The Dim-Post

October 18, 2015

Notes on John Armstrong’s final column

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:20 am

It is here and includes the sad news that he is stepping down because of ill health.

  • Armstrong practised a kind of opinion writing that media theorists call ‘access journalism’ in which powerful people give journalists (actually mostly senior columnists) time, attention and ‘background information – ie gossip – and in exchange the columnist writes nice things about them. Armstrong enjoyed very privileged access to our senior politicians and their advisers for many years, and this gave him great prestige among other media and political elites.
  • His columns generally defended powerful establishment figures and attacked and mocked their critics, and because he’s a fine writer and deftly articulated elite conventional wisdom this made him very respected in those same establishment circles. It’s not a form of journalism I admire. I think it’s the opposite of everything journalists should aspire to.
  • But there seem to be guys like him in every political media environment the world over. We could have done worse than Armstrong. He did occasionally rebuke Clark and Key when their contempt for democracy and law and process became too egregious. And everyone I know who worked with him liked and respected him deeply.
  • Armstrong does not seem to have been very interested in politics as it relates to government or policy or law or economics or anything that most political actors are interested in. His columns were almost exclusively about the theatre of politics, especially Question Time. Who performed well? Who had the best lines? How artfully did the Prime Minister avoid saying anything? Most journalists have some curiosity about objective truth. ‘What really happened?’ Not Armstrong. In his final column he articulates his belief that politics is a game and he enjoys seeing how it is played, which is a fair summary of his approach to the subject. Facts never had a place in his work. His view of politics is one in which substance is nothing and style is everything. The real-life consequences of ‘the game’ are irrelevant.
  • This indifference to truth and enthusiastic celebration of spin and distortion is also, I think, the opposite of everything political commentary is supposed to be about. Governments have enormous resources to spin and obfuscate. Under Key this is mainly what the government does. If the press gallery isn’t there to debunk all of the propaganda and spin then it has no purpose.
  • There’s no obvious replacement for Armstrong’s role in the political media ecosystem. Key prefers to communicate directly with voters through soft media outlets where his messaging is even less challenged than in Armstrong’s columns. This propaganda model is so effective his heirs will all do the same. Lying to a large number of voters more effectively is the kind of ‘playing the game’ that Armstrong has always celebrated, so I think he’d have to admire this change.

51 Comments »

  1. “If the press gallery isn’t there to debunk all of the propaganda and spin then it has no purpose.”

    No, I don’t think so. It’s main role is to report on the propaganda and spin, sometimes with approval and sometimes not. Press gallery journalists get most of their information from politicians and other press gallery journalists, few of whom are experts on policy and its impact. They live in a relatively closed ecosystem in which facts are not so much scorned as irrelevant, other than the triennial poll on who gets to hold power for the next three years. They have no ability to generate perceptive journalism on the substance of what the public sector actually does. Back in the day their journalism was supplemented by specialist reporters who did know stuff about the public sector other than the information they received from politicians. This provided readers with a richer context in which to develop an understanding of how the world works. Its not that the specialist reporters were wonderful journalists but that they provided a different view of things that their political counterparts could use as a form of quality control. This has nothing to do with political ideology but simply the changing economics of journalism.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 18, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  2. No, I don’t think so. It’s main role is to report on the propaganda and spin, sometimes with approval and sometimes not

    That’s true of the reporters. Armstrong was a political commentator though. There’s a Heather du Plessis-Allan column in the Herald today debunking the spin around the Key-Turnbill meeting and it contains more wisdom about politics than the last ten years of Armstrong’s columns put together.

    Comment by danylmc — October 18, 2015 @ 8:36 am

  3. Well, I’ve read it now and think it is what it says on the box, a classic fact free political racehorse opinion column that you can agree or disagree with but which doesn’t have enough purchase on reality to provide genuine insight. It just means Heather thinks Turnbull and Key are dissembling toe rags. One of her counterparts such as John Armstrong, could write something that says exactly the opposite and we would have, within their columns, nothing that could assist us to agree or disagree with them other than, of course, our existing prejudices. Listening to Turnbull yesterday (accidentally, I might add), it seemed that the Australians will now look at individual circumstances when considering deportation, including existing family ties and the length of time the offenders have lived there. Which when considering people this issue applies to people who have served jail term of a year or more, seems about all you can expect. As to the Xmas Island stuff which sounds to me like bureaucracy gone mad rather than a political decision, I did not hear the detail, but ending that seems a no brainer for both countries and is a test of the quality of the discussion by the two PMs.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 18, 2015 @ 9:39 am

  4. “His columns were almost exclusively about the theatre of politics, especially Question Time. Who performed well? Who had the best lines? How artfully did the Prime Minister avoid saying anything? Most journalists have some curiosity about objective truth. ‘What really happened?’ Not Armstrong. In his final column he articulates his belief that politics is a game and he enjoys seeing how it is played, which is a fair summary of his approach to the subject. Facts never had a place in his work.”

    This is an excellent summary of what Armstrong did in his columns and why I often found them superficial. Unfortunately the only political journalist in the press gallery that does more than this is Andrea Vance. It is the reason that National have been able to get away with such poor performance in their portfolios and so many lies. The Nats can afford to buy excellent spin – it is a shame that journalists like Armstrong seems to think this makes them admirable.

    Comment by Karen — October 18, 2015 @ 11:20 am

  5. Reblogged this on Talking Southern Auckland and commented:
    An interesting post and one I tend to agree with for the most if not all of it.

    As a reader, consumer and a person active in politics in this country I had very little time for Armstrong’s columns for the reasons listed in the original post.

    If I want comment on the Theatre of Parliament I will go find that myself watching the circus that is Question Time.

    Reporting, analysing and critiquing is what I am looking for with our Central and even Local politics hence I looked else where for it.

    Comment by Ben Ross - Talking Auckland — October 18, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

  6. “Unfortunately the only political journalist in the press gallery that does more than this is Andrea Vance.”

    Gimme a break, Andrea Vance is a perfectly competent graduate of UK tabloid journalism – News of the World, I think – which is traditionally heavy on attitude and light on substance. Her work at the Dom Post is entirely in this vein and she has no more ability to get beneath the surface than Patrick Gower or Duncan Garner. What you probably mean is that Vance’s columns match up with your prejudices and Armstrong’s don’t.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 18, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

  7. What HDPA and Andrea Vance do that Armstrong didn’t is go beneath the surface, even slightly, and say ‘The things our leaders are telling us probably aren’t true.’ Armstrong rarely went there, presumably because our leaders were all people he had valuable working relationships with.

    I don’t look for ideological compatibility with columnists – as I’ve said before, I think Hooton is currently our best political commentator, and he’s the polar opposite to me in terms of values. But he understands how politics works, I think, and why things happen the way they do. Apparently Armstrong was like that in person. My wife worked with him in the press gallery and said he was a political savant, that he knew everything, she deeply respected him. But none of it ever went into the columns because that would have been too awkward for everyone.

    Comment by danylmc — October 18, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

  8. …and say ‘The things our leaders are telling us probably aren’t true.’

    But you praise an article that is long on opinion, dripping in sarcasm and short on facts.

    It’s extremely easy to portray politicians as dishonest and it’s not like there aren’t a lot of voices saying exactly that.

    Armstrong writes a particular point of view, sometimes I think it’s interesting, sometimes not.

    Personally, there are very very few journalists that I read expecting to find something informative, something that might change my opinion. Mostly I can guess what they will say from what they’ve written in the past.

    Comment by NeilM — October 18, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

  9. @Karen “It is the reason that National have been able to get away with such poor performance in their portfolios and so many lies.”

    No that is the fault of the opposition not holding the Ministers to account. Nothing an editor likes more than a politician caught under performing or telling a lie. Have a look at the Minister of Corrections having the blow torch applied about the issues at Mt Eden when an opposition MP in Kelvin Davies held him to account…

    Comment by dave1924 — October 18, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

  10. Matthew Hooton is certainly the most interesting at least partly because what he says is informed by his time as a political operative in the Beehive which gives him a sense of context of how decisions are made, an understanding of what happens below the surface of politics and, as a result, a very good bullshit detector. I think the major flaw in his commentary is a view inherited from his period in the Beehive that Governments have to make large dramatic change to be significant or effective. A distinctive point of view is essential if a commentator is to be entertaining and find and hold an audience but it also helps, in my view, if they have a little self awareness about it. Matthew does sometimes but not on topics such in my opinion, as his view of John Key. The former Labour President Mike Williams on the other hand appears to have no sense of self awareness whatsoever in his role as commentator and ends up coming across as a tedious apparatchik ducking and weaving along the party line. As a result he never says anything revelling or interesting. He’s only there for one purpose and it’s not to inform or entertain a listener or reader. Rob Salmond is trying hard but the secret to his counterpart David Farrar’s success is his ability, like Hooton, to both support and attack (and laugh at) his own side.I see no sign that Salmond is getting the hang of that yet.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 18, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

  11. 6.”What you probably mean is that Vance’s columns match up with your prejudices and Armstrong’s don’t”

    I suspect your own prejudices are showing here Tinakori. I read Vance because she always backs up any opinion with research. I don’t care if she once worked for the News of the World, I have made my judgement on her work over recent years. I have no idea what her political leanings are, I just appreciate that she does more than go for the superficial gotcha moments beloved of most of the press gallery, particularly Gower.

    Hooton is a spin doctor for the right – no more than that.

    Comment by Karen — October 18, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

  12. I’d say also that Vance got a wake-up call when she found out she was being wiretapped. On that note, are messengers of the 4th Estate generally afraid of crossing the Government of the day, for fear of being ‘trespassed’, as happened between Rob Muldoon and Tom Scott in the early 1980s?

    Comment by Kumara Republic — October 18, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

  13. Tinakori: “Rob Salmond is trying hard but the secret to his counterpart David Farrar’s success is his ability, like Hooton, to both support and attack (and laugh at) his own side.I see no sign that Salmond is getting the hang of that yet.”

    We’re getting a fair bit of it from Josie Pagani and Phil Quin.

    Comment by Kumara Republic — October 18, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

  14. .I see no sign that Salmond is getting the hang of that yet.

    My thoughts since Labour were defeated was they should tone down the rhetoric – Key hates the children, planet etc – and go for we’re reasonable and competent. It’s been an unpopular view but I’ve yet to see the current approach have much of an effect.

    It’s possible that narrowness of approach is amplified these days by the internet and how well the Shonkey thatnice man Mr Key approach goes down with the middle class at their keyboards.

    Comment by NeilM — October 18, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

  15. I think the major flaw in his commentary is a view inherited from his period in the Beehive that Governments have to make large dramatic change to be significant or effective.

    The major flaw in Hooton’s commentary is his outrageous bias and overt use of his platform as a commentator to carry out vendettas against his enemies. But we’re all biased. One of the reasons I dislike Armstrong is that I’m a Green supporter and he loathed the Greens, but he was never as upfront as Hooton. It was all hidden behind stock weasel phrases: ‘Some say,’ or ‘Voters will think.’

    Comment by danylmc — October 18, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

  16. I’d have to agree with Danyl that there’s nothing amiss with political bias per se, but there’s something amiss with partisanism dressed up as impartiality. At least with Matthew Hooton et al, we’re getting the real deal.

    Comment by Kumara Republic — October 18, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

  17. “I suspect your own prejudices are showing here Tinakori.”

    Thanks for the”suspect” it suggests you registered my “probably”. We’ll have to agree to disagree on both Andrea Vance and Matthew Hooton. Matthew is rather more than a just right wing spin doctor given how frequently he slags off National and praises left wingers when he thinks they are doing or have done a good job. Didn’t he recently describe Helen Clark as our greatest PM? Clearly, hyperbole and provocation are also central to his style.

    “The major flaw in Hooton’s commentary is his outrageous bias and overt use of his platform as a commentator to carry out vendettas against his enemies.”

    His enemies might say that is a major flaw in his personality and simply displayed in his columns.

    “We’re getting a fair bit of it from Pagani and Phil Quin.”

    Yep, but only at the risk of being named as enemies of the people and neither provides an insight into how Labour works and thinks now other than recounting the various attempts to shut them up or marginalise them. David Farrar is a former and current insider and while Matthew Hooton has suffered several attempts at excommunication he still has a sense of how National does things.

    And having been part of a party in power or out is no guarantee that it will make your work as a journalist or commentator better. Veteran left wing journalist Gordon Campbell worked for Jim Anderton when Anderton was a Minister but there is no sense in his current work that the experience had an impact on his understanding of how politics works.

    Sometimes political commentators are particularly good at dealing with a part of the political spectrum. Colin James was always excellent I thought on Labour because he was one of the first of the commentators to take seriously the rise of women in Labour and had good relationships with the key figures in the party during the rise and reign of Helen Clark .

    Comment by Tinakori — October 18, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

  18. “I don’t look for ideological compatibility with columnists”

    Even the most partisan of us rarely deliberately search out ideological compatability. The mechanism by which people end up in an echo chamber is a bit more subtle than that.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 18, 2015 @ 11:09 pm

  19. The mechanism by which people end up in an echo chamber is a bit more subtle than that.

    You reckon? From the defence mounted here by Armstrong’s fanboys, it appears to be as simple as confusing journalism with the art of the bedtime story.

    Comment by Joe W — October 19, 2015 @ 1:55 am

  20. @Joe: Well, I said “a bit”.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 19, 2015 @ 2:42 am

  21. He’s retiring due to ill health, so I would be loathe to compound his current distress by shit-canning his career.

    Comment by Lee Clark — October 19, 2015 @ 7:57 am

  22. He’s retiring due to ill health, so I would be loathe to compound his current distress by shit-canning his career.

    I did think about that. I’ve been critiquing Armstrong’s writing on this blog for years, and when I met him briefly last year he had no idea who I was. I think the criticism of a non-entity like me is even less likely to trouble him in retirement. But with most of Parliament canonizing him I thought it’d be useful to have an outsiders overview of what someone outside the institution thought of his work.

    Comment by danylmc — October 19, 2015 @ 8:08 am

  23. >em>a non-entity like me

    Don’t be so modest.

    Comment by Ross — October 19, 2015 @ 9:21 am

  24. “Don’t be so modest.”

    This is the guy who aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to Nate Silver we’re talking about.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 19, 2015 @ 9:50 am

  25. This is the guy who aspires to be New Zealand’s answer to Nate Silver we’re talking about.

    Is that a bad aspiration to have? Of course, the lack of data in NZ makes it impossible to realise … .

    Comment by Flashing Light — October 19, 2015 @ 10:32 am

  26. My wife worked with him in the press gallery and said he was a political savant, that he knew everything, she deeply respected him. But none of it ever went into the columns because that would have been too awkward for everyone.

    Rather than being “too awkward” doesn’t it just reinforce the notion that Armstrong is a thoroughly venal character?

    I mean, I get the notion that he was more interested in political theatre than politics itself, but it’s take a special kind of moral cynicism and moral cowardice to deeply understand political machinery and have a platform to educate people about it, but then consciously make a choice not to, and instead, make a living by being a propagandist masquerading as a journalist.

    There’s nothing respectable or admirable in that.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 19, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

  27. sorry “cynicism and moral cowardice”

    Comment by Gregor W — October 19, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

  28. “Is that a bad aspiration to have?”

    It’s not necessarily bad, but give the extraordinarily high prestige that Silver enjoys among non-academic political circles, it’s hardly modest.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 19, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

  29. Is that a bad aspiration to have?

    Good point! Also, too, I do not actually have this aspiration.

    Comment by danylmc — October 19, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

  30. You’re right, Danyl, I misremembered. You did compare yourself to Silver, but no in a way that implied you aspired to be comparable to him.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 19, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

  31. it’s take a special kind of moral cynicism and moral cowardice to deeply understand political machinery and have a platform to educate people about it, but then consciously make a choice not to, and instead, make a living by being a propagandist masquerading as a journalist.

    Being an insider is tricky. You do it by building up all these relationships and that gains you all the insights, and the last thing you want to do is burn them all off by exposing what you know.

    ‘Access journalism’ can work. Patrick Wintour does great work on UK Labour. Check out his account of the doomed Miliband campaign. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jun/03/undoing-of-ed-miliband-and-how-labour-lost-election

    Armstrong never wrote anything remotely as insightful as that. And his super-insider status didn’t help him with his forecasting. David Shearer was not a successful leader. The voters didn’t get rid of MMP in the 2011 referendum. New Zealand First is not dying – contra Armstrong it has never been stronger.

    Comment by danylmc — October 20, 2015 @ 5:17 am

  32. You did compare yourself to Silver

    Where’d I do that?

    Comment by danylmc — October 20, 2015 @ 5:20 am

  33. https://dimpost.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/more-noise/

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 20, 2015 @ 6:36 am

  34. Maybe I’m a bit stupid. That link sure does say that I read Silver’s book and that Peter Green’s code does something similar to Silver’s polling model, but if you could quote the specific text where I compare myself to Nate Silver, like you said, that’d be great.

    Comment by danylmc — October 20, 2015 @ 7:09 am

  35. “… but the secret to his counterpart David Farrar’s success is his ability, like Hooton, to both support and attack (and laugh at) his own side…”

    Farrar is a viciously authoritarian courtesan to the neoliberal political establishment, with the sort of superficial charm that only those that lack an interest in Danyl’s objective truth would find appealing. Personally, i judge a man on the company he keeps.

    Comment by Sanctuary — October 20, 2015 @ 8:05 am

  36. When I read it you appeared to be saying that you felt bad about your commentary because you were not of the high standard that Nate Silver set.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 20, 2015 @ 8:05 am

  37. Farrar is a viciously authoritarian courtesan to the neoliberal political establishment, with the sort of superficial charm that only those that lack an interest in Danyl’s objective truth would find appealing

    Yeah! Wait – my what?

    Comment by danylmc — October 20, 2015 @ 8:25 am

  38. …his super-insider status didn’t help him with his forecasting. David Shearer was not a successful leader. The voters didn’t get rid of MMP in the 2011 referendum. New Zealand First is not dying – contra Armstrong it has never been stronger.

    Not to mention his militant assumption of the rabbit in the headlights posture over anything to do with Judith Collins.

    Comment by Joe W — October 20, 2015 @ 8:54 am

  39. Goddamit. Link for above: https://dimpost.wordpress.com/2009/03/10/armstrong-on-collins-matthews/

    Comment by Joe W — October 20, 2015 @ 8:55 am

  40. Being an insider is tricky. You do it by building up all these relationships and that gains you all the insights, and the last thing you want to do is burn them all off by exposing what you know.

    No doubt.
    But to your point – that tightrope can be walked successfully and journalistic integrity is maintained – is the key.
    Armstrong has chosen to take the easy, ethically bankrupt path over the course of his career.

    This makes him the worst kind of flack-hack and either;
    (i) so unthinkingly partisan as to completely undermine any native ability to perform impartial, reasoned or accurate analysis within sphere that he is supposedly an expert in, or
    (ii) immeasurably cynical and very conscious of what he does but doesn’t give a fuck.

    Whatever his motivation, this ‘achievement’ should neither be celebrated nor respected.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 20, 2015 @ 9:59 am

  41. @kalvarnsen,

    When I read it you appeared to be saying that you felt bad about your commentary because you were not of the high standard that Nate Silver set.

    The post you linked to reads:

    “… because I’ve been reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and one of the comments in it – about the surfeit of information about the political process means that political commentators tend to just pick the datapoints that confirm their pre-existing biases – hit close to home. That’s me! And most everyone else on the blogosphere.

    Having recognised the fundamental flaws underpinning his postings, Danyl then says that he’d “like” to do a better job of analysis (in the same way I’d “like” to be fit enough to complete an ironman race) … but it ain’t gonna happen. Which is hardly the sort of “aspiring to be Nate Silver” that you meant.

    I realise that you’ve kinda appointed yourself as the resident repeater of “Memento mori” into Danyl’s shell-like ear, but you’re plain wrong on this occasion. The classy thing would be to withdraw and apologise.

    Comment by Flashing Light — October 20, 2015 @ 10:38 am

  42. ‘Access journalism’ can work. Patrick Wintour does great work on UK Labour. Check out his account of the doomed Miliband campaign.

    That highlights another problem not only with Armstrong, but with the press gallery in general. None of them can write.

    There is almost no long-form background journalism, and nobody writes books. Hagiographies (Roughan) don’t count. Hager’s books should count, but he’s an activist and outsider. In overseas democracies the political editors get published, and you can learn plenty about Downing Street and the White House from the bookshelves, not just columns that disappear daily.

    Of course it’s partly due to population/economics here, but still. I suspect even if you gave Patrick Gower a J.K.Rowling-sized advance, he still couldn’t do the words thing.

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — October 20, 2015 @ 11:34 am

  43. And here’s the perfect example of how the gallery fail. Tracey Watkins’s job is to distinguish between real and fake. Between what the politicians don’t want us to know (= information), and what they want us to hear (= spin). That’s basically her job description. But she can’t (or can’t be bothered to):

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/73194147/john-key–keeping-it-real-is-the-prime-ministers-secret-weapon

    Comment by sammy 3.0 — October 20, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

  44. I think John Armstrong is/was actually a pretty good writer. But, like you said, he never put it to work to do anything meaningful with his talent. His final piece is a good example, He remembers various major events from his time in the gallery but he doesn’t draw any conclusions from them, or trace an arc, or arrive at anything meaningful, except that he reckons Clark and Key were the best Prime Ministers. He was just physically there, which was the bare minimum of his job description.

    Comment by danylmc — October 20, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

  45. “Farrar is a viciously authoritarian courtesan to the neoliberal political establishment, with the sort of superficial charm that only those that lack an interest in Danyl’s objective truth would find appealing. Personally, i judge a man on the company he keeps.”

    Haha! That’s wonderfully florid. Like the worst of Hunter S Thompson, and H L Mencken with a touch of the banality of Chris Trotter. Well done, Sanctuary, you have future in parody, although I have always had the sneaking suspicion you are a character created by Danyl.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 20, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

  46. Maybe Mike Hosking could take his place.

    Comment by bosun — October 20, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

  47. “I realise that you’ve kinda appointed yourself as the resident repeater of “Memento mori” into Danyl’s shell-like ear, but you’re plain wrong on this occasion. The classy thing would be to withdraw and apologise.”

    I definitely did misremember that post. Apologising seems kind of over the top, though.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 21, 2015 @ 2:45 am

  48. kalvarnsen – the Fonz of the Dimpost community: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwkU8-d1gIk

    Comment by Flashing Light — October 21, 2015 @ 7:50 am

  49. I wish!

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 21, 2015 @ 7:52 am

  50. @ Danyl (22) I hear you, The accusation leveled at you, and I wasn’t suggesting that your summary was doing that, I agreed with it, and it was a reasonable summary, imo. This site is a better reflection of how reasonable many can be as opposed to how mean some people can be, when it is compared to other sites.

    For the two above: The best “Happy Days” quote (apropos of nothing) was when Ralph Malph’s relative came on (he was an optician) and declared: “I’m sorry I’m late, I just fell into my lens grinder and made a spectacle of myself!” (Marx would have been proud).

    Comment by Lee Clark — October 24, 2015 @ 7:44 am

  51. oh, …. for Sanctuary, (protector of the ‘precariat’) – I refer, of course, to Groucho,

    Comment by Lee Clark — October 24, 2015 @ 7:48 am


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