Keeping the politicians honest

Objectivity is paramount, says John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade
Objectivity is paramount, says John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade

New Zealand's best columnist, the Herald's John Armstrong, has been labelled both "a Labour lackey and a National toady".

"One reader has twice offered to drive me to the airport if I would agree to leave the country. Such responses from both sides of the spectrum suggest I have got it about right," says Armstrong, whose portfolio of columns won him the Canon Media Award last Friday.

He describes the win as a proud moment, but remembers the sage thoughts of a former colleague on leaving the Press Gallery.

"Working as a journalist at Parliament, he said, was as much a privilege as a right, if not more so. It is privilege which carries obligations. The chief one is to this newspaper's readers. I approach writing political columns as having a conversation with the reader.

"You still have to capture and then retain the reader's attention. As much time can be spent settling on the opening sentence as the rest of the column.

It also took me a while to realise that column writing was difficult because it constantly involves working out what to leave out as much as what you put in."

The category judge, former newspaper editor Richard Long, said Armstrong's experience made his "beautifully written daily and weekly political commentaries" even more pertinent. Long was particularly taken by an "entirely warranted counterattack on the unbalanced Wild West blogosphere political diarists and their parasitical relationship with the mainstream media".

Armstrong says readers aren't interested in his personal views. "The most common question I get is how do you keep your own politics from getting in the way. Objectivity is paramount. You have to build trust. You simply have to quarantine your personal opinions. But the reality is that constant exposure to constant argument made by some of the country's most intelligent people has the effect of turning what you think about some issue from black and white to a very mushy grey.

"It is not my job to support or oppose what politicians are doing. They can do what they like if they have the numbers. There is one exception. I will come down hard on any politician found interfering with or rorting the democratic process and its various institutions."

A week of winners

Newspaper of the Year/best newspaper design

Best reporter, David Fisher, and best news site,

Best columnist, John Armstrong

Best photo essay, Richie Robinson

Best inserted magazine, The Business>

- NZ Herald

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