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.
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.