Pundit

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.

 

 

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So is National’s campaign “slick” or “a mess”?

Political punditry is definitely a matter of perspective. If you were a Fox News commentator during the last US presidential election, Mitt Romney’s campaign was a dead cert winner; if you were Nate Silver, Obama was going to romp home. (Of course, if you rely on Fox News for your political commentary, you probably deserve to be duped.)

Here in New Zealand, in Election 2014, I’ve just read two very different accounts of the two main parties’ campaigns – Andrea Vance’s ‘The slick and the dead calm‘ and Tim Watkin’s ‘If this was Labour we’d be calling it a mess‘. On the one hand, Ms Vance describes National’s campaign as “slick, polished and organised to the last detail”, while Labour’s “is ad hoc, chaotic and oddly low-energy”.

Her description of Team Key?

National leader John Key whizzed his way across Auckland on Monday, barely pausing for a breath. A brisk shopping centre walkabout was memorable, mainly for the sheer numbers who stopped him for a selfie. The campaign bus rolled up, stacked with supporters in their Team Key sweaters.

Key is merciless in keeping the exchanges swift – a grin for the camera phone, and an exchange of pleasantries and he’s on to the next voter.

And David Cunliffe, campaigning with Tamati Coffey in Rotorua?

The day started with a selfie – and there were plenty – but to be blunt, Coffey was the bigger drawcard.

A stop-off at a local primary school excited pupils, especially when told a Labour government would give them each a tablet. But with only a handful of eligible voters in the room, reporters wondered how effective the visit was.

A scheduled town centre walkabout was delayed by 35 minutes as Cunliffe, Coffey and activists stopped for a curry. “An army marches on its stomach,” Cunliffe said later. On the stroll he talked with eight people, two of whom were in town from overseas.

Cunliffe versus Key is a popularity contest not being fought on a level playing field. The Labour leader has been in the job barely a year, and has struggled against character assassinations from both inside and outside his party. But yesterday his campaign should have been buoyed by Coffey’s star power. Instead, it was inexplicably flat.

Over at Pundit, Mr Watkin’s piece takes a completely different tack to that of Vance. Warning that “It’s easy to get caught up in the daily news cycle”, he steps back to look at the bigger campaign picture and the problems National are facing. There’s the acceptance by Bill English that the economy has “peaked” and that we’re in for slower growth; there’s John Key and Bill English lurching all over the show with their opposing views on whether tax cuts are on the agenda; there’s the shadow of Judith Collins and whatever mistake- or Whaledump-driven headline she’ll generate next.

He concludes:

Put all that together and frankly, it’s a mess for National. On their own, such stories can be put down to the unavoidable rough and tumble of the campaign but the worry for the party’s strategists will be if there’s a cumulative impact.

If it was Labour we’d be saying ‘here we go again’. National’s track record of discipline means commentators are slower to point out the mess when it appears, assuming it’s a blip rather than a trend.

But that’s now for National to prove one way or another. Momentum heading into the final fortnight is crucial, and the fact is National doesn’t have it. Is its campaign plan “dissolving” or can its leadership get back on track?

So there you have it – small picture-wise, National’s going great guns; big picture-wise, they’re staring down the barrel of a possible disaster.

On the plus side for National, it’s difficult to find anyone complimenting Labour on either the big picture or small picture view of their campaign.

Perspective – it’s key.

It isn’t easy being Whyte

Jamie Whyte has a problem. He’s the leader of a party that doesn’t have enough support to get more than one MP into Parliament, assuming ACT wins the Epsom electorate. And given that he’s not the one standing in Epsom, that means that unless something magical happens to ACT’s polling, he’ll be missing out. David Seymour will be ACT’s sole representative in Parliament.

ACT is polling just 0.5% in this site’s Poll of Polls. The highest any major poll has had them this year is 1.1% (the mid-March 3News Reid Research poll), and in the last dozen polls released, they’ve hit 1% just once. Of the last five poll results, they’ve ranged between 0.8% and not registering at all.

Richard Prebble (and, to a certain lesser extent, Rodney Hide) understood that ACT’s natural ideological constituency was relatively small. There really aren’t that many classical liberals floating around. Nonetheless, in the wake of the ever-extending meltdown that was the last gasp of Hide’s leadership, Don Brash’s attempt to make lightening strike twice, and John Banks’ eccentric conservatism, ACT finally went back to its roots. Jamie Whyte was supposed to be the calm voice of rationalism. Voters would be unable to ignore the power of the Professor’s arguments, and ACT would be great again. No more the shrill populism of perk busting! No more the awkward conservative Sensible Sentencing Trust juxtaposition! Nothing but cool, calm classical liberalism…

Unfortunately, such ideological purity still has only a tiny natural support base. Thus, no movement in the polls. So what do you do when nothing you say gets you any traction? Well, after having consulted Richard Prebble, there’s only one way forward – go populist. Expand upon Three Strikes, and go Back to the Future with a One Law For All crusade!

Now, Richard Prebble always understood that when one rabble-rouses, one shouldn’t over-think the rationale. One Law For All and Getting Tough On Crime don’t have the most convincing rationales behind them – either philosophically or statistically. They’re crude slogans, designed to attract support without thought.

That’s not the Whyte way. As a former professor, he doesn’t want to be seen as simply a common Prebble-esque rabble-rouser. He enjoys the role of political philosopher, and therefore needs a philosophical underpinning to his every stance.

One gets the feeling that his impassioned philosophical defence of One Law For All was made up on the fly, a work in progress. It was certainly easily demolished on blog sites such as Pundit, Maui Street and Public Address. And from there, the philosophy-on-the-hoof process has continued, with Whyte attempting to cite coup-plagued Fiji as a model of racial policy. Now he’s tried to cite Sweden as a an example of how to eradicate race from the law, only to be monumentally fisked by Professor Andrew Geddis.

Unfortunately, the populist policy Whyte is pushing already exists (to a greater or lesser degree) within a crowded conservative market place. Whyte is up against Winston Peters and Colin Craig, and Whyte is certainly not a patch on Winston when it comes to selling racism. He’s not even a patch on Colin Craig in those stakes, and that’s certainly saying something.

They say that all publicity is good publicity, and Jamie Whyte must certainly be hoping that’s the case. There’s really little else that seems likely to go his way.