference every week, no matter how sticky things were, and over the time I was prime minister, this practice of always stopping you on the bridge walking to Parliament developed as well.
So those media scrums became kind of inevitable and less satisfying, obviously, than something that you could give more thought to. But, yeah, I think media expect access and you have to try to arrange for that in a way that is not too disruptive.
DENIS WELCH: When Helen Clark became prime minister she milked the media and made it very easy for the media to relate to her. She knew how the media worked, she cultivated them, we liked her, I liked her. She was someone you could relate to, talk to, but she wasn’t one going around and massaging the media as some tend to do.
HELEN CLARK: There was obviously a lot of morning radio shows and you built up those which you could fit in. I did quite a number as prime minister. I had a routine of doing the TV breakfast shows and the Paul Holmes interview which I’d pre-record quite early in the morning before I left for the airport. Radio Dunedin was another very loyal station, Neil Collins down there was a marvellous interviewer who I spoke to every Monday morning.
There are the people like Neil Collins and Mikey Havoc at bFM, who are without malice, it’s really a kind of a ‘service radio’ if you like: Mikey to his youth and student audience, Neil to a Dunedin audience that listens to him morning after morning. So you can have a much closer relationship in a way with them because they’re not out to score off you or to take you down.
BRIAN EDWARDS: How it works is that media advisors like Judy and me, we are not involved in the policy – that is not our field – so whatever the policy is, you hum it and we’ll sing it. That is the arrangement. So for most of the three years between elections we would be chatting, say once a week.
For individual programmes, for a very big interview, we might meet and chat it through: “What are they going to ask?” “What are you going to say?” “Maybe here’s a better idea.” And so on. Mostly she knew all the stuff anyway.
HELEN CLARK: I love Mikey Havoc. I talked to Mikey Havoc on the radio probably for the best part of fifteen years, and I thought he did a great job. In fact he was one of the best interviewers because he had no malice. He just wanted to know what you were doing, what are you thinking. It was always a very lively interview.
Helen Clark: Inside Stories by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon (Auckland University Press, $39.99) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.