The newspapers have turned against National. That's certainly the impression you get from David Farrar's research into media disposition - see his blog post, Inaugural Media Opinion Statistics.
Farrar recently embarked upon a new exercise in which he attempts to measure the orientation of newspapers towards political parties and the Government. Looking back over the last five months of editorials and columns shows just how much the Government has borne the brunt of criticism.
Political journalists have been overwhelmingly negative towards National. In this period, some have produced columns that are all classified by Farrar as negative towards the party (for example, Andrea Vance and Tracy Watkins), while, "John Armstrong is 84 per cent negative, Rodney Hide 80 per cent, Vernon Small 80 per cent, John Roughan 67 per cent and Fran O'Sullivan 64 per cent. Of interest is there is no columnist in the Herald or on Stuff that is 50/50 or mainly positive about the Government".
Newspaper editorials, according to Farrar, have also been overwhelmingly critical of National: "the Dominion Post is the most relentlessly critical of National. Of 24 editorials referencing the Government or National, 22 are critical and only 2 supportive, so 92 per cent negative. The Herald is close with 79 per cent negative and 21 per cent positive. Hard to see how some people claim it is a pro-National newspaper".
Of course Farrar is a National Party blogger, which might diminish the research in some people's eyes. But nonetheless, the project is a very commendable and useful one. His partisanship might colour his own analysis of the material.
For example, he puts some of this shift in negativity down to changes in editorial personnel, when a much more likely explanation is simply that the tide has turned on the Government, with a huge amount of mistakes and arrogance displayed since its election, as discussed in my previous columns Is this the beginning of the end for National? and The Downfall of John Key .
For a very different take on the biases of New Zealand journalists and broadcasters, see the Mana Party's blog post, The New Zealand media dictatorship, which argues that "It is unnatural for the press gallery to be uncritical of a seven-year-old government".
Spin-doctors helping the politicians
In the relationship between politicians and the media, a crucial role is played by the taxpayer-funded media managers in Parliament. It's the role of these spin doctors to do battle with, and attempt to manipulate, the media in order to get their desired message across, as well as combat negative messages. These communications managers and press officers are always attempting to manipulate and massage public opinion.
I've written about this in an academic chapter on spin doctors and political manipulation - which you can read on my blog: Politicians, Party Professionals and the Media in New Zealand. As this chapter discusses, most communications managers and press officers actually come from jobs in the media, and the shift from watchdog to lapdog is normally referred to within media circles as "crossing over to the dark side".
For news on the latest journalists to switch sides, see Rachel Glucina's gossip column, Morton joins exodus to Beehive in post with Joyce. This reports that TV3 news reporter Rachel Morton is going to work for Steven Joyce, Herald reporter Lucy Bennett is now working for Sam Lotu-Iiga, and Nicola Grigg has left Radio New Zealand to work for Simon Bridges.
The other major spin-doctor news since the election was the appointment of former New Zealand Women's Weekly editor Sarah Stuart as Labour's chief spin doctor - see the Herald's Labour announces new chief press secretary. Stuart has been deemed to be an excellent appointment by many, including David Farrar - see: Labour's new chief press secretary.
Stuart will take a more aggressive approach to getting Labour's message out in the tabloid and soft news. She's seen to be very close to many senior editors, as well as people like Rachel Glucina. You can also get a good idea of what this crucial backroom political figure will be like from some previous work such as her article, MBA - a degree of confidence and Sarah Daniel's Twelve Questions with Sarah Stuart.
David Cohen is another spin-doctor in the public eye recently. The journalist surprised many when he outed himself as advising Andrew Little last year. The most insightful commentary on this comes from Karl du Fresne's blog post, What's really interesting about the David Cohen affair.
Du Fresne is worth quoting at length: "I know that freelance journalism is a precarious way to make a living, and that there's a powerful temptation to take work wherever you can get it. But conflict of issues arise when people who comment on matters of public interest (Cohen is National Business Review's media columnist) are simultaneously involved in political work behind the scenes. I suspect this goes on much more than we know. Cohen has come out in the open because he was understandably pissed off at not being paid. Otherwise his relationship with Labour would probably have remained secret. How many other notionally independent commentators, I wonder, are potentially compromised by connections we don't know about?"
The increasing number of spin doctors in government is also explored by Claire Trevett in her December article PR staff numbers up despite promises, which reports that government departments are hiring more communications professionals, including "about 35 press secretaries for the Prime Minister and Government ministers" out of 288 across government departments. Trevett says "There has been increasing focus on the relationship between spin doctors, media and bloggers after Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics".
The powerful spin-doctors don't always succeed in making their masters look good. For example, carefully staged managed photo ops can still go wrong, especially when food is involved - see Henry Cooke's Why politicians should just stop eating.
The power of spin-doctors working behind the scenes always makes for good television drama - with the Danish-made Borgen being the best recent example. Describing that particular programme through an imagined scenario where Bronagh Key is PM, see Steve Braunias' Borgen New Zealand.
Political journalists and pundits
The media's engagement with politicians and their spin-doctors is normally undertaken by the parliamentary press gallery. For a fantastic insight into how some of these journalists think and deal with politicians, its worth reading four interviews that freelance journalist Gavin Bertram carried out last year - see his series on "Asking the Right Questions" with Brent Edwards, Tracy Watkins, Corin Dann and Patrick Gower.
See also, Sarah Stuart's Twelve Questions: Lisa Owen, in which Owen explains how she feels about politicians not answering her questions.
For arguments about why journalists often need to take a combative approach with politicians, it's also worth reading the excellent Gordon Campbell blog post, Why Good Journalists Are So 'Rude'. In this, he writes "In defence of Morning Report's bad manners", explaining how politicians use many techniques to "smother, divert and re-frame the narratives of media inquiry".
And what about the various media pundits? Do all political commentators have an agenda? To what extent should it be declared? Or should pundits not be published if they are less than neutral? This was discussed this week on Twitter, with Keith Ng (@keith_ng) raising challenges about Matthew Hooton's supposed "agenda" - see my blog post, Twitter debate about media pundits.
Danyl Mclauchlan has also participated in the twitter debate, and has now usefully blogged about it - see: Hooton's Law. Mclauchlan says he doesn't have a problem with someone like Hooton pushing his agenda, and is more concerned about those who are less transparent, raising again the same question as du Fresne: "I'm more concerned about commercial conflicts of interest among commentators and other media figures. There's a wildly lucrative and very shadowy marketplace out there where journalists and commentators provide 'media training' or 'communications consulting' for politicians and their parties, and then pop up on TV or radio speaking as advocates for them without disclosing that".
See also, Martyn Bradbury's Keith Ng vs Matthew Hooton. And Karl du Fresne explains why it's good to have diversity of pundits and debate - see: So what if Harre and Hooton ski together?
Political control of information
It's standard practice for governments and politicians to attempt to control the flow of information. And it's a battle for the media and public to uncover it. This is why the ongoing battles over the Official Information Act - and how it is used or misused - is important. One of the outcomes of last year's Dirty Politics saga was a review of this by the Ombudsman's Office, which is discussed in Benedict Collins's article, Media body takes aim at Govt OIA delay tactics.
Another interesting and important blow for media and public information freedom was achieved last month, following on from Bill English declaring that "This is the most transparent, most accessible Prime Minister New Zealand has ever had", but then producing a magnificent own-goal - see Audrey Young's PM transcript release a small victory.
In recent years politicians have been keen to impose and enforce greater regulation of political speech and activity. At its nadir, the Electoral Finance Act of 2007 was widely condemned for clamping down on free expression.
The Electoral Commission's advice during last year's election campaign that the Planet Key song and video by Darren Watson and Jeremy Jones was an "election advertisement" and an "election programme" effectively gagged and banned it. But the High Court has said otherwise - see Stacey Kirk's Judge rules Planet Key satire not an election broadcast.
This has delighted blogger No Right Turn - see: Political satire is legal again, who raises good questions about the issue. Daily Blogger Martyn Bradbury has pointed the finger at the media for their role in the saga - see: Spineless media to blame for banning of Planet Key. Professor Andrew Geddis has provided a nuanced and thoughtful examination of the issues - see: The lark's on the wing; The snail's on the thorn. And David Farrar has also celebrated the decision and called for reform - see: Satire still legal.
Finally, with the victory for Planet Key, it is now entirely legal to broadcast and watch the controversial video. You can also watch the funny new videos being produced by the Planet Key animator, Jeremy Jones, for TV3's The Nation. The six recent animations are on the topics of the Northland by-election results, GCSB job hunting (http://bit.ly/1FjvEKt), the by-election candidates, the Northland campaigning craziness (http://bit.ly/1E2B4Ns), Tony Abbott's visit, and the SkyCity convention centre gamble. See also, Jones' Facebook page for Animation Nation.