It isn’t online yet, but I have included it over the break – a 2,300 word article which was in The Press about political blogs in NZ.
Myself, Steven Price, Russell Brown and Jordan Carter are all quoted. Steven refers to me as “assiduous”, which I had to check in a dictionary to confirm it was what I thought it was
There is plenty there for people to agree or disagree with. I would make the comment that it is a pity I am the only person from the “right” they talked to – especially as they comment critically on other right blogs – why not ask them for comment? Also we see at the end that of the eight blogs listed, only one is from the right, one or arguably two are centrist and five or six are from the left.
What is interesting is how the motivation from some on the left is purely negative – they hate blogging but feel they have to do it, to counter the “right”. Hell the day my motivation for blogging is to “counter” the left is the day I stop blogging. My motivation is to have fun, and have my view on issues I am interested in. Everything else is an added bonus.
BLOGGERS LEFT AND RIGHT
This year’s election could be the time when New Zealand’s burgeoning political bloggers finally make their presence felt. Or will they end up just talking to themselves? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
Who or what killed the Bulletin? When the venerable, ancient Australian news magazine folded last month, the internet was fingered as the prime suspect.
But what exactly was meant by that? Among the sentimental obituaries was some insightful comment from Australian journalist and academic Mark Bahnisch. Readers, he said, consume political news and analysis differently now: there’s less loyalty to titles than to individual commentators and “a premium on the ability to enter into a conversation about political news”.
Welcome, in other words, to the blogosphere. Bahnisch is himself a political blogger of some renown — he contributes to the well-regarded Australian group blog Lavartus Prodeo.
The same trends apply here, although they haven’t yet taken out a significant magazine title. Just as 2004 was the year that the internet broke through in United States politics — the year that candidates and parties began to run blogs, and online journalism had influence — and the Kevin 07 campaign that brought Kevin Rudd to power across the Tasman last year had a significant internet component, so might 2008 be the year of the New Zealand political blogger.
Back in 2005, David Farrar — whose Right-leaning Kiwiblog is one of a handful of must-reads for political junkies — felt that the internet’s influence on the wider electoral process was “minor”. He’s changed his mind since.
Along with a growing number of blogs, and a sense that the internet in general is having more influence on our lives as television and radio’s influence diminishes, there’s been a major development since 2005: the country’s three big daily newspapers — The Press, The Dominion Post and the New Zealand Herald — have all added blogger to the job description of their press-gallery journalists. News stories can now be updated and fleshed out. Opinion, usually forbidden in reporting, can be added. Readers can interact with journalists, asking questions and providing links to other discussions. It’s the very model Bahnisch talked about.
Among these blogger-journalists, commentators single out for praise the Herald’s Audrey Young and The Press’s Colin Espiner. Journalist Russell Brown, whose long-running Hard News won the inaugural best blog at last year’s Qantas Media Awards, respects Espiner for his willingness to take part in the discussions that follow his posts — which is typical for bloggers, but rare for journalists. He’s also good at dealing with the inevitable stirrers and crazies, Brown adds.
Meanwhile, one of Young’s posts from last year will probably go down as a milestone in the history of New Zealand blogging and an example of the form at its best. The post had the timeless, furious headline “I’m bloody angry with (John) Key”. Her beef was over the National leader’s dissembling: he told the Herald one thing about the trans-Tasman therapeutics debate, then claimed he never said it. So Young put the interview transcript online for all to see. “It was good that people could get that directly rather than seeing an unemotional newspaper column the next day,” Farrar says.
But is anyone reading the political blogs besides other bloggers and journalists?
Well, they definitely keep an eye on them in the Beehive, Brown says. “Every now and then you see a line from the blog turn up in a parliamentary speech.”
Helen Clark must be reading the major ones. In December, Clark made a comment that puzzled the blogging community: she complained that political journalists were “rushing to judgment” in their blogs. “I don’t remember the Prime Minister being so critical when the comment was praiseworthy of her government,” Espiner responded.
As well as being immediate, blogs can also show, not just tell — by linking directly to facts and sources. That’s how blogger Keith Ng unpicked Deborah Coddington’s infamous North and South story Asian Angst, revealing Coddington’s prejudices and correcting the statistics. For Brown, that post — which appeared on the Public Address site that also hosts Hard News — would rank as another milestone in Kiwi blogging.
Wellington media lawyer Steven Price also cites, for their research skills, the “assiduous” Farrar and the Left- wing blogger No Right Turn, a politics wonk who has become famous for his detailed parliamentary analysis.
I f that’s political blogging at its best, what does the worst look like? You don’t have to move very far from the centre to find out. Clowns to the Left, jokers to the Right: you get the feeling that if the blogosphere was an ecosystem, the far-Right bloggers would be bottom feeders.
While the same defamation laws apply online as in traditional media, journalistic ethics tend to be less established — but the net usually settles on its own agreed standards. And most bloggers thought that the Act-linked blogger Clint Heine crossed the line last month when he displayed an obscene photoshopped image of Helen Clark on his site. Farrar thought it was “puerile” (and despite the opprobrium that followed, the offending picture was still on Heine’s site weeks later).
An age of new lows? Heine’s image appeared mere days after another Right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater — son of former National Party president John Slater — tested privacy conventions when he put a photo of John Minto’s suburban Auckland house on his Whale Oil blog, to argue that the property-owning Minto can’t really call himself a socialist. Like Heine, Slater is also something of a Clark obsessive: at last count, there were 117 pictures of the Prime Minister in a gallery on his site, many digitally altered.
It only takes a few people to make a big noise online, giving the misleading impression that New Zealand politics is dominated by a loud and angry Right. Trawl through the comments sections of New Zealand blogs and you start to see familiar names whose causes and manners can be identified from their pseudonyms: Redbaiter, Dad4justice, Insolent Prick.
A recent Farrar post about Brown’s plans to host a media show on TVNZ 7 — another good example of how blogging is contributing to mainstream discussion — was quickly followed by comments denouncing Brown as a peddler of “commie propaganda” and the current Labour Government as a “Stalinistic (sic) regime of Leftie Muslim terrorists”. Another typical day in the blogosphere.
Such vehemence has caused Labour Party gay-and-lesbian-sector activist Jordan Carter to become disillusioned. Carter launched his Just Left blog in April 2004. For the first 10 months, debate was “fair spirited and tolerant”. But in February 2005, as the electoral machine lurched to life, things turned nasty. The comments section of Just Left became “a cesspit of malevolence”. For a while, he disabled the comments option; now, he just doesn’t read them.
“Blogging’s dominated by people who aren’t representative at all of either the population demographically or of their political views,” Carter says. “But the influence that community has is much greater than talkback or letters to the editor because it’s instantly accessible from your desk.”
What keeps him online? Ultimately, it’s the same impulse that inspired him to start in the first place: to do something about the Right’s dominance of the blogosphere. As Brown says, “If Act had the presence in the real world that it has in the blogosphere, it would dominate Parliament.”
But the Left is starting to throw it back. Two new Left-leaning blogs — The Standard and Kiwiblogblog — launched last year, and they’re more personal and aggressive in tone, Brown says. Kiwiblogblog’s very mission is in its title: it feeds off and responds to Farrar’s blog. The subject of its vilification claims that he enjoyed its attempts to “psychoanalyse” him early on, but believes it has gone “feral” since (in just the last few days, it has called Farrar a “racist” over some immigration comments, and TVNZ host Paul Henry “disgusting” for his efforts to “turn the attempted plane hijacking of (sic) a mentally unstable woman who happened to be Somali into an ethnic issue”).
“David Farrar does throw out the raw meat,” Brown says, in the Left’s defence. “For all that he’s annoyed by the way that The Standard and Kiwiblogblog go after him, he has for years tolerated that in his discussion forums.”
And if it’s feral, it can also be fun — like watching Labour with its claws out. The loyalty to Clark’s government is strong at Kiwiblogblog and The Standard — no wonder that the Right made such a meal of a Standard gaffe last month. It was revealed that the blog was hosted by a server operated by Labour Party member Lynn Prentice. Coming after the blogging Left’s regular snipes at Farrar over his National links — in the early days of his blogging, Farrar was working in the offices of Bill English and Don Brash, and he has done polling work for the party since — this Labour connection was “a poor look for them”, Brown agrees. But he doesn’t regard it as a scandal.
Recent blog activity has been so overheated and intense, Farrar says, that it is as though the 2008 campaign started in the second half of last year. For Farrar, traffic spiked around the Electoral Finance Act, which he opposed; for Brown, it came after the dropping of terrorism charges for the so-called Urewera 17. Here was the internet doing its job as the town square of the new wired world — “people really did want to talk that through”, Brown says.
And looking further afield, blogging is also having an influence in the current US primaries. Auckland journalism teacher Martin Hirst was watching cable news coverage of the New Hampshire primaries when he noticed that there was a reporter sitting in the studio, reading aloud what the blogs were reporting — The Huffington Post says this, The Daily Kos says that. Clever viewers could have cut out the middleman and gone straight to their computers.
Brown adds that there have been entire teams associated with each primary candidate cruising the comments sections of the top 100 blogs, talking up their bosses — much as party volunteers here have posed as talkback callers or written letters to the editors of newspapers. If you took the comments as gospel, though, you could get a distorted view: “The Ron Paul fan club was just astonishing,” Brown says. “They clearly thought he was God.”
The next stage must be a greater online presence for New Zealand candidates and MPs. Jordan Carter says that in 2005 he advised Labour candidates that there wasn’t much use in them blogging, as their American equivalents had done, if all they could expect to get back was the kind of abuse that he received. His more recent advice has been to approach it with caution.
So who blogs now? Rodney Hide has had one for a while — “a good read” according to Farrar, who thinks it was even better before its author became Act leader. Back then, when Hide had more time on his hands, he had every comment sent to his Blackberry, where he vetted them personally. Farrar adds that Hide understands that a blog isn’t just a place to dump press releases or set out your diary. And John Tamihere had a blog he claimed he wrote himself although, Brown notes, his spelling suddenly took a bad turn when journalist Helen Bain stopped being his press secretary. Russel Norman contributes to the Green Party’s Frogblog, which Farrar rates, despite disliking Norman’s politics — “it allows you to have conversations with a party leader”. Craig Foss, National MP for Tukituki, has what Farrar calls “a cheeky wee blog”. Otherwise, Farrar agrees, blogging is a missed opportunity.
But Hirst, a former Australian press- gallery journalist, agrees with Carter that New Zealand politicians should tread carefully. Yes, the online part of the Kevin 07 campaign was a success, but failure is just as easy.
Ask John Howard, who launched the Liberals’ environment policy on You Tube. “He gave this really awful, wooden performance and it got absolutely lampooned,” Hirst says. “The whole strategy fell apart.”
The trouble with this brave new world is that as soon as something goes online, you risk losing the very thing that no politician likes to lose — control.
RUSSELL BROWN: Hard News
STEVEN PRICE: Media Law Journal:
COLIN ESPINER: On the House:
DAVID FARRAR: Kiwiblog: