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.