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John Armstrong – a person worth disagreeing with

Written By: - Date published: 9:14 am, October 17th, 2015 - 23 comments
Categories: journalism, Politics - Tags: ,

In the pages of The Standard there is one journalist who has generated or been referenced in more posts than any other. Today John Armstrong published his swansong at the NZ Herald. He is losing his long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Like most things that John wrote, it is worth reading.

I come in this post not to praise him as a person, for I barely knew him outside of a few brief encounters at recent party conferences. I come to condemn him for being  the type of political journalist who made it hard for us to shove in a little box.

John Armstrong is an obnoxiously valuable analyst providing documentation of our local political world over the whole 8 years of this sites life. It made it hard to take the easy route, to pin a label on him and then forever to deal with him as we do with lightweight entertainers masquerading as opinion makers. 

More than 500 posts out of our 17,000+ published posts have referenced John Armstrong. They were written by almost every author who has ever written at The Standard. No other journalist or opinion maker comes close.

Last month, after we were informed about his disease, I read many of them. Probably the most evocative for me of the posts on this site was “I understand now“, by Steve Pierson back in 2009. He criticised John Armstrong for a perceived falling quality of his articles.

Over the past few weeks, I and many others have been shocked by the sudden, appalling change in John Armstrong’s writing. Having long been, in my estimation, our best print political commentator, Armstrong has suddenly become confused, nonsensical, and reactionary. The man reads like a National press release. It has been sad and frustrating to see. And it has been inexplicable, until now.

Steve went on to point to the falling standards of journalism at the NZ Herald forced by the circumstances of print journalism which he attributed the fall from grace to…

Now, the editors, in a desperate, futile, self-defeating attempt to stop the slide in circulation, have started to rate their opinion writers on the basis of the letters to the editor, emails, and online comments they generate. And what generates that kind of public reaction? Not smart writing. No, provocative, extreme, tabloid-style writing is what gets the angry letters and the dittoheads out.

And

So here’s my theory. I reckon that Armstrong has seen the writing on the wall. Get controversial or lose your job in the next, looming, round of job cuts. So, it’s out with skillful and informative writing; Armstrong has released the Tory-boy within. You can understand: the man’s trying to protect his livelihood. But at what a cost.

Of course this site started in August 2007 in the waning of the 5th Labour government and, while this is all true from the labour movement perspective of the authors of this site, I think it was probably an incorrect analysis.

I have a different theory. I think that John Armstrong just likes government. Strong government. And generally he focused mainly on the people who cause it to happen at any particular point in time. He was extremely unenthusiastic about the things that he thought would disrupt that.

Unlike Steve, I remember the paeans that that John Armstrong penned to the 5th Labour government in the early 2000s. After the political shipwreck that was the Shipley government, any government was better.

But John’s enthusiasm bewailed the requirements of MMP. Those meant that Labour added parties like the fractious Alliance on board in government with them. For instance in his analysis of the coalition agreement between Labour and the Alliance in 1999 was instructive about how he views government.

It certainly wasn’t limited to parties of the left. John Armstrong has an almost instinctive distrust of Winston Peters and NZ First. For me that was exemplified by the almost visible spitting of his short article about Winston Peters victory in Northland earlier this year. I am sure that John Armstrong viewed Winston as being the dark angel of government destruction after the events of 1997 and 2007.

But back to my reference post. Like other authors since, Steve had to revise his opinion. In fact, Steve just had to add this addendum to his post on the same day.

[Update: all that notwithstanding, Armstrong’s piece today critiquing the Treasury briefing to English is good

For me that sums up John Armstrong. You might disagree with his conclusions and his overall conservative viewpoint. But it was damn hard to disagree with him when he had one of those breath taking insights into the politics of this country – at all levels.

In this case John Armstrong was stalking the inferences of the briefing papers from treasury to the incoming Minister of Finance, Bill English.

It is also easy to be wise in hindsight. Not in this case, however. Even in November, the prognosis for the global economy was bleak. It was pretty obvious what the new Government’s top priority was going to be – economic survival. The briefing paper instead shows Treasury so consumed with rearranging the deckchairs, it misjudged the size of the iceberg.

I disagreed then and now with John about the effectiveness of Bill English’s tax cuts in April 1st 2009 in  stimulating the economy. Essentially they didn’t stimulate squat. It was obvious that the tax money was being taken from the poor and generously donated to the rich, and not likely to be transported  into stimulating the local economy. Instead it went straight into paying back debt to overseas banks.

But as he said, for National there was no political choice

It would not only have left National breaking an election promise. It would have provoked charges that National was doing nothing to stimulate the economy, relying instead on Labour’s tax cuts of last October, Michael Cullen’s spend-up in last year’s Budget and the Reserve Bank’s loosening of monetary policy.

But that insight into the blind mordancy of the denizens of “The Terrace, Wellington” and everyone else who dealt blows to the orderly process of governance in NZ is the primary and always exasperating feature of John Armstrong.

It is going to be missed in the coming years when he is no longer able to offer it. But he will be around a for a while longer.

As for me, there may be a lot more tweeting and even, God forbid, a blog, and maybe even the occasional contribution to the Herald.

I’m sure we will have more to say on those.

23 comments on “John Armstrong – a person worth disagreeing with”

  1. lprent 1

    Keep the robustness down a little on this one please.

    For those inclined to castigation and nice simple shots, please remember that this is my post and I liked reading John Armstrong’s analysis. I will mourn not having it.

    If you are inclined to simple-minded categorisation then your post is at Open Mike.

  2. Tory 2

    Left or Right, Armstrong was a great writer and his thoughtful columns will be missed.

  3. Blue 3

    I nearly choked when he apologised to David Cunliffe for that column demanding he resign. Better late than never, I suppose.

    Armstrong’s approach to political commentary was, in his own words, focused on the game of power, who was winning and how they did it. It’s not an approach I particularly like, believing that political commentators have a duty to analyse whether the things a government does actually work or not so voters can make more informed choices.

    I’m sorry to hear that he is battling Parkinson’s, and for the loss of his depth of experience, however.

    • geoff 3.1

      Armstrong’s approach to political commentary was, in his own words, focused on the game of power, who was winning and how they did it.

      Agree. Armstrong’s style is to talk about politics as though he were commentating a boxing match.

    • Leftie 3.2

      @Blue
      Not much of an apology when Armstrong downplayed the dirty politics of the Donghua Liu lies that was used to destroy David Cunliffe, as “relatively trivial.” Armstrong still can’t accept responsibility for the large part he himself played in that.

  4. NZSage 4

    Better the devil you know and we all know John Armstrong. We may not have agreed but his writing had depth and he has integrity… a trait so often missing in many that run and support the National Party.

    He will be missed for if the Herald replace him it will surely be with one of the all to familiar, shallow, one eyed journalist that proliferate MSM today.

  5. Ad 5

    Perhaps we could invite him to contribute here.

    He would at least be even handed in his annoyance capacity, and only a very few have his experience.

    He’s from an era in which the state was stronger, and where policy changes in Wellington were something to really take notice of. Personally I miss that the most.

    • lprent 5.1

      I am sure if he wants to then he will tell us and we will happily post it (and probably put some operational moderation on like we do with politicians).

      But Parkinsons is not a kind affliction. I don’t think it will give much room.

  6. RedLogix 6

    The crucial pivot of this article is where Armstrong openly admits:

    Politics boils down to power – winning it and, just as importantly, retaining it. The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game.

    In other words Armstrong, like all other long term Gallery journos, had become embedded in the institution. His fascination for the game meant he forgot it’s purpose. I often got the sense that for all his insider insights – he had taken his eye off the road.

    Too much of our political reporting is about the squabbling and manipulations in the front seat – and be damned where the driver might be taking us.

    I once argued that perhaps we should consider imposing mandatory time limits on the term a given reporter might serve in the Gallery to mitigate this almost inevitable capture by the game of politics rather than it’s substance.

    • lprent 6.1

      The embedding in parliament is why, apart from conflicts of interest, we don’t allow parliamentary journos, staffers, and MPs to author here except in guest posts for MPs.

      Parliament has always more than adequately covered. It is the other, more real and productive areas of our society whose views are inadequately rendered to the rest of NZ.

      But for a political site, we depend on getting insider views about the lawmakers and implementers whose decisions tend of impact so strongly on those with limited voice. The problem is that it takes a lot of comparative experience to be able to do that task. You can see it in the relative depths of the analysis of different journalists in the parliamentary gallery. It relates directly to their years of experience (and the type of media they do – TV journos seem to specialize in being shallow analysts).

      Offhand, in recent years the only journo with limited years in the gallery that I took much notice of was Vance. The others I took notice of were all grizzled veterans of the institution.

      • RedLogix 6.1.1

        I’m conscious that experience does count – but it always seems to come at this cost. The result is that our politicians are rewarded with media oxygen by all the wrong behaviours.

        The Gallery is a very important Parliamentary institution – and I’d argue we are being poorly served by it. How do we go about demanding better?

        • Draco T Bastard 6.1.1.1

          To cater to both points you make it so that journalists can’t get into the gallery until they’ve got five years of journalism covering real economic and social issues first. Then they get a three year term in the Gallery followed by five years back out in the real world.

          Get the experience and the real world grounding.

    • Thinker 6.2

      “The crucial pivot of this article is where Armstrong openly admits:
      Politics boils down to power – winning it and, just as importantly, retaining it. The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game” – Redlogix

      I was also pleased to see Armstrong saying that MMP has lifted democracy in this country.

      Parkinsons is debilitating and must be frustrating. I’d like to add my sympathies.

  7. Colonial Viper 7

    Best wishes to John Armstrong.

  8. ianmac 8

    At the end of a long career I guess one asks oneself was I true to my integrity and did I make a difference? John probably is able to say yes to both though it depends where the reader’s politics lie.
    Best wishes John.

  9. Vaughan Little 9

    I gave up reading him during the runup to last year’s election. still, he’s one of the better writers in nz journalism. knows how to wrangle paragraphs into articles. it strikes me as sad that at the end of his valedictory he notes the decline in voter turnout and then goes on to argue for a change in the flag. it’s like, he doesn’t realize that there’s no nation any more that a flag could meaningfully represent. as a commenter notes above, he was strong on the game but not the wider social implications.

  10. millsy 10

    Parkinson’s is not a disease I would wish on anyone. Best wishes to John and his family.

  11. b waghorn 11

    A very good farewell article by Armstrong it’s just a shame he didn’t elaborate on the Cunniliffe accusations with regards to whether it was a honest mistake or was he meddling in an election campaign.

  12. Jenny Kirk 12

    I am sorry to see John Armstrong go from the Herald’s regular political commentary. I hope he is able to continue in some other form – his insight into the politics, and politicians, of this country will be missed.
    I noted his integrity when in Parliament myself during the turbulent Lange/Douglas power struggle, and I have always appreciated his articles – even when I have disagreed with his opinions.
    I wish him all the best for the future, and what it might hold for him.

  13. Esoteric Pineapples 13

    There’s a “business as usual” and “seen it all vibe” to a lot of New Zealand journalists of Armstrong’s generation. Except it isn’t business as usual. Decisions made in the next few months and years are going to have profound long term consequences. Once liberal journalists have become jaded conservatives incapable of recognising let alone engaging with this new paradigm making their opinions increasingly out of touch with the currents running through society.

  14. Stuart Munro 14

    We could never do the litmus test, but I suspect if Key had rolled into the house with Shearer’s fatal snapper, Armstrong would’ve laughed with, not at him. To me that’s fatal bias. Not a strong analyst or exemplary wordsmith that I saw – though I only saw him late career. This politics stuff affects people in the real world, so horse-race journalism is inevitably second rate.

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