Kiwiblog

Second-guessing the Northland by-election

There’s an interesting debate over at The Standard regarding what Labour and the Greens should do in the Northland by-election, should Winston Peters announce that he’s standing.

Te Reo Putake, in his post entitled ‘Stand by Your Man‘, argues that if Peters stands, Labour and the Greens should withdraw. The basic thrust of the argument is that it would show opposition solidarity (a government in waiting!). Plus, there’s the chance that Peters might be able to take the seat in a one-on-one battle, forcing National to rely on two minor votes to pass legislation, rather than just one.

In a counter-post, Micky Savage argues that doing so would make Labour appear weak, would remove the party’s ability to campaign on issues important to it, and may give NZ First momentum that Labour may regret. Further, Peters just can’t be trusted to actually side with Labour in 2017:

Memories of 1996 when Peters campaigned through the country promising a change of Government but then sided with National are still strong.  And he is the worst sort of politician who can campaign against the cynicism of politics as usual but then engage in the most cynical of politics.

Interestingly, the Greens have now made the decision not to stand a candidate. In a press release, they state:

“It is our strategic assessment that we should not run in the by-election and instead focus on our nationwide climate change and inequality campaigns,” said Green Party Co-convenor John Ranta.

“The world’s attention will be focused on fixing climate change this year and we will be at the forefront of that issue here in New Zealand.

“We have a real opportunity to address both climate change and inequality and we want our party focused on those issues.”

The justification given for not standing is laughable. Standing a candidate provides an easy platform for the party to campaign on climate change and inequality.

So why then aren’t the Greens standing a candidate?

Is it money? Election campaigns are never cheap, and the party might well have decided it simply doesn’t have the resources to spend this soon after a general election.

Or are the Greens trying to lure Peters into the ring, considering him to be the best chance the opposition has of decreasing the Government’s parliamentary majority?

David Farrar at Kiwiblog evidently believes it’s the latter, describing it as “The beginning of the dirty deal in Northland”. I’m unconvinced though. There’s no love lost between the Greens and NZ First, given Peters’ history of trying to shut the Greens out of government. And there’s still no indication as to whether Peters will or won’t stand.

I simply cannot see the Greens pulling out of the race out of the goodness of their hearts, in an attempt to aid a yet-to-be-announced run from Peters. Especially given that Labour have already announced their candidate, and are therefore unlikely to withdraw and upset their local support base.

To my mind, the Greens simply don’t see much opportunity to gain political capital in the upcoming by-election. It’ll be just over half a year since the last general election, and there’s no new policy that can be campaigned on. There’s probably very little spare cash lying around, and they know their candidate can’t win. (Their 2014 candidate, list MP David Clendon, lives in New Lynn, so isn’t even Northland-based.)

If the by-election were being held mid-term, it might have been a different story. Right now though, the timing’s just wrong for a cash-strapped minor party, with no high-profile local candidate.

The Blomfield v Slater judgment – what does it mean for your average blogger?

So with the finding of the High Court that Cameron Slater is a journalist (see my previous posts here, here and here), and that his Whaleoil blog is a news medium, there’s been some presumption from some on the internet that political bloggers as a class have now been raised to the level of journalists. Lprent at the Standard, for example, says:

I was rather expecting that Justice Asher would make me and other authors here honorary journalists under section 68 of the Evidence Act 2006, and that is what he did.

I’m not entirely certain that lprent is right. There are a few fishhooks spread throughout Asher J’s judgment that seem to indicate that the Courts would consider Cameron Slater to be a bit of a special case among bloggers.

For a start, there’s the definition of a news medium s 68(5) of the Evidence Act: “a medium for the dissemination to the public or a section of the public of news and observations on news”. The key word there – “and” – means that for a political blog to be considered a news medium, that blog must not only disseminate observations on news (which is the general blogging modus operandi), but to also disseminate news. Justice Asher notes at para 54:

Given that the medium must be “for the dissemination to the public of news …” a blog that publishes a single news item would not qualify. The blog must have a purpose of disseminating news. Some regular commitment to the publishing of news must exist before a blog is a news medium.

So what is news? Well, that’s where things get fuzzy. Following reference to the New Zealand Oxford English Dictionary, Asher J states that “[t]he reporting of news involves this element of providing new information to the public about recent events of interest to the public”.

It’s a definition that doesn’t necessarily advance matters. If a radio news bulletin, for example, simply involves the repetition of news broken by others, is the bulletin in fact disseminating news? You’d assume so. So if a blog essentially does the same thing – repeating news stories broken by mainstream news organisations, but providing coverage through the blogger’s voice – is this really any different to a radio news bulletin? Where does the distinction between disseminating news and disseminating comment on news begin and end?

Justice Asher’s judgment, in finding that Whaleoil was a news medium, dwells on Cameron Slater’s investigations and stories that he broke (see paras 58 to 59, and 63 to 64). There’s an implication that a blog must be breaking stories to the public in order to be considered a news medium. Simply reacting to stories already broken, and repeating those stories (with or without additional editorial comment) doesn’t seem to be enough.

At para 62 of the judgment, Asher J states, “In my assessment, Mr Slater’s reports contain genuine new information of interest over a wide range of topics”, while at para 65 it is stated:

It is this element of regularly providing new or recent information of public interest which is in my view determinative. He was not doing this as often as would occur in a newspaper or a television or radio station, but that could not be expected of a single blogger. Such a person would not have the resources to operate on that scale. I do not see it as a pre-requisite that the quantity of stories must be equivalent to that of a substantial corporate news organisation. His motives for reporting are not crucial either. Because Whale Oil at the relevant time with reasonable frequency provided such information, as well as commentary and the opportunity for debate, it was a news medium.

 So are the authors at the Standard, Pundit, The Daily Blog or Public Address journalists? Is Danyl McLauchlan at the Dim-Post a journalist? Or David Farrar at Kiwiblog? Or Pete George at Your NZ? Or yours truly? From the High Court’s judgment, who knows. Most blogs, such as Occasionally Erudite, simply involve commentary on topical news items – the individual blogger’s view on the story or stories of the day – which seems unlikely to reach the threshold of being a news medium or journalism.

But at the Standard, lprent has reported live from the NZ First conference, or attended the Blomfield v Slater High Court hearing and provided a report on what occurred. At Public Address, Russell Brown provides additional background to stories he covers on his Media Take show or provides details of interviews with Patrick Gower, while Graeme Edgeler has exhaustively researched and posted on issues such as the secrecy of the Coroner’s Court.

Are these examples of journalism? One would assume so. Do they occur regularly enough for those particular blogs to be considered news mediums, according to Asher J? Hard to say. The test seems to be on a case by case basis, with regular provision of new information to the public being relative to the individual blogger.

Nonetheless, it seems that most bloggers wouldn’t be considered to be journalists, following Asher J’s reasoning. Repeating stories on a blog and providing comment won’t get you over the threshold. And even if you break stories, it has to happen on a regular basis (whatever “regular” may mean).

Cameron Slater seems to be a special case.