Mirrors and microphones

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    On 28 April 2011, an English member of parliament searched Twitter for articles about himself. We know this, because he accidentally entered his search term – his own name – in the wrong box and tweeted it. 

    Thousands of delighted users guessed what he had been trying to do, and retweeted his hapless message, which read ‘Ed Balls’. Twitter users still celebrate ‘Ed Balls Day’ on 28 April.

    Balls, sensing an opportunity for the kind of global celebrity not often afforded a shadow chancellor of the exchequer, has never deleted his tweet; he even celebrated its tenth birthday. 

    Egosurfing (aka vanity searching, egosearching, egogoogling, autogoogling or self-googling) is the term for looking for your own name online. I’m not sure what searching for your own name in the index of a book is called, although the history of publishing has many succulent examples. 

    One of the most famous involves the late American archconservative, William F. Buckley Jr. He called writer Norman Mailer an egotist, “almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it”. Buckley, retorted Mailer, was a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row.”

    When Buckley sent Mailer a signed copy of his new book on politics, Mailer turned to the index to find his own name. Next to it, Buckley had scratched triumphantly: “Hi, Norman.” 

    Sprung!

    Another ‘egosearcher’ was the political scientist Nelson Polsby, an academic influential enough to receive truckloads of books from writers hoping he would say something nice about them. A colleague asked him how on earth he decided what to read. He said, “I go to the index, look just below ‘Plato,’ and if I don’t see ‘Polsby,’ it goes in the discard pile.”

    I’ve just picked up The Reed Book of New Zealand Quotations from a secondhand bookshop. Although it was published nearly twenty years ago, there is a topical name in the index which appears in more quotes than nearly any other person – or even subjects like ‘Mt Tarawera Eruption’, ‘cows’, ‘All Blacks’ or ‘Otago.’

    In 1989, an Australian journalist wrote: “[he] is a flamboyant, populist politician in a country where even wearing a double-breasted suit is considered a bit unconventional.” In 1996, the Minister of Finance, Bill Birch called him a “poll-driven fruit-fly”. The following year, columnist Jane Clifton wrote: “His political register runs the gamut from avenging to garroting.” And then there’s Tom Scott’s quip: “[He] has been unavoidably detained by a full-length mirror.” 

    This has been another good week for Winston Raymond Peters, a politician who hasn’t been far from the headlines since he rolled Roger Douglas’ brother Malcolm in Hunua in 1979. 

    Once again, surely for the last time, unless recounts and a by-election change National’s fortunes, 78-year-old Peters has control of the national car. He is in the driving seat, say commentators, with his foot on the brake – not only in a position to decide who governs, but even to veto policy he doesn’t like. 

    In many ways this election, Gordon Campbell reminds us in Scoop, has returned to the pre-pandemic political trenches. In 2023, the centre-right appears to have won 59 seats (from 57 in 2017) and the centre-left 55 seats (from 56 in 2017) leaving New Zealand First with eight seats (in 2017 it was nine). 

    This underlying consistency is easy to forget in an election with such dramatic swings within the left, especially in Auckland. Chlöe Swarbrick, a charismatic, vocal and effective MP, withstood a tidal wave of red in 2020, and a tsunami of blue in 2023; even party-vote-National voters gave her their electorate vote. By the time of its annual AGM in mid 2024, predicts Campbell, “the Greens are likely to have refreshed their party by making Swarbrick their new co-leader.”

    And then there’s Peters. “Obviously, Act and National will want to pay a bargain price to secure Peters’ support on confidence and supply,” he writes. “Good luck with that. Down the years, pundits on the left and right alike have deplored the central role that Winston Peters plays in this country’s political life. Yet since he’s been put in this role so often, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a significant number of voters want it that way… Peters doesn’t like or trust [neo-liberal] right wing radicals any more than he does the left-wing variety.

    “Within the negotiations, Peters’ scepticism about free market ideology – and about the current affordability of tax cuts – will probably delay the formation of a new government. If that leaves the National-led government needing in future to run its major legislation past Peters beforehand, all well and good. Such a gatekeeper role would (a) keep faith with New Zealand First supporters and (b) keep the party firmly in the spotlight for the next three years.”

    The metaphor reminds me of another notorious headline hogger.

    In his memoirs, former FBI director James Comey recalls being warned to keep the spotlight firmly on his then-boss, federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. “The most dangerous place in New York,” he was told, “is between Rudy and a microphone.” • Jenny Nicholls

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