The election is nearly six months away, but National is already winning the media war.

Herald political commentator John Armstrong cannot recall an earlier start to the unofficial campaign, which has so far been notable for "frippery, sideshows and the inconsequential".

But diversionary tactics and John Key's popularity have worked, and Labour is not getting a chance to promote its policies.

National has developed a media network incorporating the Whale Oil website, Kiwiblog and commentators Matthew Hooton and Michelle Boag.


They have been feeding the media appetite for short, sharp crises to fill online news space.

It is Labour's job to counter National's influence over the news agenda. But it does not have many of its own partisans in the media; the left-leaning website The Daily Blog does not have an audience to compare with Whale Oil.

Matt McCarten was an articulate voice for the left during his time as a columnist for the Herald On Sunday, but he is now working for Labour.

The influence of Whale Oil was apparent on Wednesday night, when TV3 parliamentary reporter Brook Sabin revealed that Kim Dotcom owns a rare, signed copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf - a founding document for the Nazi ideology. Sabin, a promising young journalist, asked Dotcom if owning the book meant he agreed with Hitler.

Cameron Slater
Cameron Slater

Dotcom said he was no Nazi, and was simply a collector of such texts.

A few minutes later the pro-National blogger Cameron Slater - an assiduous Dotcom critic - "coincidentally" posted about the Hitler book on his Whale Oil website. It appears Slater sparked the item, with his inquiries prompting Dotcom to feed the story to TV3, hoping to get in first.

TV3 news and current affairs director Mark Jennings says Sabin had been working on the story for weeks.

In the end Sabin's coverage was hyped, but valid given Dotcom's foray into politics. But hanging over the TV3 report was the totalitarian notion that someone who owns a book such as Mein Kampf has something to answer for. What's next - searches through MPs' bookshelves to see if they include any unwholesome reading material?


TV3's Sun-style tabloid treatment would have slipped by, had not political editor Patrick Gower weighed in and hyped the Mein Kampf issue even further.

He thought the Nazi memorabilia gave Prime Minister John Key the upper hand against Dotcom, and even alluded to Key's mother being an Austrian Jew.

Gower, once a Herald reporter, has become a phenomenon in the press gallery, thanks to his appearance and his aggressive tabloid persona.

He learned at the knee of his mentor, former TV3 political editor Duncan Garner, and, indeed, shows some of Garner's mannerisms.

Gower is regarded as a major point of difference for TV3 news, and Jennings has given him free rein.

But in my opinion Gower's treatment of the Mein Kampf story adds to a perception that he is sun-struck by the glare of Key's popularity in the opinion polls.


Mike Hosking on the TVNZ current affairs show Seven Sharp 28. Photo / TVNZ
Mike Hosking on the TVNZ current affairs show Seven Sharp 28. Photo / TVNZ

I hear Mike Hosking is having a significant influence on the editorial focus of TV One's 7pm show, Seven Sharp. That may have contributed to improved ratings under its new, more traditional format. Beyond his Friday comment signoffs, he is also influencing what gets covered. Like Paul Henry and John Campbell at TV3 - who also influence editorial issues - it makes sense. They are experienced broadcasters with good contacts. But there is a danger of being caught up in one person's agenda, and that is an issue in an election year.

Former TV3 3rd Degree presenter Guyon Espiner also has extra editorial influence in his new job at Morning Report, though unlike the other three, he does not wear his politics on his sleeve. His Wellington based co-host Susie Ferguson will also have a greater influence over the programme's content, though neither will have an additional title. The pair take over Morning Report on Wednesday. New theme music is expected, and behind the scenes there are ructions over changes to news values, and a more proactive approach to the news.

Insiders expect significant change in the middle management rungs at state radio.


Senior staff resignations are expected at Maori Television with the appointment of Paora Maxwell as chief executive on the eve of the channel's tenth birthday today. Head of production Carol Hirschfeld - an early candidate for the CEO job - is expected to be among the first to move on. A well-placed source says the head of news and current affairs, former Native Affairs presenter Julian Wilcox, who also applied, is expected to stay.

Georgina Te Heu Heu and Paora Maxwell. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Georgina Te Heu Heu and Paora Maxwell. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

A source familiar with the situation says other staff are looking at their options, seeing the appointment as signalling a more conservative approach by the channel.

Maxwell has dismissed fears of any weakening of current affairs, saying he plans to "unleash" it instead.

But Native Affairs' coverage of problems in the kohanga reo movement has upset some members of the Maori Establishment, who have complained to the Maori TV board. The Maori Party supported Maxwell when he was criticised in Parliament.

There are valid issues. Some in Maoridom want more Maori language promotion. But many Maori do not speak the language, and a shift away from English language content would diminish the audience. Some believe that past management has been too dismissive of people concerned that the channel has been "Pakeha-fied."

One well-placed source familiar with board thinking says that commissioning a non-Maori production company - Top Shelf Productions - to make a media programme co-presented by Russell Brown and a Maori presenter, has encouraged calls for change. The show is planned to launch in July.


TVNZ is considering a complaint from Justice Minister Judith Collins over an item on the Oravida issue. Collins was furious over the report, which related to comments made in Parliament that led TVNZ to claim she had burned her last chance with John Key. It appears the report misconstrued events.

Collins' office rejected a suggestion that she had threatened defamation action against the TV channel, but confirmed an official complaint had been laid. It is now being investigated by TVNZ.

Political complaints are hardly uncommon in an election year.

In the past, political parties - National, particularly - made complaints at the start of an election year to put the state broadcaster on notice.

This year TVNZ is already on the back foot with an inquiry into possible Labour bias in its Maori and Pacific department while Shane Taurima was in charge.


Legal observer and journalist Jock Anderson will be writing a column for - part of a package of new business content created in preparation for the news site's planned paywall, expected in the third quarter of this year. Anderson was a commentator on NewstalkZB and is best known for his work at the National Business Review featuring the satirical character "Our Man at the Bar". That character will feature in his Herald online column.

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