Hard News by Russell Brown


Tired and emotional, for reals

"John Armstrong puts 2 well known pundits severely in their place in his Weekend Herald column tomorrow," tweeted the New Zealand Herald's editor-in-chief, Tim Murphy, on Friday. "Worth the $3.20 and more ..."

Murphy, a former gallery journalist himself, does actually seem to have expected readers to get behind his enthusiastic view of Armstrong's column, Bloggers don't let facts get in the way.

In fact, as might have been predicted, they have left pages of comments scorning Armstrong on the Herald website. And they didn't even pay their $3.20. Readers, eh? You can't live with 'em -- and you very clearly won't have much joy without 'em.


UPDATE: it's worth clarifying exactly what has given offence here. 

This is the Edwards column that made Armstrong so angry. Key excerpt:

There was a lot build-up and reporting from the APEC meeting in Vladivostok, but nothing much actually seemed to happen. There are only so many ways you can work ‘Pussy Riot’ into a story about trade negotiations. The alternatives seem to be writing about: your hotel, waiting three hours to glimpse Putin, the buffet, bridges or interviewing your laptop about why nothing is happening. One common theme seemed to be how trade deals are being used by both the US and China to gain dominance over each other. Gordon Campbell, who has described most of the New Zealand media reporting of APEC as ‘indistinguishable from a DPMC press handout’, had probably the best analysis of the summit’s real significance and how the Trans Pacific Partnership is where the real deals are being done – see: On APEC, and its significance for the TPP talks.

Clearly, not everyone is over this yet. The first comment under Edwards’ notably graceful column addressing the spat, is this from Fran O'Sullivan:

Bryce says:: I would also like to say categorically that I was not accusing the press gallery reporters at APEC of being lazy (interviewing your typewriter/ keyboard/ laptop is often shorthand for this – but this is not what I meant).

Bryce: Interviewing your typewriter – or laptop as you said last week – is shorthand for a journalist making things up.

Being lazy is just one component of this. It was unfair and untrue.

On my reading, Edwards  clearly didn’t accuse Armstrong or anyone else of making things up. He’s alluding to the frustrations of covering these events. I think his column today more than makes up for any offence he may have caused. Some people need to get a grip.


Armstrong's column is the rare example of a tract which can literally be characterised as "tired and emotional", rather than that phrase being a euphemism for "drunk". He's not pissed: he's pissed off. He's been dragging himself through the traps at APEC, not getting enough sleep, trying to file stories -- and does he get any respect?

Do the likes of former Listener columnist and Greens propagandist Gordon Campbell and former Alliance staffer and now Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards have the faintest idea of the difficulties, obstacles and logistics of reporting an overseas trip by a prime minister, especially one which incorporates a major international forum like Apec?

Does it occur to them to actually pick up the phone and try to talk to those journalists about what is happening and why things are being reported in a certain way?

Well, no. And by Armstrong's own, anguished account, they wouldn't have had much luck reaching him via "mobile phones that are supposed to be in harmony with Japan's system [and] turn out not to be."

In truth, Campbell was under no serious obligation to call another journalist in a distant time zone before concluding his Scoop column, APEC, and its significance for the TPP talks, thus:

BTW, the informed critical analysis of APEC and its bearing on the TPP process provided by the Canadian media was noticeably absent from the New Zealand coverage. By and large, the reports from our travelling media in Vladivostok were indistinguishable from a DPMC press handout. Where we significant players at Vladivostok? Hardly. Still, at least John Key did make this story in theChicago Tribune.

The Trib story to which Campbell links is a vanilla Reuters effort on the fact that trade issues were being discussed at APEC. It doesn't even mention the Trans Pacific Partnership, let alone quote our Prime Minister in any new or significant fashion. It's a weak and somewhat petty way to underline a criticism that TPP isn't being subjected to keen enough analysis by New Zealand journalists. (It should also be noted that the Reuters story is published under a dual byline with "additional reporting" by five more journalists.  Team New Zealand journalists might well look at that kind of resourcing and weep.)

But if Armstrong's column were a Broadcasting Standards complaint, it wouldn't turn on the lack of "facts" or "accuracy" he's bitching about. His actual grievance is that he's not being treated with fairness by Campbell and Edwards.

Armstrong offers that the Herald has indeed covered TPP and ran "a major feature in the Herald a few months ago," but he's picking quite the wrong issue on which to have a crack at ignorant bloggers. Had it not been for the impassioned, informal writing (and in some cases, outright lobbying) of people who aren't professional journalists, we would know far less than we do about the bag of fishooks constituted by that proposed trade agreement.

It's those people who have obtained leaks from the secret TPP negotiations and burrowed into the detail. It's those people who have done the job of journalists. And that's fine: it's the glory of the age in which we live that they have the means to tell us what they've found and why it matters.

In this context, it matters relatively little that, as Armstrong grants, Campbell is "a regular attendee at the Prime Minister's weekly press conference." As the Herald's senior political commentator, Armstrong is expected to report on such Parliamentary set-pieces (which are, anyway, dutifully recorded and sometimes transcribed by Scoop). His value to the reader lies in such access. While Audrey Young and Fran O'Sullivan are capable of weighing in on policy detail, Armstrong's stock-in-trade is Parliament and politics, underwritten by years of gallery experience.

The tricky balances implicit in that role are betrayed by Armstrong's odd comment about his other target, Edwards, that:

The rapidly growing influence of Edwards' blog was initially down to its being an exhaustive wrap-up of all of the day's political news. It is now starting to develop a much more political dynamic that is unlikely to please National.

Lord forbid that an independent commentator should fail to "please" the government. It's part of the doubtless sometimes difficult calibration of Armstrong's role that he may have to temper his commentary to maintain the confidence of all parties, and the governing ones in particular. It's certainly not Bryce Edwards' job, as the Labour Party's leaders will ruefully testify.

Armstrong slates Edwards for doing no more than compiling each day's political reporting and commentary -- that is, the very job the Herald's website asks him to do -- and says, in conclusion:

Edwards' blog is the extreme example of the fact that most blogsites rely on the mainstream media for their information and then use that information to criticise the media for not stressing something enough or deliberately hiding it.

Unlike the mainstream media, the blogs are not subject to accuracy or taste - and sometimes even the law.

It is the ultimate parasitical relationship. And it will not change until the media start charging for use of their material.

What, so researchers like Edwards won't be able to read it? That we'll have to pay to follow the links they provide?

Ironically, Scoop, where Campbell's work appears, has a very similar grievance about mainstream media's use of the huge quantity of information it assembles each week. And, frankly, a much better case, given that Scoop largely compiles source material, while criticism of media reporting is just that: criticism, and thus protected by the fair dealing provisions ("for purposes of criticism and review") of the Copyright Act 1994.

I don't always agree with Edwards' commentary, but I'm immensely grateful for his and his graduate students' work in compiling NZ Politics Daily, and agree with Denis Welch that "quite apart from providing a whole bunch of us with an instant daily link to the whole range of political debate in New Zealand, [Edwards] has in effect validated the NZ political blogosphere and kept it relevant."

And lord knows the political blogosphere needed the help. While it's always gratifying to get a link from Bryce, I've been consciously spending less time with political blogs and blogging because it's so often dull, angry, male and repetitive. It's Bryce who is, as Welch suggests, raising and articulating the conversation -- and hard-pressed reporters looking for the latest cheap headline from Whaleoil who foster the shouting match.

One more thing: if I were Bryce Edwards I would be angry with my editor. As editor-in-chief, Murphy is responsible for all Herald products, including the website that syndicates Edwards' commentary. It's really unprofessional for him to tout another writer's column on the basis that it puts Edwards "in his place". I would expect an apology to be tendered, at least in private.


I'm not the only one to write about this set-to. Under the headline Blogging parasite reporting for duty, Queen of Thorns offers a sharp and immensely readable, if typically impolite, analysis. (I once incurred QoT's ire over some unfathomable trangression. The proposition was mystifying, but the prose style was awesome. I'd rather that than be nuzzled to death by someone who can't write a sentence.)

Danyl is more sympathetic, but observes that it's "hard to credit Armstrong’s tantrum against Edwards as being about ‘bile and invective’ directed at the press gallery ‘based on ignorance’ (he goes on like this for many hundreds of words). On the contrary, Edwards’ blog mostly consists of an extended love letter to the press gallery and their work."

And, on Pantograph Punch -- another place where the regulars can actually write -- Joe Nunweek notes that if Armstrong had a point about the political blogoosphere he "managed to miss the target anyway by attacking two of the bloggers that likely put in the equivalent hours and the effort to the mainstream press."

He also says:

Armstrong is by all accounts a hard-​​working veteran of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, but he’s done his own track record a disservice, not to mention his own paper as it tries to modernize. Creepier still is the way his seasoned colleagues started foaming on Twitter in anticipation of his editorial the day before. 


Finally, if you haven't read Michael Lewis's magnificent profile of Barack Obama for Vanity Fair, make the time. It's subtle, insightful and beautifully crafted. Political journalism can be this good.

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