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[caption id="attachment_4808" align="alignleft" width="150"]Dr Bryce Edwards. Dr Bryce Edwards.[/caption]

John Armstrong’s retirement from the parliamentary press gallery has brought a flurry of tributes, as well as some useful reflections and debate on how we understand power and politics.

The retirement of New Zealand’s top political journalist is a big deal. The role John Armstrong has played for 30 years, in analysing power and explaining what’s happening in politics, Parliament and government, has been tremendous. He has helped the nation better understand and make sense of the methods and madness of those who run New Zealand. That is what good political analysis is, and for this reason Armstrong has been at the top of any “must-read” lists for those who want to comprehend what’s going on inside politics.

Armstrong announced his retirement in his final regular column for the Herald – see: A Farewell to all that. In this he gives an overview of his three decades covering parliamentary politics, with plenty of interesting observations. As usual it’s very well written and insightful, and therefore it’s an apt conclusion to his time in the parliamentary press gallery. 

To see the tributes and reactions on Twitter to his retirement, see my blog post, Top tweets in tribute to John Armstrong. This includes tributes from politicians, colleagues, and other followers of politics. 

Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson (‏@rodemmerson) says that Armstrong is “The political writer I’ve most admired”, Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) calls him “NZ’s best political writer”, Guyon Espiner ‏(@GuyonEspiner) says he’s “a hugely influential political journalist, a great writer and a bloody nice guy”, Duncan Garner ‏(@DuncanGarnerNZ) says to Armstrong, “Good luck John, you’re a bloody good man and a brilliant political journalist. I will always look up to you”, Ruth Dyson (‏@ruthdysonmp) says “You have been a courageous and fearless contributor to nz political thinking”, and David Cunliffe ‏(@DavidCunliffeMP) says “Thank you John Armstrong for your insight, thoughtful reflections and your apology today”.

Tributes from the left and right of the blogosphere

It is especially significant that Armstrong is receiving applause and appraisal from across the political spectrum. Of course in the past his analysis has enraged and disappointed all sorts of partisans – and they’ve typically reacted by painting Armstrong as some sort of stooge of either the left or right. 

Therefore it’s of particular interest to read Martyn Bradbury’s tribute, in which he argues that “Armstrong understood power and his political columns were a good inside view to that power” – see: John Armstrong bows out on top and with class.

Bradbury, who must be the loudest critic of the New Zealand mainstream media, says that Armstrong was at his strongest when “he was following the true mission of the Fourth Estate by speaking truth to power”. And as an example, Bradbury cites Armstrong’s public support for Nicky Hager’s work: “He didn’t sweep Nicky Hager’s ‘Other People’s War’ aside – he championed it. He demanded accountability in the wake of Dirty Politics and he chastised the powerful more times than he ignored their abuses of power.”

On The Standard blogsite, Lynn Prentice has written a thoughtful post, John Armstrong – a person worth disagreeing with. Prentice’s believes Armstrong wasn’t necessary hostile to the political left, but “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.”

From the right, David Farrar says “I’ve always regarded his columns as a must read, and I’d be surprised if there has been one in the last 15 years I have not read. The same goes for many around Parliament – the anxious wait to see how Armstrong views the events of the day or the week” – see: Vale John Armstrong.

According to Farrar, it was Armstrong’s shift from being the Herald’s political editor to chief political commentator that meant he was freed up “to be our most regular and astute analyser of Parliament and politics.

Debates about political journalism

Not everyone is joining in the celebrations of Armstrong’s achievements. Danyl Mclauchlan has authored the sole dissenting analysis, in which he makes some interesting arguments about the role of the parliamentary press gallery, and suggests that Armstrong was too close to those in power to be a good political journalist – see: Notes on John Armstrong’s final column.

Here’s Mclauchlan’s main point: “His columns generally defended powerful establishment figures and attacked and mocked their critics, and because he’s a fine writer and deftly articulated elite conventional wisdom this made him very respected in those same establishment circles. It’s not a form of journalism I admire. I think it’s the opposite of everything journalists should aspire to.”

TV3’s Patrick Gower (‏@patrickgowernz) has responded: “This is based on so many lazy and wrong assumptions about John. I think it is disrespectful. But you are entitled to your opinion.”

Of course Mclauchlan is a Green Party activist, and has often expressed his belief that Armstrong is biased against the Greens. And in the comments section of this blog post he elaborates: “One of the reasons I dislike Armstrong is that I’m a Green supporter and he loathed the Greens, but he was never as upfront as Hooton. It was all hidden behind stock weasel phrases: ‘Some say,’ or ‘Voters will think.’”

Seeing John Armstrong as some sort of pro-Establishment figure seems to miss the point. While it’s true that Armstrong is an archetypal insider journalist, this is entirely what the parliamentary press gallery is supposed to be for. It’s about getting close to power, and examining it. The good journalists – such as Armstrong – don’t let this proximity to power blunt their critical faculties. And from my own very close reading of Armstrong’s work over the years I can see he was no stooge at all, and gave critical accounts of every aspect of politics, countering the spin machine of all parts of the Establishment – the Greens and other minor parties included.

Finally, I’ve had my differences with Armstrong too. In 2012 Armstrong reacted angrily to a column I produced about the press gallery’s coverage of TPP negotiations – see: Bloggers don’t let the facts get in the way. I responded with my own roundup and reaction, Blogging backlash

Armstrong was the victor in the dispute, with this particular column being responsible for him winning the 2013 Canon Media Award for Best Columnist. The judge, Richard Long, was especially taken with Armstrong’s piece. For more on this, and an explanation of Armstrong’s approach to covering politics, see the Herald’s nicely-titled report: Keeping the politicians honest




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