Former enfant terrible of Press Gallery and scourge of John Key ruminates on manners, God, and his fall from grace.
Alastair Thompson, the political journalist, editor and publisher of Scoop, the online news service, came to Auckland (from Wellington, of course, that city being the habitat of political journalists) this week - to see me, mostly. This was his own idea. It is an unusual idea, for a political journalist. He is about to leave the country, to try his luck in Europe, in journalism, he hopes.
He is attempting to reinvent Scoop; to develop "ethical paywalls"; to give it away: "To the public in an effort to create a 'People's Media' publishing house". This was all very well, and probably good, if possibly doomed, in an age, as he has lamented, of cat gifs.
But, as I emailed back, (being the sort of person who may occasionally look at cat videos on the internet), I don't write about ethical paywalls and the future of digital journalism, I write about people. I thought that might put him off. Because the one thing most people know about him is that last year he made a spectacularly catastrophic error of judgment for a journalist: He got involved with Kim Dotcom's Internet Party and failed to resign from the Press Gallery then did resign and has only quite recently been allowed back in. Surely he wouldn't want all of that dredged up?
"How's this for a peg? he emailed (he is an indefatigable emailer): "After 20 years in political journalism as a member of the Press Gallery, the former enfant terrible of the Press Gallery, scourge of John Key and infamous political associate of Kim Dotcom, stroppy independent award- winning journalist ..." and so on.
It's not bad, for a pitch. It is also fairly peculiar, as pitches go. But I do like stroppy people and who can resist an enfant terrible? (Although you usually only get them when they are grown up and, usually, out being one.) Also: "Infamous political associate of Kim Dotcom".
That is one way of putting it. Maker of his own fiasco, when added to "independent" and "journalist" is another. The stuff of ruined reputations might be another.
He said, fairly cheerfully, that he didn't think he had completely ruined his reputation as a journalist but: "I certainly gave it a good denting". He said I'd have to ask other people how deep the dent is. But raising it again, in a pitch, and an interview, is a rum sort of way to take your reputation to the panel beater, I'd have thought.
He wrote: "I am at a crossroads in my life." So, I thought, having failed to put him off, that, oh well, he's an interesting complicated chap, a bit dented - so why not?
When I arrived at the cafe where we were to meet, I looked about for a former enfant terrible, a scourge of the PM, a stroppy-looking character. He was wearing a suit and a tie and his glasses could have done with a clean.
He looked more like a mid-grade salesman than the scourge of a prime minister. He sort of is. The other thing he was going to be doing in Auckland was having a meeting with a real estate company, who are Scoop clients (they pay to have their logo put on their press releases on that side of Scoop.) So he is also an advertising salesman these days. "Well, I've been doing that for pretty much six or seven years, actually." I wondered if he was any good at it? "Ha, ha, ha. I don't think so. No. But I think it's taken some of the rough edges off the way I communicate with people."
And that is a good thing. "I think so. I mean, the manners in the advertising industry are almost, a little bit, like Jane Austen." Did he need the rough edges taken off? "Probably. Yeah." I was trying to imagine him with Jane Austen manners and, despite the suit, failing.
He has a reputation for being a bit rough around the edges. He said, about his imminent move overseas: "I think I've got a bit tired of New Zealand politics ... I'm over the level of acrimony, which seems to be gradually increasing." He might have been being ironical. I thought he was a leading contributor to the acrimony. "Well, I think it's probably fair to say that I did contribute to it, to some extent." He can be a bit rude at press conferences, I said. There might have been a few terminated thanks to his less than Jane Austen manners and thus endearing him to ... "My colleagues!" he provided, handily.
Was it bad temper? "Not so much bad temper. The prime minister doesn't particularly like having questions asked." I said, as primly as an Austen character and possibly quoting one of his colleagues: "There are ways of asking questions without sounding like a member of the opposition." He said: "It sounds like you're quoting X!"
He is astute, then, and clever and has, I think, long prided himself on his status as something of an outsider - at least from the perspective of not belonging to the mainstream media.
Yet he talks about the time he was waiting to be readmitted to the press gallery as "a period of time in the wilderness", as his "fall from grace". So he did mind. As to why he did what led to his fall from grace ... that's a tangled yarn he's still trying to get the knots out of, I think. I know I am.
He was about to resign from the gallery, was outed in a Whale Oil story about his involvement with Dotcom, then resigned, and fell out with various people along the way.
He says he "early on" would attempt to explain all of this to people but I think he has as much trouble explaining it to himself because: Why on earth did he get involved with Dotcom in the first place? He says he wanted him as a client and that he was a fascinating story and that he tried to talk him out of the idea of a political party. I can't make any sense of any of this but it seems to have something to do with Dotcom wanting to throw a huge birthday party at which people would be signed up for the political party and which the political journalist tried to talk him out of (it would run foul of the electoral commission, almost certainly) while hoping he did go for the birthday party because that would have done for the political party.
"I thought it was an opportunity, potentially, to get him to choose to have a birthday party and then to get rid of the political party. I mean I didn't want to be involved at that stage. I realised that if he was going to go ahead with the political party I really didn't want to be involved because it was going to be such a disaster." Is your head reeling? Mine still is. All of this is like wading through a script of The Thick of It, one which would have been rejected because even Malcolm Tucker, that Machiavellian master, couldn't have pulled off such a scheme. Or any writer such a convoluted storyline.
Anyway, he worked for Dotcom for six days, he says, then quit and emerged, battered and dented, into his wilderness. He said: "The consequences of my stepping over that line were incandescent!" I had by now given up asking interminable questions to which neither of us could answer about why he thought he could step over that line in the first place. (He really does need to get those specs cleaned.) And then, once he did, he came up with that amazingly bonkers party plan! He wasn't cut out to be in the business of politics but also almost anyone could have told him that. And Dotcom does rather create disaster in his wake.
"I sometimes described him as being like a giant, with a large gravitational field, and he sort of throws large objects up ... and they swirl around his gravitational field and they smash anybody that comes near them into smithereens!"
Despite all of that, and his jadedness with New Zealand politics, and all of his years as a political journalist, he is an eternal optimist. I thought he might be one of those cranky old journos. But he's only 46 (he just seems to have been around forever) and despite his rude reputation he was perfectly polite - in the face of some rude questions from me regarding what on earth was going on inside his head, for example.
He does yoga most days and is a "fairly devout Catholic" who was raised an Anglican (he was a choir boy) and converted in 2002, along with his wife, Wendy. He is not sure why except that he started going to a Catholic church and his faith was growing. He attends St Teresas in Karori which is also Bill English's parish church and they say gidday.
He believes in "particularly, mercy; and that we have a universe that loves us. That's where I get my optimism from. I want to believe in an interventionist God because it seems to me that if we didn't have an interventionist God, we'd be pretty stuffed if we were relying on humans to save us from our stupidity. Ha, ha."
He and his wife have twice done the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, which you can do in a variety of ways. They have done the 800km route, over 30 days, walking eight hours a day; and a 900km one, taking 45 days. But why did he want to do it? "People talked about it being life-changing. It forces you to be conscious while you're walking. If you're walking a path that you've never walked before, you can't drift off. You have to look at where you're going otherwise you'll fall over." (His Austen manners may have rubbed off; I managed, just, not to say: Ahem!)
I was imagining him walking, in white robes, perhaps, so I said: "What do you wear?"
"Shoes," he said. "Trousers. T-shirts." So he is not entirely lacking in crankiness. He also complained about annoying Americans on the pilgrimage.
Yoga and God. I couldn't resist reminding him that he had been in the news, scandalously, before, in 1999. He was investigated for allegedly smoking dope in the debating chamber after the Press Gallery Christmas party.
Was he smoking dope in the debating chamber? "No!" Does he still smoke dope? "No!" He has given it up. Immediately after not smoking dope in the debating chamber? "Not immediately afterwards!" Gerry Brownlee dobbed him, and another chap, in. Does he get on with Gerry Brownlee? "Not particularly!"
He did rather ask for all of that because some enfant terrible he turned out to be. "That was probably trying to get you to agree to do this interview!"
As to why he did want to do this interview, I'm still as confused about that as I am by the Dotcom stuff. I might suspect him of wanting to undent his reputation but he didn't try very hard. And given the muddle he made of the Dotcom stuff, he's proven fairly hopeless at machinations. Perhaps it was just another of his unfathomable ideas.
I've settled for deciding that it doesn't really matter. He's certainly an interesting character, tangles and dents and all, and you can't ask for more than that.