Mundane social ritual now steeped in new meaning

Events of the past week have turned the dictionary on its head: the innocent question "fancy a cuppa?" will be positively resonating with unintended nuance at morning smoko around the country.

Hidden meanings will be sought in this most mundane of social rituals.

"Reading the tea leaves" could take on unprecedented significance.

A whole new vocabulary will have to be invented to proffer an invitation to share a libation of cured camellia leaves.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" may come to assume the political come-on connotations of "Come up and see my etchings".

How did it come to this?

As is now well known, the fabled "cup of tea" refers to a meeting in an Auckland cafe between National Party leader John Key and Act New Zealand Epsom candidate John Banks. But this was no mere "meeting". It was a highly symbolic, politically coded rendezvous the intention of which was for Mr Key to endorse the candidacy in Epsom of Mr Banks while not appearing to do so in quite so many words.

Exactly how many words and the exact choice of those constituting the "cup of tea" in the cafe during that meeting, observed by a large media contingent, remains under wraps. A fierce row has erupted over the apparent eavesdropping of this encounter by a freelance cameraman who, whether intentionally or not, left a microphone on the tea table and passed the recording on to the Herald on Sunday.

The newspaper has as yet not revealed the contents of the recording. Mr Key, pointing out that it is illegal to record the conversations of individuals without their consent, has compared the intrusion to the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, and has referred the matter to the police.

The police released a statement on Monday afternoon likewise highlighting the illegality of such recordings: it was an offence under the Crimes Act to disclose private communications unlawfully intercepted and one which was punishable by up to two years in prison, they duly informed the media.

The videographer at the centre of the storm has said the recording was an "accident", that he put the microphone on the table while trying to get footage of the pair, but when ushered out of the cafe by security people was unable to retrieve the microphone.

Without wishing for a moment to endorse the covert recording of private conversations, there are certain elements of the affair that set it well apart from Mr Key's comparison of it with the NoW hacking affair. At the heart of that matter was the hacking of the cellphone of a murdered schoolgirl. At the heart of this one is a contrived public meeting, the significance of which could be nothing less than the continued existence, or not, of Act as a political party represented in Parliament. And, potentially, the balance of ideological alignments in the next government.

Despite the National Party's Epsom candidate having made clear he is seeking only the party vote, he has been polling higher than Mr Banks, raising questions as to whether Mr Banks would get home in the race and "save" the party. What was required was a public but coded instruction by Mr Key for his supporters to vote tactically for Mr Banks. So this "symbolic" conversation had a lot riding on it, which presumably is why it was presented to the world so ostentatiously. Arguably, its contents are very much in the public interest. That would not in itself override the right to privacy, but the courts in this country have in a parallel field - that of defamation - distinguished between the rights of ordinary citizens and those of politicians.

And given the "staged" nature of the event, the question of manipulation arises. In the way this loaded meeting was managed by its political minders - all show, no substance or detail - was it designed to influence the public in an arguably underhand manner?

And was the media, with one now noted exception, a silent and willing conspirator in the process. A plague on all their houses?

Or has it all just been a storm in a teacup?

Mr Key and his managers could clear up that one immediately by releasing a transcript of his conversation with Mr Banks.

  - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.