Pundit’s scoop this week got a muted response, from both ministers and the media

Don’t you hate that? When you try to write a balanced story, and can’t, because the government won’t talk to a blogger. Perhaps others will pick up the slack: journalists, who are paid and qualified to ask politicians hard questions until they get some answers. But they don’t seem all that interested either.

Greens’ energy efficiency spokesperson Jeanette Fitzsimons had talked exclusively to Pundit about the Greens’ reasons for partial withdrawal from the National-Greens memorandum of understanding (MOU). Contrary to Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee’s assertions, there were serial lapses in involving Fitzsimons, as agreed, in rewriting the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (EECS). We verified this: an important briefing was released to me by Brownlee under the Official Information Act, that Fitzsimons had not seen. There were a number of other examples.

Brownlee and the Prime Minister were asked for comment. In Brownlee’s case, he has been offered a guest spot on Pundit to put his side of the story. Kevin Taylor, John Key’s chief press secretary, replied:  “Hello Claire. FYI, we do not engage with blogs, as a general rule. Regards, Kevin.” As yet, there is no word from Brownlee’s office. It remains unclear whether Taylor’s response should be taken as the government response, or was just on behalf of Key.

It’s the classic first line of ministerial defence: lie low for a few days, and hope it goes away. The Prime Minister is off to APEC now; he’ll be looking statesmanlike on the telly, chalking up another success story.

Media response was muted too. There was a short piece in the National Business Review on Wednesday; a page four article in Thursday’s New Zealand Herald; and, I’m told, a news clip on Radio New Zealand National, in which Brownlee is said to have downplayed the issue as a Green party tantrum.

Given Taylor’s refusal to talk to Pundit, it’s tempting to conclude that the government has no comment: that the particular allegations about process failures are not denied, there is nothing to say in mitigation, so it’s better to say nothing at all. Maybe that’s not a million miles away from the truth, because when comment finally emerged in the Herald yesterday, this is what Key said:

Mr Key said he rejected Ms Fitzsimons’ suggestion that the Greens had not been consulted on policy. “It’s not that we didn’t consult with them, but we don’t agree with each other … They made it clear in terms of energy efficiency that they no longer want that to be part of the MOU. We are totally accepting of that, the MOU covers a number of other areas, home insulation, the cycleway, therapeutic goods ... At the end of the day we have a philosophical difference of opinion in terms of that particular issue.”

Of course, there’s always another side of the story. It’s just that Key hasn’t told us yet what it is, because his comments don’t address the story.

Articulating the philosophical difference is a good start: we can debate the merits of that, as Fitzsimons was attempting to do, in her guest Pundit post. We’d love to have one from Brownlee, and see the information or advice on which the government’s conclusions have been based.

But I’m more interested in the process, why it failed, and what that tells us. Six months ago, Key agreed to involve Fitzsimons in the development of the new EECS. He signed an agreement, and published a press release. Now it appears that she has not been involved, and that Brownlee, perhaps, has been pursuing a hidden agenda to repeal the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act. That raises serious questions about Key’s veracity, and the government’s, as well as Brownlee’s.

Note Key’s change in language: he’s talking about “consultation” now, as opposed to “involvement”. I wrote about that here. When the MOU was signed, it envisaged a closer, working relationship. But okay: so how did Brownlee “consult”, exactly, and what is the explanation for the list of times when he didn’t? Fitzsimons can give chapter and verse; can the government?

Key knew about the Greens’ defection before we broke this story. Green Party co-leaders had written to him. He could have contacted them, or issued a press release. After we published the story, it took around 36 hours for any public comment to emerge from the government. Here’s another allegation, to which Mr Taylor may wish to respond: I think they were hoping to keep it quiet; and failing that, to slow it down.

Not engaging with blogs, as a general rule, is a flimsy question-dodging excuse. The engagement might be selective, but engagement there certainly is.

Last year, then student journalist Sandra Dickson wrote about the rising influence of blogs, in which Matthew Hooton is quoted as saying, about Kiwiblog: “David Farrar would be in daily contact with John Key and Bill English during an election campaign, I’m sure” and “Kites get flown by serious politicians through Kiwiblog and The Standard”. Hooton is a well-regarded pundit and former National party staffer—a so-called “Hollow Man”. In short, he ought to know. In the same piece, Farrar himself commented on the 2005 election campaign, when his blog previewed National Party billboards, including the infamous “iwi-kiwi”, and National Party campaign manager Steven Joyce is said to have monitored the comment thread with great interest. “They jokingly said it’s the best, cheapest focus group we’ve ever had …” said Farrar. Kiwiblog is in a class of its own, traffic-wise, but it’s also partisan—as Hooton mischievously said to Dickson, injecting just enough criticism to give a veneer of objectivity.

Is Taylor’s general rule a sensible rule? The line between blogging and journalism is getting fuzzy. What distinguishes a columnist or commentator from a blogger: is there anything, other than quality and forum, and in circumstances where the online forum is the only difference, why should that matter?

Pundit lives in a factionalised, fractious little blogging community, but the professionalism and generosity of the online response to our story was a joy to watch. Taylor may find it ironic. Scoop had the story on its front page for 24 hours, so they must have thought it was news. Kiwiblog, Red Alert, The Standard, and Frogblog quickly picked it up and gave credit, linking through to Pundit. Contrast that with the performance of the newspapers: the New Zealand Herald ignored Pundit in its article. Pundit reader Kate logged on to tell us she had complained to an unnamed “major metropolitan newspaper”, then found that references to “Claire Browning” and “Pundit” in her letter had been deleted.

I’ve been the first to admit that it might be hard to find the public interest angle in this story: partial withdrawal by a party that’s not a support party from an agreement people probably didn’t know about. I can only assume that gallery reporters think if it was news, someone important would have told them. But if they didn’t consider it a story in its own right, the government's evasion ought to get them at least a bit excited, as a matter of principle.

I thought we lived in a proud, healthy little democracy, where ministers are accountable to the public, and journalists snap at their heels. The Prime Minister’s office can brush off an unknown blogger; in their position, I would do the same. But the media lack of response is far more disheartening.







Comments (19)

by tom farmer on November 13, 2009
tom farmer
Small question, Claire — do you sense that established media(part or whole) may consider bloggers suspect.. loyalty wise.. to put it mildly..
by George Darroch on November 13, 2009
George Darroch

It also speaks very strongly that the editors and news-directors of these organisations do not consider the subject of energy efficiency worthy of the attention of their readers, listeners, and viewers.

by Judy Martin on November 13, 2009
Judy Martin

I hope you don't give up in discouragement Claire - that story made my week. I don't suppose it helps that other important environmental stories seem to be equally ignored in the msm

Error sends cost of ETS changes skyrocketing

Still secret new Treasury advice says the cost of changes to the emissions trading scheme might be up to three times as high as the Government has said, Carbon News reports this morning.


by Go figure on November 13, 2009
Go figure

Taylor's response is completely disingenuous. They sure don't ignore blogs, but won't engage simply because they can get away with it, for now. There will always be issues with the "quality" of some blogs, but sooner or later, reputable blog analysis will break through. In the meantime, you can only keep up what you're doing. I hope you're working on that Treasury ETS numbers story next.

The most interesting question remains why Key signed up to working with the Greens on energy efficiency if he had no intention of following through. It doesn't seem deliberate given that the other areas of the MoU seem to be going well. It seems more likely that Key seriously took his eye off the ball, leaving blundering Brownlee to do his usual cowboy routine and with the usual results.

by Kate Hunt on November 13, 2009
Kate Hunt

an unnamed “major metropolitan newspaper”, then found that references to “Claire Browning” and “Pundit” in her letter had been deleted.

it was the DomPost. The letter was published today - but yes, without reference to Claire or Pundit. Are mainstream media threatened by blogs? I agree that they think they can still get away with ignoring blogs -- let's face it, they are still under the radar for most of the populace. I guess we just do what we can to push it all up above water level (excuse the mixed metaphors, it's Friday night).

by Tim Watkin on November 14, 2009
Tim Watkin

Claire certainly deserves a few high fives and slaps on the back for her coverage of that story. I think the response from National is partly a sign of the patchy blog quality in NZ and the fact political efforts online are still rather backward here. Can you imagine the White House responding that way to Politico or the Huff Post. The difference is the scale and professionalism on both sides of the divide.

Judy, Carbon News does some great work, thanks for the link.

But on a practical note, I suspect resource issues are a decent part of the lack of interest in this story elsewhere. Newsrooms are small, one journo out of each political offiice was off to APEC midweek and with another on the trial of Harawira, there aren't many more left over to pick up on issues such as this.

by Claire Browning on November 14, 2009
Claire Browning


do you sense that established media(part or whole) may consider bloggers suspect.. loyalty wise.. to put it mildly

Not sure I totally get which angle you're coming from. But, given that so many blogs are partisan, and so many are poor quality, approaching them with some caution would seem like the smart thing to do. That's what Taylor's exploiting. What's not smart is extrapolating from that to all blogs: it has to be case by case, and as we all know, even the better partisan ones add heaps of value so long as you know who / what you're reading.



I hope you don't give up in discouragement Claire ...

You know that bit in Pride and Prejudice, when Miss Elizabeth Bennett plays the piano at Rosings, badly, whilst flirting with handsome Colonel Fitzwilliam, and says to Darcy: "You mean to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming in all this state? ... My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me". Like that, except without Colonel Fitzwilliam. Or Mr Darcy, for that matter.



Pundit did make the Weekend Post today though! In the "best blog bits" sidebar, one Andrew Geddis features, with a bit from his blog on Hone Harawira (not in fact the best bit, IMHO, perhaps because that particular bit was profane).

Which was, after all, quite rightly, the big story of the week.


Go figure,

It seems more likely that Key seriously took his eye off the ball, leaving blundering Brownlee to do his usual cowboy routine and with the usual results.

Yes. You only ever figure out the character of a government in increments, and this is one of them. We knew, before, that Key is relaxed, but it's not just demeanour; it's pervasive. We knew that his grasp of things can be superficial; we perhaps didn't know that he doesn't mind letting that undermine the value of his word. We knew, in a vague half-forgotten kind of way, that he owed a favour to Brownlee; except it turns out, it's all of us helping him repay it.

by tom farmer on November 14, 2009
tom farmer
Claire, fair enough.. I guess in mind at the time was whether I pitch the point on envy or such.. clear articulate logical writing can make others - bloggers and journos - pretty shitty.. so I tried for journalistic loyalty.. ie actual journos in their increasingly constrained (for news, jobs etc) context sussing good blogging/punditry as a threat..
which of course might suggest too great a reliance on my part re journos.. rather than cut to the chase of managerial coverage selection/ direction...
am I clearer yet..?
to the point arising among other commenters here I'm not sure at all that Hone's exploits etc are the story of the week.. it may appear so.. though the cynic in me also outs to the possibility of distancing media from scrutiny of the government.. and its assertions both here and abroad..
still, there's time yet..
by tom farmer on November 14, 2009
tom farmer
Claire, re Pride and Prejudice — was your take from Joe Wright's movie..? - which I'm pretty sure performed Keira's dialogue as stated - or the earlier BBC's production..?
by Claire Browning on November 15, 2009
Claire Browning

The authoritative sources, Tom, of course: BBC and, let us not forget, the book! Mercifully, I'd forgotten all about Keira Knightley ...

When it was just Hone's Paris, Hawaii, etc jaunts, I'd probably agree. Now that it's evolved into more of a "will Hone jump or will he be pushed" kind of story, it's got implications for Maori nationalism / race relations, support party stability / the future of the Maori Party and, perhaps, foreshore / seabed debate. I'd say that's on the big side.

by tom farmer on November 15, 2009
tom farmer
authoritative sources how interesting, Claire..
BBC would it not, suggesting a BBC production version..
the book suggesting most closely Austin's original (books being subject to edit etc)
as for KK mebbe you'd be surprised at how much better an actor's characterization gets inside or into the psyche..
For what it is worth I thought the BBC version too modern era and context driven to be memorable.. Hone.. we'll see.
by dave on November 15, 2009

I find it interesting that Taylor wont deal with blogs but he will deal with the student media- at least he did when Key was Opposition leader. So his rationale cant be the quality of the writing as many of the blogs are of greater quality than the majority of student journalism. Perhaps they just dont see blogging as journalism, even when the bloggers are  trained journalists and the student journo writers are not.

by Claire Browning on November 16, 2009
Claire Browning

So his rationale cant be the quality of the writing as many of the blogs are of greater quality than the majority of student journalism.

I think his rationale is expediency, Dave.

by Claire Browning on November 16, 2009
Claire Browning

Dear Go figure,

You seem to have turned to the right. Is that wise, in the circumstances?

by Go figure on November 16, 2009
Go figure

Sorry Clair, I've been flat out and not able to come back to the other thread yet. But I'm afraid I don't understand your comment above?

by Claire Browning on November 17, 2009
Claire Browning

Gf - apologies, it was a bit opaque, reading it back.  I was talking about the gravatar thingy - your online symbol. There was a different one in the weekend, and then yesterday, this one, facing right. Sorry. Obscure sense of humour, doesn't always translate.


by Go figure on November 17, 2009
Go figure

Ha! Yes, I experimented a bit, but like this one best. And Claire, from the point of view of the avatar, it is turning left! Just a matter of perspective, no?

by Claire Browning on November 18, 2009
Claire Browning

Sure, but on election day, it's the voters' perspective that counts.

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