I've been following with interest the spirited online debate triggered by a column in which New Zealand Herald political commentator John Armstrong had a whack at bloggers Gordon Campbell and Bryce Edwards. Just back from covering Apec in Vladivostok, Armstrong unburdened himself of some deeply felt grievances over criticism of the mainstream media, and in particular political reporters, in the left-wing blogosphere. Labelling Campbell and Edwards a couple of "old school, Aro Valley-style socialists", Armstrong advised them: "Get off our backs".
What wounded the veteran political journalist were "cheap-shot accusations" that New Zealand reporters in Vladivostok concentrated on trivia, interviewed their laptops and meekly parroted the government line. He went on to bemoan the hardships of such overseas assignments: getting stuck in traffic jams, having to get by with little sleep, coping with technological hiccups, meeting awkward deadlines and clambering on and off buses in 35-degree heat. He went on to argue that, contrary to claims made by Campbell and Edwards, there had been thorough coverage of the Trans Pacific Partnership. He finished by observing that most blogsites depended on the mainstream media for their information and he accused them of being parasites, enjoying a free ride while attacking their hosts.
Armstrong seemed particularly sour about Edwards, an Otago University political scientist whose daily online wrap-up of political news and comment is hosted, as it happens, on the Herald's website. In a cryptic observation, he wrote that Edwards' blog was "starting to develop a much more political dynamic that is unlikely to please National".
It was provocative stuff and all the more notable for seeming to be out of character. Armstrong is normally one of the more detached political commentators, not given to over-the-top pronouncements, and I couldn't help wondering whether it was written while he was suffering fatigue and jet lag from his trip. My own feeling is that it was a lapse of judgment by a journalist who's generally regarded (certainly by me) as being considered, balanced and authoritative. And I wonder whether his comment about the "political dynamic" of Edwards' blog, which naturally was interpreted by most critics (including Campbell) as suggesting Edwards shouldn't be upsetting the government, was simply clumsily worded, and that Armstrong was simply trying to say the blog was taking on a more noticeable anti-National tone.
Whatever the explanation, the column brought forth a blizzard of online comment, most of it denouncing Armstrong - often in savage personal terms - and suggesting that both he and and his paper are supine National Party mouthpieces (which I find amusing, given that many right-wing blogs are just as convinced that the Herald has been captured by the left). The Herald eventually had to shut down the debate and when I last checked, only the first 10 comments were still readable.
Inevitably, both Campbell and Edwards responded. I thought Edwards was admirably restrained and forgiving. He even confessed that he regarded Armstrong as New Zealand's top political journalist (boy, does he know how to make a guy feel bad). Campbell's response was more trenchant, as you might expect, but it was thoughtful, passionate and articulate (again, as you'd expect). Campbell may be less than convincing when he tries to disavow ideological bias (his weekly political columns in Fairfax community papers once made an effort to appear neutral but gave up that pretence long ago), but no one could ever accuse him of lacking intellect or commitment.
So where does all this leave us? My own thoughts, for what they're worth, are that press gallery journalists covering a major overseas political event involving New Zealand present a soft target. I haven't been in that situation myself, but I can understand the limitations. They have to meet tight deadlines, they have limited resources and they are probably largely dependent, for better or worse, on information from people attached to the official New Zealand delegation. They don't have the resources of the Guardian or Wall Street Journal, two of the papers whose coverage Campbell held out as an example of how things should be done. (On the Hard News site, Russell Brown refers to a Reuters report from Vladivostok that was compiled by seven journalists, and comments that New Zealand reporters would look at that sort of resourcing and weep.) Besides, a journalistic variation of the Stockholm syndrome kicks in; whether they're covering sport, politics or whatever, New Zealand reporters on overseas assignments tend to absorb and reflect the "official" New Zealand line, as if it's noble little New Zealand against the world.
On the other hand, it was inevitable that Armstrong's piece would be seen as a little too self-serving, even self-pitying. That's why I think he would have been well advised to sit on his hands, no matter how resentful he felt about blogosphere criticism.