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
"Reading the tea leaves" could take on unprecedented
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
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 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 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
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.