DID RIGHT-wing bloggers cost Helen Clark the last election? “Traditional” commentators ridicule the idea, but some in the blogosphere see signs that it is an influential participant in politics.
FOR LONG-SERVING political journalist Colin James, blog content is “trite” and “trivial”.
James – until recently a columnist for the NZ Herald, now writing for the opposition Dominion-Post – believes blogs in New Zealand currently have little, if any, impact on voter behaviour.
But others are taking a different view as the 2008 election is picked over.
Canterbury University mass communications lecturer Donald Matheson says the internet and blogging in particular have challenged the “authoritative voice” of journalism by “watching the watchdog”.
“The relationship between journalism and the big news organisations and the people reading those has changed. Good journalism should welcome that, a bit of critique, a bit of needling. It’s a healthy thing.”
Political bloggers in New Zealand do see themselves as watching the watchdog on issues such as electoral finance reform, copyright law and, last year, the monitoring of Winston Peters (below right) and New Zealand First.
One of the country’s leading political columnists Matthew Hooton – who entered the blogosphere himself last election – argues this watchdog role may have influenced the outcome of the 2008 election.
“With Winston Peters, I think the blogosphere played a very important democratic role,” says Hooton.
He points to the fact that Peters had spent much time over many years drinking with senior journalists and says this tended to protect him from scrutiny.
“The blogosphere and Phil Kitchin at the Dominion sort of broke through that and forced the stories more into the open. If he had got to 5%, then Helen Clark would have remained as Prime Minister. But I wouldn’t want to say there was a direct causal relationship.”
Hooton put his managing directorship at top corporate and public affairs firm Exceltium on hold for two weeks before the election so he could concentrate on blogging at Policy Net.
New Zealand’s most popular blogger, David Farrar, of Kiwiblog, agrees right-wing blogs in particular created a “sense of crisis around Winston”, and says bloggers can be motivated to dig deeper, while journalists are under time constraints.
Kiwiblog and fellow right blog Whale Oil were not prepared, for example, to take New Zealand First assurances about funding at face value.
“When New Zealand First said they’d paid $158,000 and it turned out to be to the Susan Couch Charitable Trusts, it was blogs that researched the trust and found out that two of the three trustees are Winston’s personal lawyers, that Susan Couch doesn’t have any control over the trust, she’s not named in the trust deeds.”
The Australian has described blogs as a waste of time, and called political bloggers “sheltered academics and failed journalists who could not get a job on a real newspaper”. In an online editorial in July, 2007, the paper concluded: “So let’s not mince words. We just don’t think many of our critics have any real clue about polling and very little practical experience of politics.”
The comments related to the Australian federal election. The Australian had predicted John Howard might retain power. Political bloggers critiqued this by analysing political polls over the long-term – and got it right, predicting a win for Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party months out from voting.
Perhaps there’s something to this blogging business.
At Kiwiblog, ex-National Party parliamentary staff member David Farrar makes no secret of his political beliefs. As he says in typical self-deprecating fashion, he has been “fomenting happy mischief since 2003”.
Matthew Hooton says of his popular colleague on the right: “David Farrar would be in daily contact with John Key and Bill English during an election campaign, I’m sure.”
Farrar is the McDonald’s of the New Zealand blogosphere, with daily readership of around 10,000, roughly the equivalent of the sales of newspapers in Wanganui, Rotorua or Gisborne. He says two-way communication is one of the reasons blogs work.
“One of the big dynamics that is changing, if you have something you think is newsworthy, are you more likely to look up in the White Pages the phone number for the Dominion Post, ask to speak to the reporters’ desk and then take random luck over which reporter you’ll get?
“Or do you just click on the link on your favourite blog and say ‘hey, you may be interested in this?’ I think a lot of the so-called sources out there are very much turning to blogs as a way to get their information out.”
The New Zealand blogosphere doesn’t have the public audience to threaten mainstream media, with about 50,000 readers visiting political blogs each week, according to Tim Selwyn of Tumeke.
Selwyn ranks political blogs by popularity each month, and says at these numbers blogging is “an elite form of influence, not a mass form, despite its latent capacity”.
This elite influence is largely through mainstream media – keeping journalists on their toes, providing a broader range of commentary and, occasionally, breaking stories.
Most journalists read political blogs for amusement, information and feedback, according to Dominion Post reporter and chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Vernon Small.
“In its infancy it probably had more impact because we weren’t used to that level of feedback. We were sort of interested in it, and maybe even affected by it.
“There was a time, maybe 18 months or so ago, when the Electoral Finance Act was being debated a lot and the blogosphere was really going crazy about that. It was very hard not to read it as a journalist and pick up on some of the stuff.”
Left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter says there is no doubt mainstream journalists follow the blogosphere.
“Whether they believe themselves to be influenced by blogs or not, I think they are. You can’t un-know what you’ve just read.”
But stories do not tend to “break” into mainstream media from the blogosphere very often, says Small, and when they do, it is because bloggers are well-connected politically.
David Farrar says he gets 12 to 15 emails a day offering him blog ideas. “Sometimes one or two of them might be from someone who’s involved in a party.
“I probably get more of those from ACT than from National, funnily enough.”
Many, including Matthew Hooton, believe some blog sites are used to float policy ideas.
“Kites get flown by serious politicians through Kiwiblog and The Standard, and so in terms of predicting what the government or opposition might have to say, to some extent they are the wider signals.
“There’s no doubt there are personal links, the question is whether there are financial links. David Farrar does do polling for the National Party, and all those people on The Standard tend to be deeply involved in the Labour Party. It’s not credible to say there are no links.”
Farrar believes this is overplayed, and points to the 2005 election, when his blog previewed National Party billboards, including the divisive “Beaches: Iwi/Kiwi board”, before they went up around the country.
The billboards post gained more than 100 comments, with most people, regardless of their own political leanings, rating the clear, simple messages as effective.
The National Party campaign manager monitored the comment thread with great interest.
“They jokingly said it’s the best, cheapest focus group we’ve ever had. It probably helped them make a decision; we’re onto a real winner here,” says Farrar.
But as he points out, when National’s 2008 billboards were trashed by readers at Kiwiblog, the National Party did not change them.
Farrar says the influence he has in his blog is more important to him than voting.
“If I had to choose between losing my vote and losing my voice, I probably value my voice greater now. You only get to vote once every three years, having a voice you are able to express your opinions and have some influence every day of the week.”
And he says technological changes mean blogging is open to all these days, so the blogosphere complements other democratic processes.
Political blog expert Dr Matheson doesn’t agree. He says the blogosphere is not reinvigorating democracy in some radical, exciting way – because successful bloggers are not your average citizen.
“A lot of the major bloggers, what people call the A-list bloggers, are people who already have some political or journalistic credentials.
“You can’t really talk about an elite in New Zealand the way you can in the United States, but people who are already on the inside of the Wellington world or the political world tend to be the ones who are the major bloggers. So you get David Farrar or Russell Brown.”
The political blogosphere is also criticised for being a boy’s club, which led Julie Fairey, with other women bloggers, to set up explicitly feminist The Hand Mirror in March 2008.
“The Hand Mirror was born out of frustration.”
Fairey had previously blogged under a pseudonym, and readers had assumed she was a man.
Massey University communications lecturer Dr Kane Hopkins sees The Hand Mirror as an important voice in the blogosphere.
“They do need to balance out the male domination. There are some women out there doing some really good stuff but politically it’s still a bit of an old boy’s game.”
Dr Hopkins wrote his PhD on the 2005 election, analysing whether the blogosphere had created a “virtual town hall”. He did not find an expansion of public discussion.
“The majority of comments that were made were made by a handful of people. Over half the comments that were made were by people who only made one comment. That’s not really a conversation.”
But the secondary impacts were harder to unravel.
“In terms of the decision-makers, the politicians, we know there are a lot of bureaucrats either in Parliament or Treasury who do read blogs, especially Public Address and Kiwiblog. What effect that has on them is difficult to measure.”
Matthew Hooton agrees it is who is reading that makes blogs important.
“I think all those blogs were very carefully monitored by the Prime Minister’s office, also by the opposition, and by the press gallery. It would have influenced their behaviour.”
New Zealand’s blogosphere is unashamed in its bias, with the majority of bloggers happy to tout openly for one party or another. Alongside Kiwiblog and Whale Oil, openly supporting the right, sit The Standard and Public Address, equally openly supporting the left.
“Largely, the people at The Standard are employees of the Labour Party and the unions, and they seem to be command-and-control organisations and they don’t tend to criticise their own side. Kiwiblog at least does so sufficiently to create some veneer of objectivity,” laughs Hooton.
Mainstream media in New Zealand has largely avoided the overt political side-taking seen in television networks in the United States or newspapers in Britain.
But as online news outlets increasingly expect their political journalists to write blogs, the distinction between opinionated bloggers and non-overtly aligned journalists may become more blurred.
Not that we should expect Vernon Small or Colin Espiner to start telling readers who to vote for but, as Dr Matheson says, in blogs, journalists’ own political perspectives become more visible.
In his opinion, this doesn’t necessarily reduce credibility, but it does undermine traditional models of objectivity.
“I think the subtle impacts of blogging on journalism may be the bigger ones in the long term.”
Vernon Small is not comfortable with the pressure to provide comment instantly on a blog.
“There are dangers in it for journalists because you can be tied in people’s minds to a particular view of a topic.”
Chris Trotter also sees slippage between journalism and blogging.
“Even though you’re bound by the much more strict rules of journalism, the flavour and the general tone of the blogosphere can very quickly slip into the writing of columnists and political commentators.”
Kiwiblog is in the near-unique position in New Zealand of providing David Farrar with an income, though he describes money from advertising as making up “pocket money” after his costs.
“I probably make more money from leveraging the blog to become a wider media commentator, than from the blog itself. It can work commercially in two ways, direct advertising on the blog, but some of the media work I do from the profile as a blogger pays also.”
It is this lack of commercial viability which most limits the capacity of the blogosphere, according to Chris Trotter, who says in New Zealand with its small market it’s virtually impossible to make money from a blog.
Julie Fairey agrees that New Zealand political blogging probably has a finite audience, and bloggers writing in their own time struggle to maintain the professionalism necessary to seriously challenge the mainstream media.
“A lot of bloggers like to think they’re citizen journalists, but we don’t have the resources of the newsroom, we don’t ask for quotes, we don’t have journalistic training. For the most part, we are reacting to mainstream news events.”
Vernon Small says on some topics blogs can be incredibly useful, but warns of overstating the case.
“I think they think they are more important than they are across the board.”
Last election,you could not pick up a newspaper, tune into a radio station, or watch a current affairs programme without bumping into Trotter or Hooton.
Their persuasive interpretations – to the right if you followed Hooton, to the left if you listened to Trotter – were ubiquitous. Two months before the election, they continued their competitive banter at Policy Net.
Unlike their work in mainstream media, this was completely unpaid. These busy, politically motivated, influential commentators essentially took up voluntary work for a relatively small reading audience in the lead-up to the pivotal event of New Zealand’s political landscape.
Entering the blogosphere had been almost accidental, “more a lark than anything conscious”, says Hooton. Both say they became addicted to the instant feedback, and Hooton left his managing directorship at Exceltium hanging for two weeks so he could concentrate on blogging.
“There’s no government relations or PR work at all to be done before an election, contrary to popular belief. Government shuts down completely and you’re all waiting for the results, so I had time on my hands in October.”
Chris Trotter could not keep up: “I wasn’t as prolific as Matthew. Matthew will tell you for the last week or so he pretty much did nothing else, but then Matthew himself will tell you he couldn’t keep that up and run a business. I was trying to post maybe two or three postings a week.”
Both stopped blogging at Policy Net once the election was over, although Trotter has since started up another blog called Bowalley Road.
Hooton says his lasting impression is of the addictive nature of blogging.
“You get to put your views before the world; it’s unimpeded by any sub-editor. Anyone who’s politically motivated and egotistical to some extent will find it very difficult to stop.”
Did voters care what the bloggers said?