The Dim-Post

August 6, 2015

Notes on today’s John Armstrong column

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 6:30 am

The column is here.

The press gallery used to ‘hunt as a pack’, all chasing the same stories at the same time, and political staffers used to moan about this especially if their Minister or MP was the one being chased. That doesn’t happen so much no more unless the story is really huge. What the gallery does now is arguably worse: media outlets tend to minimise stories they don’t break themselves presumably to punish whatever comms or PR person fed the story to their rivals.

So in the absence of any exclusives the Herald’s line on the Saudi sheep deal has always been that it’s no big deal. Just good old Murray McCully being Muzza. It was a silly stand to take and it looks even sillier in the face of Andrea Vance’s story yesterday based on OIA’d Treasury advice about the deal which shows officials raising strong doubts about the legality and the benefits of building an agrihub in the middle of the desert, and strongly advising against the whole thing.

John Key’s response to this is the same as it was after the Inspector of Intelligence caught his office collaborating with WhaleOil – deny the whole thing by ‘talking past’ the media, negating the uncomfortable facts of the story and simply repeating to the public over-and-over again that everything is the Labour Party’s fault. It’s an effective tactic, or at least is has been in the past, but it is so weird for a gallery columnist – even the Herald’s – to lavish praise on Key for misleading the public so awesomely.

Armstrong’s previous column was about New Zealand First and how its ‘dying’ because its voters are aging. This drew outraged responses from people like Duncan Garner and Chris Trotter who sternly warned Armstrong never to count Winston out, which is true, I guess – but surely the substantive critique of  Armstrong’s thesis is that it just obviously isn’t true. Peters won an increased majority in the election and he just won an electorate off the National Party.

‘New Zealand First’s voters are dying’ is a common fantasy in the National Party, who hate and fear Peters for obvious reasons. (It’s cognate to the ‘John Key doesn’t really want to be Prime Minister so he’ll step down any day now and just go away’ fantasy that circulates around Labour.) And that’s always been my problem with John Armstrong. He sees it as his job to perpetuate the spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies of the major parties – the government-of-the-day especially – when the point, surely, is to do the exact opposite?

49 Comments »

  1. My column, about to be published in NBR, is very different from John’s.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — August 6, 2015 @ 8:25 am

  2. The problem with the “their voters are dying” theory, aside from the fact that it doesn’t match the facts, is that other voters are essentially “ageing in” to NZF – as people get near retirement or actually retire, some (not all, but enough) move from being conservative Labour supporters or socially centrist National supporters to being NZF supporters.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — August 6, 2015 @ 8:30 am

  3. My column, about to be published in NBR, is very different from John’s.

    I hope they get it up there fast. I have meetings and lab-work all morning.

    Comment by danylmc — August 6, 2015 @ 8:33 am

  4. He sees it as his job to perpetuate the spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies of the major parties – the government-of-the-day especially – when the point, surely, is to do the exact opposite?

    Alternatively: he’s perpetually auditioning for a job as a government PR flack which somehow always fails to eventuate.

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — August 6, 2015 @ 8:33 am

  5. John Armstrong. Fearlessly holding the powerful to account …. on old letters.

    Comment by Andrew R — August 6, 2015 @ 8:48 am

  6. He sees it as his job to perpetuate the spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies of the major parties…

    I’m not sure if this is true or not, whether it is the reason he writes what he writes.

    But I wonder what purpose it serves to try and explain the causes of peoples’ biases.

    Personally, I disagree sometimes and disagree sometimes with most writers and generally it’s easy spot what barrows they’re pushing.

    Why they and we hold any particular view is I think all a mystery.

    Comment by NeilM — August 6, 2015 @ 8:51 am

  7. Armstrong’s also perennially fond of declaring an issue over and done with because some unspecified benchmark has not been reached at the previous day’s Question Time (sobbing and begging for forgiveness? ministerial self-immolation?) and we should all move on. It’s odd.

    Comment by russell brown — August 6, 2015 @ 8:52 am

  8. “‘New Zealand First’s voters are dying’ is a common fantasy in the National Party, who hate and fear Peters for obvious reasons.”

    Just as common in Labour. I remember listening to a rather defensive Michael Cullen explaining the latest NZ First poll surge as an upward movement in a downward trend. Also, in the last decade, Peters has done sterling work for National at Labour’s expense.

    “Alternatively: he’s perpetually auditioning for a job as a government PR flack which somehow always fails to eventuate.”

    He’s had plenty of job offers from both Labour and National but prefers to remain a journalist

    Comment by Tinakori — August 6, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  9. I hope they get it up there fast. I have meetings and lab-work all morning.

    Surely your kaffee-klatsches and work on new killer robot drones can take a back seat to reading Matthew’s genius just this one time?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 6, 2015 @ 9:04 am

  10. He’s certainly not a ringing endorsement of Canterbury’s Journalism school…

    Comment by Stuart Munro — August 6, 2015 @ 9:20 am

  11. Isn’t the NZ population dis-proportionally heading towards retirement age, and yes it could be a mistake to write off New Zealand First just yet, arent his strategists working on a long term plan to cement their current position as a viable alternative along side with the Greens. Winston Peters has a charismatic quality that appeals to many not just the old ,qualities that Shane Jones shares in bucket loads. What an excellent addition to the team he would make, anyone else seeing this?

    Comment by Woz — August 6, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

  12. I heard say somewhere John Armstrong is quite ill, if true then it makes sense that his columns sound weary.

    New Zealand First will need to re-cast it’s message if it wants to survive. As an island country, with thousands of miles of ocean acting as a disinfectant and insulation from the contagion of Johnny Foreigner, both Pakeha (the much better British) and Maori (the noblest of the savages) New Zealanders are rather more partial to bit of racial exceptionalism that they’d ever admit in polite company. New Zealand first, with its exceptionalist and parochial nationalism, is attractive if you are Kiwi enough to be able to get a foreign passport and are sick of the country being screwed by foreign (in provincial NZ, “foreign” includes Auckland) banksters and overseas speculators. My view is that the party best positioned to harness, unleash and ride the nascent power of blue collar nationalism is NZ First, if they prove clever enough to tweak their message only a little bit.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 6, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

  13. “… if you are Kiwi enough NOT to be able to get a foreign passport….

    Will this site ever get an edit function?

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 6, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  14. Ringing endorsement of UC Journalism school ?. hes not listed as a notable graduate, unlike Kim Hill, Michael Parkin et al.
    But getting back to the shekels for sheep story, Armstrong didnt think anything of Treasurys red lines ” This makes it difficult to assess the benefits to NZ firms, whether it is within appropriation, and whether procurement guidelines such as open tendering should apply.”

    Comment by dukeofurl — August 6, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

  15. John Key knows this is about a trade deal. Labour doesn’t know about trade deals. Labour are stupid. I think that’s what this column attempts to say.

    If you want to see stupidity, take a look at the master of the economic universe (Steven Joyce) openly laughing at Grant Robertson’s 2014 suggestion that there was am imminent dairy glut and the risk of severe price slumps: https://www.facebook.com/GrantRobertsonLabour/videos/vb.469506176414952/679332472098987/?type=2&theater

    Comment by Moses — August 6, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

  16. …but it is so weird for a gallery columnist – even the Herald’s – to lavish praise on Key for misleading the public so awesomely.

    Yeah, but this is John Armstrong – there’s nothing unusual about seeing him lavish praise on Key for misleading the public/Parliament so awesomely.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — August 6, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

  17. Come on then Sanctuary look into your crystal ball and tell us is Shane Jones going to be the New Zealand equivalent of Barak Obama, will he rise to the top?

    Comment by Woz — August 6, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

  18. “And that’s always been my problem with John Armstrong. He sees it as his job to perpetuate the spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies of the major parties – the government-of-the-day especially – when the point, surely, is to do the exact opposite?”

    Armstrong knows that all politicians spout perpetual “spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies” – he is a political correspondent of longstanding. His job does not, and cannot, benefit from assigning any real value of accuracy to the statements of politicians. The whole point of his job is to comment on the effectiveness of political machinations as a neutral observer.

    If the point of a political correspondent was (as you suggest) to query the validity of everything politicians say he’d never get anything done. He’d go mad.

    Comment by unaha-closp — August 6, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

  19. “… to lavish praise on Key for misleading the public so awesomely.”

    Love the way everyone avoids using the most appropriate word. “Key LIED through his teeth. Armstrong praises him.” Succinct and to the point.

    Comment by Anne — August 6, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

  20. His job does not, and cannot, benefit from assigning any real value of accuracy to the statements of politicians.

    Either the scariest, or funniest, sentence ever written about journalism in a democracy.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — August 6, 2015 @ 5:16 pm

  21. he is a political correspondent of longstanding

    A fixture in the corridors of power.

    Comment by Joe W — August 6, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

  22. “Armstrong’s previous column was about New Zealand First and how its ‘dying’ because its voters are aging.”

    Too many journos seem to get confused between the words “disproportionate” and “majority”. The result: an absurd, long-running media caricature of NZF’s support-base where it’s implied that “most” older people vote NZF and that virtually all of NZF’s Party-Vote comes from the elderly.

    I haven’t got the exact figures with me, but my memory from reading various NZ Election Study analyses over the years is that, even when NZF was at its electoral apex in 1996, less than 25% of older NZers voted for them (so, the over-60s may disproportionately support Peters but we’re still talking about a relatively small minority).

    And I’m pretty sure that NZF’s voter-base is usually pretty much 50% Aged Over-50 / 50% Aged Under-50.

    On the more substantive issues in the post – completely agree.

    Comment by swordfish — August 6, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

  23. Audrey Young is another who seems to be perpetually auditioning for a role as Murray McCully’s press secretary. When she ‘put Murray McCully in the dock’, the verdict (surprise, surprise!) was that the Saudi sheep deal was ‘a pragmatic solution to a bilateral problem that needed fixing’: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11460571

    Comment by Ewan — August 6, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

  24. Brent Edwards, over at Radio NZ, gives a great demonstration of how you can comment on John Key’s political tactics and also inform the reader that he’s telling a bunch of lies about the issue: http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/280707/woolly-claims-about-questionable-deals

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 7, 2015 @ 7:25 am

  25. Does a print journalist matter that much any longer? Do any journalists matter?

    Would Armstrong and the others have more impact via Facebook / Twitter – assuming that he’s even on them?

    Isn’t that why Key “talks past them” – because in the age of the Internet, he can. I think we’ll see more of this in the future, with the crowning glory being a US President who turns the press room back into a indoor swimming pool. Press conferences? Pffft.

    Comment by tom hunter — August 7, 2015 @ 8:03 am

  26. Does a print journalist matter that much any longer? Do any journalists matter?

    Yes. Several hundred thousand people read the Herald every week. Many of them consider what they read canonical.

    Would Armstrong and the others have more impact via Facebook / Twitter – assuming that he’s even on them?

    No. Twitter has some influence among elites (though this is often overstated), and Facebook some influence among the masses, but for audience you still can’t beat televinfotainment and printfotainment.

    Comment by Moses — August 7, 2015 @ 9:14 am

  27. Does a print journalist matter that much any longer? Do any journalists matter?

    That’s a bit of an odd couple of questions to ask on a comment thread of a post devoted entirely to what a print journalist has written. By the same token, at least half of NZ’s “most read”* on-line commentator – David Farrar – consists of cut-and-paste posts from the work of journalists.

    Or, to put it another way, does it even make sense to try and distinguish between “old” media and “new” anymore … and can the on-line commetariat exist without professional full-timers creating content for them to chew over?

    *We can disregard the claims of Whaleoil on this count because … well … we all know why.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 7, 2015 @ 10:02 am

  28. “Brent Edwards, over at Radio NZ, gives a great demonstration of how you can comment on John Key’s political tactics and also inform the reader that he’s telling a bunch of lies about the issue”

    A good column by Brent but it is interesting what one takes out of these things. For me, the critical paras were the following

    “What the papers do confirm is that the ban on live sheep exports, which was upheld by National, did cause a diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia. It was this rift National sought to heal, by spending a few million dollars on Mr Al-Khalaf’s farm.”

    “There should be little surprise the Government proceeded with what it probably believed was as an innovative way to deal with the problem.”

    I think the main problem with the issue was Murray McCully’s typically shifty way of dealing with the issue. It was one those cases where simply saying, yep, we did it and for good reasons. See ya later…… would have been the best way to manage the issue.

    Comment by Tinakori — August 7, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

  29. That’s a bit of an odd couple of questions to ask on a comment thread of a post devoted entirely to what a print journalist has written.

    That was my point: why does Danyl get so excited about anything Armstrong has to say, or Jack Tame for that matter. It’s like continuing to think that what happens in the Parliamentary debates matters (apologies in advance for you probably do).

    Yes. Several hundred thousand people read the Herald every week.

    I guess that’s why it’s such a thriving institution – along with many other newspapers and current affairs magazines, whether its Newsweek sold for $US 1, or the NYT held aloft by a Mexican billionaire.

    Many of them consider what they read canonical.

    Many? Now you’re just teasing.

    Comment by tom hunter — August 7, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

  30. RedLogix pointed me to an answer as to why Key survives and what people really vote for. Lynton Crosby has shown then how to talk past the issues and it works. Simple really.

    http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/aug/06/tony-abbott-can-brush-off-crises-like-cameron-did-says-lynton-crosby

    Comment by ianmac40 — August 7, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

  31. “There should be little surprise the Government proceeded with what it probably believed was as an innovative way to deal with the problem.”

    “Little surprise”, says Edwards, because the Government has form in this area, not because it is manifestly a good deal. As he concludes; “Dealmaking might be the Government’s strength, but is at the expense of good governance?”

    It was one those cases where simply saying, yep, we did it and for good reasons. See ya later…… would have been the best way to manage the issue.

    Except that the “good reason” – buying off a foreign national who was using his influence to hamper our trade prospects – looks an awful lot like the sorts of corruption that we as a nation have solemnly promised not to take part in. If act, the only thing that keeps this from being an outright breach of our obligations under the UN and OECD Conventions against Corruption is that Al-Khalaf’s influence is not “official” in nature. It’s a technical lawyer’s difference, rather than one of principle.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 7, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

  32. “Except that the “good reason” – buying off a foreign national who was using his influence to hamper our trade prospects – looks an awful lot like the sorts of corruption that we as a nation have solemnly promised not to take part in.”

    It certainly isn’t corruption when a government does it in the national interest. The correct term might be “international politics” or “diplomacy”. The businessman is simply trying to use the leverage available to him to protect his interests and it is in our interests to take him out of the picture.

    Comment by Tinakori — August 7, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

  33. @Tinakori: If this isn’t corruption, what is?

    Comment by kalvarnsen — August 7, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

  34. It certainly isn’t corruption when a government does it in the national interest.

    Yes. It is. Go have a read of the UN and OECD Conventions against corruption. They exist precisely to stop Governments paying off people “in the national interest”. Now, Al Khalaf slips outside of those conventions because he exercises influence over public officials rather than being one himself … but the principle is exactly the same.

    Put it this way. Fonterra loses out on a $1 billion sale of milk powder to Russia to an Australian company because the Australian Government pays a Russian oligarch who is very close to the Russian Minister of Trade a $4 million “facilitation payment”. All OK with you? Just “diplomacy” in action?

    Or this way. Canada pays Graham Smith (CEO of Federated Farmers) a $4 million “facilitation payment” in exchange for his telling the Government that his organisation is cool with the TPP chapter on dairy trade. OK with you? Just “international politics” at play?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 7, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

  35. Wrong examples. Both require the recipient to subvert ethical practise. Incidentally, I wouldn’t put it past the Australian government to do exactly that and we should also never get in a bidding war with countries that have much more money than us. Fonterra’s predecessor, the NZ Dairy Board, used to make these payments all the time but fortunately the dairy trade is quite a bit cleaner now or they have different ways of making the payments. In the case of Federated Farmers the CEO is being asked to work directly against the interests of the organisation he leads. The payment in our case was to get someone out of the way so a normal, ethical transaction could take place.

    Comment by Tinakori — August 7, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

  36. It certainly isn’t corruption when a government does it in the national interest

    Treasury didn’t think it was in the national interest. How exactly has this “deal” benefitted us?

    Comment by Ross — August 7, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

  37. Even for you Tinakori, that’s some tortured logic.

    Bribe someone so you can get back to BAU ethical practices? Please…

    Comment by Gregor W — August 7, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

  38. “He’s had plenty of job offers from both Labour and National but prefers to remain a journalist”

    Republishing govt lines is not journalism. Armstrong is a disgrace.

    Comment by Sacha — August 7, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

  39. Both require the recipient to subvert ethical practise.

    OK then … the Canadian Government pays David Farrar $4 million to use his influence to convince National that signing up to the TPP without a dairy chapter is a good thing to do. Or, it pays it to Fonterra in exchange for it not publicly opposing a TPP without a dairy chapter. These are quite acceptable practices?

    The payment in our case was to get someone out of the way so a normal, ethical transaction could take place.

    So if a person with influence over a foreign Government says “give me money or else I will stop you getting what you want”, we do nothing wrong by paying them off? You do realise the kind of incentives this creates in relation to international trade and investment, right?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 7, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

  40. Don’t worry, John Campbell will do a series of breathless interviews with Jeremy Corbyn ushering in a society that cares for the children.

    Comment by NeilM — August 7, 2015 @ 11:49 pm

  41. Oh Neil, you should just stick to mindlessly parroting McCully’s talking points (he’s not using them after all) and stay away from attempts at sarcasm, ya?

    Comment by Judge Holden — August 8, 2015 @ 6:53 am

  42. That wasn’t a very useful, interesting or (worst yet) funny intervention, Neil.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — August 8, 2015 @ 8:14 am

  43. “There should be little surprise the Government proceeded with what it probably believed was as an innovative way to deal with the problem.”

    Great, now every kleptocrat knows how easy it is to shake NZ down.
    Did the problem in fact go away once the Saudi dude had pocketed his pay-off?

    Comment by herr doktor bimler — August 8, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

  44. “That wasn’t a very useful, interesting or (worst yet) funny intervention, Neil.” I agree Andrew,

    It’s fair to say that all Neil really succeeded in doing, was to again, lower the baa.

    Comment by Lee Clark — August 8, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

  45. He does display some pretty wooly thinking on occasion. In fact, counting NeilM comments is a very good way to fall asleep.

    Comment by Flashing Light — August 8, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

  46. Aww, come on, Andrew, surely you’re aware by now that today’s modern Tories like Tinakori – let’s, for convenience sake, call them Keyists – don’t do ‘principle’. Ethics and international conventions are for losers and bare-faced corruption can always be instantly re-defined as “creative pragmatism”.

    Comment by swordfish — August 8, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  47. Once more the question arises as what photos of John Key are held by the small but perfectly formed incubus that is Murray McCully. Is a wooden stake required to end his political career?

    Just fire the tiny shit from cabinet and hope his local electoral committee sees the light.

    In the meantime there’s always the fun of seeing Labour Party supporters in high dudgeon about … ethics and breaking the law?

    Ethics and international conventions are for losers, and bare-faced corruption can always be instantly re-defined as “creative pragmatism”

    As PM, Key has learned much from his predecessor, but I’ll bet she’d love to have had her defenders produce that phrase, rather than “acceptable corruption”.

    Government incompetence is what Labour should be focusing on rather than ethics or law breaking, since Labour’s credibility is marginally above zero on incompetence.

    Comment by tom hunter — August 9, 2015 @ 9:11 am

  48. All we can state for sure is that Labour didn’t give a flock.

    Comment by Lee Clark — August 9, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  49. “Labour Party supporters” ? Nyet, Comrade, Nyet. Supporter of, shall we say, the Broad Left.

    “high dudgeon” ? Nein, Herr Hunter, Nein. I would have said: ‘mildly taking the piss’, nothing as self-righteous or emotionally overwrought as “high dudgeon”.

    I realise, of course, that the Right meme-du-jour is to frame the Left as hysterical, emotionally distraught, neurotic and so on ad nauseam.. Even, it seems, the critical, non-partisan, non-cheerleading Right like your good-self.

    Comment by swordfish — August 9, 2015 @ 3:35 pm


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