Boil; Pour; Stew – Drink?

The way to get tea so strong you could stand the teaspoon up in it and produce that almost unbearably metallic, bitter tannin taste in your mouth is to follow the age old recipe: Boil; Pour; Stew.

Well, they call it ‘stew’ in the part of the North of England that I was born in but I understand the word is ‘mash’ in the midlands (e.g., Nottingham). Either way, stewing/mashing produces an incredibly dark brew, suitable only for drinking by addicts.

But, now that it’s time to drink the cold dark brew – the (forever to be known as) ‘Teapot Tapes’ have been posted on the internet – what are we to make of it?

The water for the cup of tea was definitely boiled, to the point of having an ipredict stock launched days before it took place – in fact, someone should have turned the gas off a lot earlier, given the high-pitched (dog) whistling that went on for weeks beforehand as it came to the boil.

The water was poured into the pot on 11 November last year, about two weeks before the election. It was then left to stew; and stew; and stew; and stew; and stew; and stew; and stew.

Into 2012 it stewed and stewed and stewed.

As is well known, a copy of the recording (not, of course, ‘tapes‘ plural or even ‘tape‘ singular) has now been widely posted and linked to on the internet. What does the recording tell us?

That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Many other bloggers have highlighted various points from the recording that they believe tell us something about what either Banks or Key think about some person or event. Often, the aim of such commentary is to point out discrepancies between public and (assumed) private comments from the two or some ‘under the radar’ planning (e.g., around a ‘snap election’ when Don Brash became leader of ACT in 2010).

A tacit assumption in all this commentary, therefore, is that what Key and Banks say to each other ‘in private’ tells us something about what they ‘really think’.

But a ‘private’ conversation between two politicians (as with most people) tells us less about what they really think than it does about what they want each other to think that they think. Personal and party agendas and strategies do not get hung over the backs of the cafe chairs like cloying suit jackets when two politicians speak to each other over a strategically important event. They are at the centre of the discourse that goes on.

As any discourse analyst would point out, there’s plenty of ‘discursive work’ to be done between politicians – almost as much as between politicians and the public. Discursive psychology, in particular, has as its focus the way in which people present their own ‘psychology’ (their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, memories, perceptions, emotions,  personality, etc.) in discourse (e.g., in speech and writing) to present themselves in ways designed (not necessarily consciously) to advance their own interests.

When we fail to turn up to a meeting or coffee (or cup of tea) with a colleague or friend, we might say something like “Oh, sorry! You know me, a memory like a sieve!” We could take that as a report on something (memory ability) inside us that we are in a privileged position to report on.

Or, we could treat it as a means of presenting our memory (on this occasion) so as to make sure we are not judged too harshly or be held to account for missing the meeting. That aspect of our psychological talk achieves ‘discursive work’. (You can often tell this is the main point of such comments by comparing them to comments made by the same person in other situations – e.g., when portraying a strong memory may be to our advantage we – the same person – might say “Don’t think you can get away with that – I’ve got a memory like a steel trap!”)

Looked at from this perspective, the recording of the cup of tea gets even more interesting, especially in terms of the relative political power in the relationship.

Here’s a few examples:

  • John Key’s domination of the conversation (in terms of time speaking) incorporates both Key’s assertion of his political dominance over Banks and Banks’ agreement to being in the subordinate role.
  • Banks’ ‘congratulations’ to Key on the large media turnout further achieves this invitation to Key to see that Banks accepts his subordinate role.
  • Key’s reference to the large media contingent that follows him everywhere not only responds to Banks’ compliment but also extends it to invite the inference that it’s not this event but Key himself who can achieve such a turnout, irrespective of any cups of tea.
  • The polling Key quotes – and emphasises – once again invites the inference that National/Key are doing very well as it is and don’t, themselves, feel reliant on ACT’s success.
  • Key’s insistence that New Zealand First won’t make the 5 percent threshold – in this discursive light – is primarily a sign to Banks that Banks/ACT are not crucial and, more importantly, is an attempt to signal that they (National) are convinced of this (hence the emphatic and repeated nature of the claim). It is not, that is, primarily an honest report from Key to Banks about what Key believes National’s prospects to be.
  • When Key and Banks rehearse the ‘stand up’ that they will give to the media after the cup of tea, Key invites Banks to do it (presumably knowing that Banks would decline the ‘invitation’ and show that he still needs Key to publicly speak). Key then outlines what he will say, leaving Banks to ‘plead’ for an addition (about Key knowing Banks and working well with him). Key, magnanimously, agrees to this addition.

As well as the ‘dominant – subordinate’ aspects of the discourse, there are other elements. For example, there is some agreement about the public line the two will take towards Labour, and how each will present their own ‘approach’.

Comments about the ‘nasty’ Labour party would achieve the discursive work of tacitly agreeing that this is a common ‘attack line’ that they are both happy to use (along with some bloggers). Along with that ‘attack’ is the ‘defence’ line of emphasising that they are not ones to ‘play the man’ and that each is only in it for the good they can do.

From a discursive perspective, these comments tell us less about what either person may truly believe (about both Labour and their own noble motives) but quite a bit about how they rehearse to each other how they will deal with any attacks from Labour – i.e., smear Labour as ‘nasty’; emphasise, by contrast, the honourable approach they take.

The main aim is to agree and confirm a strategic political response to a political threat rather than to provide an accurate report on what they really think or believe.

The ‘teapot tapes’ should be analysed the way we’d analyse the conversation between two ‘friends’ in a competitive relationship to which they don’t admit explicitly.

In such a conversation, there is little expectation that the ‘friends’ carry out an honest reporting of events or, even less so, report their real beliefs and attitudes.

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2 Responses to Boil; Pour; Stew – Drink?

  1. don roberts says:

    Whatever you say about the T cup saga at the election it was nothing short of a fraud.

    The media leapt at the whole thing for nigh on two weeks.

    YET there were far more important matters that should have been in the media.

    Such as our chronic debt and ever increasing commodity prices.

    It was a fabulous move by the Nats spin docs that an awful lot of folk fell for.

    No there, however.

    Thank you.

  2. Puddleglum says:

    Agreed don.

    For the media it was all about slowly teasing the public and getting a steady stream of tantalising ‘copy’ – just what appeals to our love of gossip.

    For National (and ACT) it meant the focus was on them (even if they didn’t handle it well) – on whether their response was a principled one or a desperate attempt to cover up a political blunder; on whether or not bringing in the police was ‘wise’, etc..

    But National had a clear strategy – stonewall in the full knowledge that, if it didn’t come out (or even if it did) prior to the election the ball was in their court to set the agenda around it.

    The fact that it was in both the media’s and the National and ACT parties’ interests to keep the story unresolved meant that other issues, as you say, never got their ‘day in the sun’.

    To be honest, I don’t know if, at the time, National’s spin doctors would have been too pleased but, irrespective, it DID work in their interests – whether they realised it or not (the rise of New Zealand First, notwithstanding).

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