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?

February 1, 2015

And all of it will happen again

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 11:34 am

I feel like people are getting a bit too carried away while diagnosing the inner-most soul of New Zealand over this Eleanor Catton thing. There were nation-wide freak-outs in India when Salman Rushdie criticised Indira Gandhi, and in the US – especially the South – when the Dixie Chicks attacked George W Bush (also, as Craig Ranapia pointed out on twitter, the UK melt-down over Hilary Mantel’s comments about our Kate), and it wasn’t because Indians are ‘a passionless people’ or Americans are ‘a nation of fretful sleepers’, or whatever other vague generalisations about New Zealand people are throwing around. It was because powerful people the world over hate being embarrassed on the international stage, and they always have loyal proxies in the media desperate to be outraged and vicious on their master’s behalf. This sort of stuff happens everywhere.

January 13, 2015

The treachery of images; also, links

Filed under: books,media,satire — danylmc @ 6:28 am

I like this essay by Teju Cole on the issues around Charlie Hebdo and free speech. Also, this piece by Laura Miller questioning whether the critics describing Charlie Hedbo as racist know what they’re talking about. This problem occurred to me yesterday when a bunch of people I know linked approvingly to this column critical of Charlie Hebdo, explaining why its cartoons were racist and offensive, which included this point:

I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover

The ‘self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet ‘ referred to here is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t know a lot about French satire but I do know that this is a dubious way to describe a guy who is arguably the most acclaimed novelist in contemporary French literature, whose last book was a parody of a thriller in which a psychopath gruesomely murdered Houellebecq himself (which won the Goncourt award, the French equivalent of the Booker Prize). His new book Soumission does imagine a France surrendering to Islam. But, via the Guardian’s review:

Some in France have already complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, but that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply mischievous point. Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues, the novel gleefully points out, really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to “traditional” or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband – just as “Islam” means that a Muslim submits to God.

But Soumission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise. François himself happily submits to the new order, not for any grand philosophical or religious reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay much better – and, more importantly, he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envious fantasy, of his charismatic new boss, who has adroitly converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things … no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”

The novel ends in an almost science-fictional conditional mood, with François looking forward dreamily to his own conversion and a future of endless sensual gratification.

Houellebecq’s previous book was called The Map and the Territory, which is ironic because him and a lot of what’s happening in France are now subject to a classic map-territory problem: we’re confusing descriptions of what’s happening for the events themselves. It’s a reminder that the pundits confidently translating French (and Islamic) culture for us so they can tell us what to think about it all don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

January 9, 2015

Brief thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 8:16 am
  • Some people get really excited when things like this happen. It validates their desire for the west and liberal democracy to be locked in an existential ‘clash of civilisations’ with Islam. (Newspaper editors get all excited too, since attacks on other news outlets lets them indulge a fantasy that they’re heroes upholding western civilisation instead of businesses who market their products with stories about car-crash victims and Princess Kate.)
  • Obviously there are people living in western democracies whose beliefs are in conflict with ideals like pluralism and freedom of speech. The guys who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre; right-wing terrorists like Anders Breivik who murdered about eighty people, mostly teenagers in Norway in 2011 because he thought he was at war with ‘the left’ and ‘multiculturalism’. These people are frightening but the chances of them prevailing in a war of ideas against western democracy are zero. They’re a challenge to the police and state security services, not to our values or our future, and we certainly don’t need to go to war with the demographics these people pretend to represent.
  • Cartoons making fun of Mohammad have become a focal-point for issues of free speech in Europe. Which is a shame. People have the right to draw and publish these cartoons without fear of reprisal; but Europe’s Muslims are mostly a poor, powerless, disenfranchised group of people subject to racism and Islamophobia. Publishing cartoons specifically designed to mock and offend them as much as possible just to prove that you can seems like a not-great use of the right to free speech.
  • European and other western media outlets are now locked into a debate about publication of these images framed by violent Islamic radicals. Do you not show these images, and let mass-murderers dictate the limits of free speech? Or re-publish them and compound the insult to an already marginalised group of people, thus empowering the groups who perpetuate these attacks? This debate and dynamic is great for both radical Islamic militants and racist far-right politicians, but bad for pretty much everyone else.

December 8, 2014

Liberal media watch, Sunday edition

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 2:30 pm

There’s been a big debate on twitter about Judith Collins’ Sunday Star Times column. The column itself is here, and it is about concrete fiber board. It is possibly the most boring thing there has ever been a twitter debate about.

Some people are upset about the column because they feel Judith Collins is disgraced: Oravida, her role in Dirty Politics, etc. I don’t have a problem with disgraced political columnists per se. After all, Rodney Hide has a column. (And I note there’s no left-wing columnist at the Herald on Sunday to balance out Hide’s weekly screed about how wonderful John Key is). But Collins was disgraced partly because of her alleged role in manipulating the media, so giving her a national newspaper column seems ethically perverse. Maybe the huge consumer demand for copy about fiber board will make up for the revenue shortfall from readers who care about ethics?

Anyway, the SST has promised that they’re hiring a new left-wing columnist to balance things out. Their identity is a surprise, presumably because the editor also doesn’t know who his new columnist will be yet, only conceiving of his need for one when left-wing readers of his newspaper went nuts at him on Twitter when they heard about Collins.  (I have this ominous suspicion it will be Laila Harre, who will be keen to paint herself as the voice of the left after winning less than 10,000 votes for her Internet Party in the election, and will be also be eager to continue her grudge against Labour and the Green Party in print.)

I do have a few problems with the SST appointing Collins. One is that – as Finlay Macdonald said on Twitter – the media is supposed to be holding MPs – especially government MPs – to account, not giving them jobs. Also, the government already has a huge platform to communicate to the public. They get tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to tell us what they think, and what they’re doing, and why. Is it really the role of the media to give these very privileged, very powerful people even more of a platform to disseminate government propaganda? And then there’s the way the SST went about this. Collins’ column isn’t on the opinion page. It’s on the news page next to a story about the same subject, running the same lines as Collins. That’s a hell of a way to blur the lines and contaminate the SST’s entire product.

So various people on Twitter are calling for boycotts and canceling their subscriptions. I’m not quite there yet. Not over a column about concrete fiber board. But I’m thinking about it, and encourage anyone else troubled by all this to do the same. Various journalists on twitter are up in arms over this suggestion: ‘What about all the good content in Fairfax papers? What if good people lose their jobs, etc?’

Here’s my question to them. The Dirty Politics saga was a media scandal as much as a political scandal. What are people who are offended by it supposed to do, exactly, when they’re confronted by an editor like the SST’s Jonathan Milne, who is cheerfully demonstrating that not only has he learned nothing, but that he’s determined to keep pushing the barrow out, get dirtier, make his little corner of the media more sleazy, more compromised, more biased? Canceling your subscription is pretty much the only power we have.

September 25, 2014

Making things slightly better

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 8:41 am

Keith Ng has a post up about what he feels was poor media coverage of the Dirty Politics saga. I thought the reporting of Hager’s book was mostly pretty great. National didn’t get re-elected because ‘the media failed’. It got re-elected because the wider public didn’t think that the revelations in Dirty Politics were important enough to get rid of a Prime Minister that they feel is performing well and replace him with a bunch of maniacs.

What isn’t great is that the book exposed problems with the media and how adept the right is at manipulating it which don’t seem like they’re being addressed or even being acknowledged. So here are a couple of quick, off-the-top-of-my-head proposals into how I think political media can redeem themselves in the aftermath of Dirty Politics: 

  • If political commentators have a commercial relationship with a political party then they should be described as a ‘National Party Operative’, or a ‘Labour Party Operative’. David Farrar isn’t a ‘blogger’, or ‘political commentator’, or even ‘right-wing blogger’ or ‘right-wing commentator’ who can then turn around and grin and say ‘Shucks! I don’t make any secret of the fact that I support National!’ when someone challenges him about his links with the party. He’s a National Party Operative, and so are the rest of National’s eager little helpers who do ‘media training’ or ‘communications consultancy’ for National and then run around the radio stations and political shows advocating for the National Party. Same goes for Labour, obviously, and the Greens and every other party out there. And if someone can’t comment on their political clients because their work is ‘commercial in confidence’ then they shouldn’t be a public commentator
  • Anonymous sources for stories should be described as accurately as possible without compromising the anonymity of the source. No more ‘insiders’ or ‘party sources’. Tell us if something came from an MP or the leader’s office. That gets to the heart of the ‘two tier’ technique described in Dirty Politics. If the National Party wants to smear Labour or some other enemy then by all means, let em – but the story needs to be attributed. If the New Zealand Herald’s story on Donghua Liu came from the Prime Minister’s Office then the New Zealand public should know that. No more completely anonymous sources attacking their political enemies without attribution. And if an anonymous source lies to the media then that source’s identity should be revealed. Journalists should protect the identity of their sources but they don’t owe anything to a source that deliberately tricks them into publishing a false story smearing their enemies. Again, looking at you New Zealand Herald and Donghua Liu reporters.
  • Journalists will balk at that. ‘If they don’t let parties smear each other anonymously then they’ll lose the story to another media outlet who will!’ The problem with that is that it means that the ethics of the entire industry are held to the standard of the least ethical people in it. I think political parties will still leak to you under these conditions – especially if there’s a consensus on this issue – it’ll just mean that our politics is a little bit less scummy and awful than it was during Slater’s reign.

September 12, 2014

Dirty tricks and anonymity

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 12:24 pm

This story is in the Dom-Post today:

Labour candidate Anna Lorck has apologised profusely for parking her branded vehicle in a mobility car park in Hastings.

Lorck’s SUV was seen parked in the designated car park outside the Ellwood Function Centre, where she was attending a meeting of farmers.

Lorck is the Labour candidate for Tukituki, which takes in Hastings, Havelock North and Flaxmere.

She was “genuinely very sorry” and had “absolutely no intention to park there”.

“I had no idea. It was dark and I didn’t notice the signage. I was late and I arrived just before it started. The car park was full and I saw the car park and just parked,” she said.

If someone had let her know she was in a mobility park, she would have moved.

“If I had noticed someone else parked there I’d have let them know.”

Her actions came to light this week, after The Dominion Post was shown a photograph of the incident, which happened on June 19.

I think that a candidate parking in a disabled car-park speaks to character and its okay for journalists to write a story about it. But I’m interested in that last sentence. The incident happened three months ago and now in the last eight days of the election campaign someone has shown the Dom-Post a picture of it. Who? We don’t know, and given what this campaign has been about that seems like – potentially – a way bigger deal than the original story.

Because it seems really, really, really likely that this story came from the National Party, doesn’t it? If so, why has the Dom-Post decided to grant their source anonymity? Why do political parties get to be anonymous when they’re smearing their political opponents? I mean, given that we’ve just had this HUGE scandal about political parties hiding behind source anonymity to manipulate the media and smear their enemies, it would be nice to see, like, a faint flicker of soul-searching from the media instead of more anonymously sourced smears.

September 1, 2014

New shit has come to light

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 8:43 am

Via Stuff (sorry about quoting so much of your story, guys): 

Judith Collins’ office processed an Official Information Act request in just two days to release an email embarrassing then Serious Fraud Office head Adam Feeley in 2011.

The revelation comes as ripples from the Dirty Politics saga widened during the weekend after a series of bombshells including:

■ Collins stepped down as Justice Minister after an email handed to the prime minister’s office raised questions about her involvement in what leaked emails appear to suggest was a campaign by Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater and others to undermine Feeley while he was SFO boss.

■ Prime Minister John Key confirmed there would be an inquiry into Collins’s actions in relation to Feeley, with details of the inquiry to be announced today.

In October 2011, Feeley was embarrassed after emails leaked by his former prosecutor showed he had toasted the prosecution of Bridgecorp managing director Rod Petricevic with Champagne obtained from the offices of the failed finance company.

Emails obtained by Fairfax Media, alongside one released by the PM’s office, appeared to show controversy over the incident was in part stoked by Slater and fellow blogger Cathy Odgers who had talked of being being paid – it appeared from the emails – by Hanover Finance’s Mark Hotchin to attack the SFO.

The allegation that some insiders – most prominently Matthew Hooton – are putting around is that as-yet-unreleased documents show Collins passing on information about the prosecution to Slater, who then passed it onto Hotchin’s defense team. If that’s true then it will be the biggest corruption scandal in New Zealand politics for many generations (feel free to nominate contenders in the comments). It is hard to imagine that any Justice Minister would be crazy and horrible and dumb enough to do that. On the other hand, Judith Collins tenure as a Minister has mostly been about crazy, horrible dumb things. So we’ll see. 

Putting Collins aside for a moment, the revelation in the email released by John Key reveals some other pretty horrible stuff happening in our political-media culture. Mark Hotchin was under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office so he allegedly hired Graham, Slater and Odgers to smear the head of the office, and several senior journalists in the mainstream media are implicated in that smear campaign. 

Russell Brown has an overview of what happened. Herald journalists Fran O’Sullivan and Jared Savage have published comments on the material in Slater’s leaked email, and O’Sullivan is especially indignant at the suggestion she was collaborating with Slater. I guess it’s just a huge coincidence that Slater wrote in a private email: 

Cathy can outline her contact with Fran O’Sullivan separately. Basically though the Herald and other media are now picking up our lines that this situation is like “Caesar’s Wife” where the SFO must be beyond reproach. If he nicked a bottle of wine what else has he nicked or hidden from receivers and liquidators? …  

And that O’Sullivan then wrote her column entitled ‘More than a storm in a champagne flute‘ vigorously attacking Feeley in exactly the way outlined in the email. Savage wrote six stories about the same subject. There was also a column by Deborah Hill-Cone – who bestowed Slater with his Canon award: 

What does it say to his staff that it is OK to take a bottle of wine from one of the companies you are investigating? If that is OK – hey, it’s only a bottle of wine – what next? 

It would be nice to know what was actually going on here. Did the Herald’s staff know they were collaborating in a PR smear campaign? Jared Savage wrote that it was ‘naive’ of him not to know that he was being manipulated by Slater and Graham. It’s a shame that one of the top investigative journalists in the country is such a trusting, innocent naif.  I think we’re going to hear a lot of this over the next few months. ‘Gee, in retrospect I was wrong to trust Cameron Slater!’ But Slater hasn’t exactly hidden his utter, utter loathsomeness over the years. Pretty much the only nice thing you can say about him is that he’s been totally upfront about how incredibly unethical, sleazy, corrupt and hateful he is. 

Journalists need to hold people like the head of the Serious Fraud Office to account. They need to source their stories, and they source those stories off people with an agenda of their own, and sometimes those sources aren’t nice people, and journalists also need to keep their sources confidential – but it seems really, really wrong for people like Graham, Slater and Odgers to exploit those prerequisites of a free press to make a living conducting vendettas against public servants on behalf of the people they’re investigating. And there seems to be something going on at the New Zealand Herald that makes it very easy for them to be used in these smear campaigns. I hope they try and fix it. 

Update: Fran O’Sullivan wrote: My column was written b4 Slater’s email which quotes my column & NZH editorial.

June 27, 2014

The difference

Filed under: media,Politics — danylmc @ 7:31 am

The Herald editorial is in defensive mode insisting ‘Cries of bias will not stop reporting.’

It is common in election years for political parties under pressure to attempt to shoot the messenger. In 2005, the Herald was stridently criticised and accused of bias by National supporters for our reportage of Dr Don Brash and the Exclusive Brethren. In 2008 it was the turn of Winston Peters and his New Zealand First people to call for resignations of the editor and political editor for the inconvenient revelation of funding from millionaire Owen Glenn, despite his “No” sign. Last election it was National partisans again, livid at the Herald on Sunday and Herald for John Key and John Banks talking openly before a microphone accidentally left on their “cup of tea” table in a cafe.

This year it is the turn of Labour and its leader, David Cunliffe, incensed at reporting on the donations to the party and its MPs by the controversial Chinese migrant Donghua Liu — and that party’s connections to him.

Mr Cunliffe is considering unspecified legal options against the Herald. Party supporters have weighed in with accusations of political bias and complicated right-wing conspiracies.

The Herald is a large and complicated institution. Editorially its a right-wing newspaper that favors National and the ACT Party, and when you talk to journalists who work there they’ll happily admit that, although some of them say things like ‘We are a pro-business newspaper that you might consider right-wing.’ Whatever. Editorially its a right-wing paper.

But its journalism is usually pretty balanced. Just like it says in the editorial, their reporter Jared Savage broke the story about Donghua Liu’s links with Maurice Williamson. They covered the teapot tapes story, and Don Brash’s links with the Exclusive Brethren. When the story about Liu’s donations to Labour broke I thought most of Labour’s senior party figures were going to have to resign, because I took Savage’s journalism seriously.

But the difference, I think, between the stories about Maurice Williamson and Don Brash and the tea-pot tapes is that those stories turned out to be true. There really was a tea-pot tape. Maurice Williamson did phone the police. Don Brash did collaborate with the Exclusive Brethren. But the Herald’s story that Donghua Liu gave Labour $150,000 and that Labour didn’t declare that donation has turned out to be false. Weirdly its the Herald’s own reporting that proved that, but they tried to fudge it and didn’t issue any kind of apology or correction, and they’re still demanding to know what happened to the other $15,000, or $38,000 or however much they still reckon Liu gave Labour, although they have yet to provide a shred of proof that any donation took place.

And maybe I’m a big, wide-eyed conspiracy theorist, but since we know that person who took the false statement from Liu – a major donor to the National Party – passed the information in it onto the Prime Minister several weeks before they gave that statement to the Herald, I’m pretty confident in saying it came from National. If the Herald wants to rule that out – they have NO obligation to protect a source who fed them false information – then they can do so.

But failing that, the sum total of the Liu story is that we have a newspaper with right-wing editorial sympathies who published a false smear story about a left-wing political party fed to them by the government in the immediate run-up to the election. And it’s still ongoing. Yesterday they published a story about a former Labour Party fundraiser called Steven Ching, linking him with Liu and Labour. Ching issued a statement disputing all of the allegations and adding that the Herald never even bothered to contact him to check their story. At this point in the train-wreck you’d think they’d be a little more cautious.

June 18, 2014


Filed under: media,Politics — danylmc @ 5:03 pm

A couple of people asked me on twitter why I thought the David Cunliffe/Lui letter story came from the Nats instead of just being good hard reporting by the Herald journalist. I have a couple of reasons, but one of them is this comment on my blog from yesterday from a guy who helps Cameron Slater co-write WhaleOil:

Within 24 hours the poll are going to be the least of David Cunliffes problems.
Keep an eye on the herald website, we are about to see pledge card theft relegated to second place as the biggest labour funding scandal.

So sure: maybe the Herald shares its exclusive scoops with Slater et al. Or maybe a bunch of Labour MPs decided to backstab their own leader and tip off Slater, who kept quiet about it because he’s such a circumspect guy. But I’m gonna use Occam’s razor here. Slater is part of National’s comms; his web-site is also co-written by a guy in the PM’s office and the simplest explanation is that the PM’s office was behind this and that’s how the guys at WhaleOil knew about it.

I think Occam’s razor is also useful here in solving the mystery of whether Cunliffe deliberately lied about knowing Liu or whether he just forgot about the letter he sent ELEVEN YEARS AGO. He forgot – which is totally reasonable – but Liu has been a major political story for months now, and there have been questions ‘swirling’ around his association with Labour for almost a week. They needed to know about this. To be honest it’s not that unreasonable for Cunliffe’s staff to fail to turn up an electorate letter written when he was a backbencher eleven years ago. But the reality is that National did turn it up and that comes down to deeper issues of strategic acumen and superior organisation coupled with superior media management, which are valid reasons for the Nats to win the election and Labour to lose.

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