Hard News by Russell Brown


If this was ever funny, it's not any more

Two months ago, White Press Secretary in waiting Sean Spicer said in an interview that denying of access to out-of-favour media organisations – as President-elect Trump had done for much of his campaign – would take America from a democracy to a "dictatorship" were the government to do it. Last week, the White House, via Spicer, did it.

A cluster of leading news organisations – including The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed – was excluded from an off-camera briefing which supplanted the usual televised daily press briefing. Reporters from Associated Press walked out after discovering that their colleagues had been banned.

This unprecedented move came in the wake of the accreditation of a kind of media organisation previously unseen at White House briefings. Among them are Right Side Broadcasting (which has commonly been referrred to as "Trump TV" in the past year). But most strikingly, Gateway Pundit has been accredited. If you don't know Gateway Pundit, you're lucky. Its founder, Jim Hoft, is notorious for embracing conspiracy theories so baseless and bizarre that even other wingnuts won't touch them. He is often consequently referred to as "the dumbest man on the internet". But he is reliably – actually, make that maniacally – pro-Trump.

As is the man Hoft has appointed as his White House correspondent: Lucian Wintrich, the Milo-style gay conservative behind "Twinks for Trump", who refers to the President as "daddy".

The intention is clear enough here: experienced political reporters have been having a field day with leaks from inside the dysfunctional Trump White House, and in calling the equally prodigious flow of claims the President and his spokespeople for the demonstrable falsehoods they are. Trump's senior, Steve Bannon, made it clear at CPAC last week that the press should be regarded as "the opposition party". Trump himself described the free press as "the enemy of the people". The last thing they want is to be held to account.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more. Lawrence Douglas was correct to write in The Guardian that the press ban is an attack on democracy itself, but his entreaty to Congressional Republicans – as morally and ethically empty a group as has ever been seated in the Houses – seems unduly hopeful.

The cap on all this came in Carole Cadwalladr's chilling Observer report Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media, which looks at the way the same money has gone into Breitbart, Trump himself – and a sophisticated big data operation aimed at persuading people with without them even knowing they've been persuaded. By, essentially, creating the reality the people paying the bills wish to be perceived. And not only in America.

Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated “bots” – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection – Russian bots, organised by who? – attacking Paul Nuttall.

Cadwalladr continues:

Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”. Though there are many others: “recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism,” explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. “Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives,” says one US state department white paper. “Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.”

Yet another details the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”

The isn't just some crazy conspiracy theory. Cadwalladr has spoken with people who have researched this area deeply and in detail. She's drawing on US and Nato documents. It's happening and it will continue to happen. And, because the internet is everywhere, this isn't just a matter of backing one team in a foreign football competition: wherever this happenes, it happens to us too.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more.


Mt Albert: Cooperating, competing and carpooling

In the week of the Mount Albert by-election, our household received four phone calls about voting. There were two from Labour humans checking that we were planning to vote and knew how and where (one on Saturday), one from the E Tu union, for the salaried journalist in the house, and a surprisingly engaging 58-second robocall from the Labour candidate herself.

The Labour Party clearly not only wanted wanted to win the by-election, it wanted as many voters as possible to turn out for a by-election that had been deprived of its competitive edge by National's decision not to stand a candidate. It probably also relished the chance to test-drive the Auckland electoral engine it figures is essential to any hope of a general election victory later this year.

In the end, Jacinda Ardern won by taking more than three quarters of the votes on an inevitably low turnout. Certain political commentators' fevered predictions that National voters would rush to cast tactical votes for the Green candidate, thus handing Labour a humiliating defeat on home turf, didn't pan out – because normal people don't act that way, especially not on a balmy Saturday in February.

In the end, the Green candidate, Julie Anne Genter, came a very distant second,  8511 votes behind the victor. It would be harsh to say that was because she ran a poor campaign. She was only only candidate apart from Ardern to knock on our front door and ask for votes. She rode around the electorate on a bike decorated with an election hoarding, which sent an appropriate Green message. (She wasn't the only one with a branded vehicle: Ardern had the little red caravan and The Opportunities Party's Geoff Simmons, who placed third, drove around in that alarming van.)

Perhaps this is how Auckland will play out in Auckland in September: Green voters will tick the Labour candidate while their party strategically seeks party votes. But I don't think there is quite the demarcation between local and national campaigning that some people would have you believe. Contact with a candidate is potentially a strong incentive to vote for the party. It's worth being present on the ground.

There's also the chance to shift the public's expectation of general election candidates from other parties. There has not been enough note taken of the passive campaigning of candidates who stood for John Key's National Party three years ago. Up and down the country, they eased to victory (or, least, brought home the party vote) by not turning up at public meetings and letting the Prime Minister make their case. Both Labour and the Greens could make that look as lazy as it is this time around.

What Labour really doesn't want its ally doing is encouraging people to split their votes as if that helps both parties. Labour's big problem in Auckland in 2014 was the number of people who returned well-liked Labour MPs but sent their party votes elsewhere, generally to National.

I think the way Labour sees what happened on Saturday is this: it's a solid stake in the ground and another step towards presenting a strong Auckland team bolstered by fresh talents like Michael Wood and Deborah Russell. That team, so far, has electorate organisations and the party leadership on the same page, which hasn't always been the case for Labour.

The way much of the news media sees it, on the other hand, is OMG JACINDA'S SO POPULAR SHE SHOULD REALLY BE DEPUTY LEADER AND MAYBE EVEN LEADER WOULD YOU VOTE FOR HER AS LABOUR LEADER. Because of course what Labour needs in election year is yet another leadership shakeup.

Yes, Labour needs to present a strong face in Auckland and no, neither Andrew Little or Annette King are from Auckland. But it should be (and presumably is) working on doing that by presenting a strong Auckland lineup: Ardern, Wood, Sepuloni, Russell, Twyford, Henare, Salesa, Sio and, yes, probably even Willie Jackson, who is perceived quite differently in parts of the city than he is at large. I genuinely think Auckland voters will place more value on that than on the symbolism of deputy leadership. How many ordinary people can currently name the deputy leader of any Parliamentary party?

What the Greens and Labour have in common is that a good deal of their electoral relevance in Auckland derives from their success working together in the city's local body elections. For Labour, there's a lot more mileage in making a case to Māori voters in the sight of Paula Bold-Wilson joining Will Flavell on the Henderson-Massey local board, or in Richard Hills (who identifies awith Ngāpuhi) being elected to Council in the North Shore ward, than in having Little blunder through an interview about whether the Māori Party is is "kaupapa Māori". 

By the same token, I was surprised the Greens didn't bite the bullet and put up Chloe Swarbrick in Auckland Central. Auckland's emergent leadership offers quite a compelling story.

Anyway, as things stand, Labour and the Greens have made a pretty good fist of the cooperating part of their election-year alliance. I think that became clear during my chat with Ardern and Genter at Splore. They were so friendly that they carpooled out to Tapapakanga and posed for pictures together afterwards. But there were awkward moments when it came to talking about their respective electoral brands (Jacinda: just a thought, but it might be better not to refer to your allies as a "small party"). Still, they did both seem genuinely pleased when I brought up the by-election phenomenon of households like the one pictured below. There are worse ways to be seen in an election year.


Friday Music: Nadia 2

It's a testament to the power and control of Nadia Reid's singing and playing that matching her studio recordings in session seems to hold no fears for her. And thus was the case with her BBC 6 Music Live Room session, recorded last week for Marc Riley's show during a 12-date European tour that finishes this weekend:

You can listen to the rest of the session here on the 6 Music website

The song is one of two previewed from her second album, Preservation, which is out next Friday (and can be pre-ordered here on Bandcamp and here for the LP and CD). The other is 'Richard', which, as she acknowledges in this Otago Daily Times interview, is about a former beau. She's been playing it live for some time, but on record it's a demonstration of the unusual sounds producer Ben Edwards can create in his Sitting Room studio in Lyttelton. ('Reaching Through' on her first album is another example, although when I win Lotto I'm going to bankroll her to go to Nashville and re-record it with an orchestra and five guitarists.)

Her New Zealand tour in support of the album begins in Port Chalmers on March 30 and finishes up at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on April 8.


You can never hope to catch more than a a fraction of the music at Splore, and that's okay. There's always more than music happening and sometimes  the right thing to do it just hang with your friends and enjoy each other's company. But I did hear plenty I liked: Blackalicious were vibrant on Friday night, Dub Pistols were 100% party-time on Saturday night and Fat Freddy's Drop, with a memorable cameo from the mud people of the audience, were perfect for Sunday Splore.

But the big discovery for me wasn't a band, but a DJ. Denmark's Courtesy fired up on Splore's DJ stage shortly before midnight on Saturday – and she was wild and amazing. I'm not sure I've heard anyone mix like that with vinyl. As Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne observes, her intense, physical style "gives the set the kind of life and spirit you simply don't get with automated beatmatching".

And guess what? She's playing Whammy bar in Auckland tonight. If that's past your bedtime (it certainly is mine this weekend), there are a few mixes available on her Soundcloud. They don't entirely tally with what I recall of Saturday night – that seemed more house and less techno – but they offer an idea of what she's about.


One thing I did miss at Splore was Pitch Black's performance. I obliged myself to be back at camp in bed by midnight because I needed to be up and running the Listening Lounge talk programme the next morning. As it transpired, I lay in my tent and heard them loud and clear – and they sounded brilliant. They're playing Neck of the Woods on Karangahape Road next Friday along with International Observer, Deep Fried Dub, Digital Playground and DJ Dubhead. International Observer is on at 10pm and Pitch Black at 11.30.

If you can't make that, here's a look at the extraordinary digital projection they deployed at Splore:

And finally on the Splore tip: I posted some pics I took there.


The longlist for the 2017 Taite Music Prize is out.

The remarkable Newtown Festival has revealed its lineup for Sunday week and it includes Hex, Salad Boys, Mel Parsons, Peach Milk, SoccerPractise, French for Rabbits and and a lot more.

And Cut off Your Hands have been announced as the support for all three of The Pixies' forthcoming NZ dates. Good match: COYH are unabashed about their new wave roots – enough to toss in a blazing cover of Talking Heads' 'Crossed and Painless' in their Laneway set just after the release of their own distinctly Talking Heads-ish new single:


One thing I've really been enjoying in the past few months on 95bFM is the new, earlier timeslot (7-10pm) for Stinky Grooves on Tuesday nights. If you're not in broadcast range, you can catch Stinky Jim's round-up of all manner of rhythms here on his b-casts page (being podcasts, they're wickedly downloadable) – or here on his own website, where he provides the full playlists and more.

Also on the b tip: The Phoenix Foundation headline 95bFM Bands in the Park, Albert Park, Friday March 10 from midday


Audioculture has dug up a Mockers story I wrote for Rip It Up way back in 1984.

And on the same site, Michael Brown offers 10 riffs on the Māori strum.


Elsewhere, the Trainspotting 2 soundtrack is fun.

Depeche Mode are unimpressed by Richard Spencer's claim that they are "the official band of the alt-right".

A new Shazam-like product that could lead to public performance rights revenue being dsitributed more accurately and fairly.

And an interesting Annie Mac-fronted short BBC doco about the fate of Britain's nightclubs:



Auckland's A Label Called Success is as busy as ever. Newish, this chilled little number with parping digital horns:


The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:


Representing New Zealand music


Splore 2017

I'm a fitful photographer at festivals: I kick off keen but by the time the party really starts, I'm happy enough to simply avoid losing my phone, let alone take it out and point it at things.

And thus it was at Splore 2017. There are no pictures of Saturday night. But I did take a few during the four days I was on site at Tapapakanga Regional Park. Here they are.

Feel free to add your own: just use the "file upload" button under the comment window. 500kb to 1MB is a good size.


Sky and 2020

On May 1 this year, it will be 21 years since Telecom launched its first real consumer ISP – Xtra – kicking off the mainstreaming of of the internet in New Zealand. The company had finally surrendered its stance that the country needed no more than its business IT services and its (already by then old-fashioned) educational network NZ Online, and the more adventurous ordinary folks flocked to pay $5 an hour to "cybersurf".

But Telecom offered more than a connection. Xtra was also a content provider. Behind the infamous X-ville image map lay a small media empire, offering news and magazine content, generated by a mostly young, keen editorial team. A few months later, Clear Communications took a similar tack with with the Clear Net home page.

Phone companies clearly felt that they needed interests in content to woo customers online – and, hopefully, tap them for a little more cash once they got there. Xtra's excitable, unorthdox general manager, American Chris Tyler, pitched we journalists his vision of developing a "media engine" that Telecom would soon be able to sell to other telcos.

In the end, it came to fairly little. Xtra soldiered on as an editorial enterprise for some time, but it became clear that customers could find their own stuff online and Telecom would have little success in fencing them in to its own offerings. These days, Xtra.co.nz resolves to the Yahoo NZ page, a home for commodity news and the country's worst commenters.

A few weeks ago, I heard, second-hand, the thoughts of one of the Vodafone managers working on his company's proposed merger with Sky TV. He was astonished at how old-fashioned the culture was there, at how poorly they understood the internet. It confirmed my guess that Sky, which has prospered (to the extent that it still makes most of the money in New Zealand television) under the nailed-down model of pay TV, desperately needed the relative hipness of a telco partner.

In a sense, Sky is Telecom 20 years ago; a company with a prodigious lock on the market being forced by new entrants to do things it has traditionally not wanted to do. Vodafone could be its change agent.

Or not, as it transpires. The Commerce Commission has, to some surprise, declined clearance for the deal. The Commission's chair Mark Berry explained the reasoning today:

“The proposed merger would have created a strong vertically integrated pay-TV and full service telecommunications provider in New Zealand owning all premium sports content. We acknowledge that this could result in more attractive offers for Sky combined with broadband and/or mobile being available to consumers in the immediate future. However, we have to take into account the impact of a merger over time, and uncertainty as to how this dynamic market will evolve is relevant to our assessment,” Dr Berry said.

“Around half of all households in New Zealand have Sky TV and a large number of those are Sky Sport customers. Internationally, the trend for bundles that package up broadband, mobile and sport content is growing. Given the merged entity’s ability to leverage its premium live sports content, we cannot rule out the real chance that demand for its offers would attract a large number of non-Vodafone customers.

“To clear the merger we would need to have been satisfied that it was unlikely to substantially lessen competition in any relevant market. The evidence before us suggests that the potential popularity of the merged entity’s offers could result in competitors losing or failing to achieve scale to the point that they would reduce investment or innovation in broadband and mobile markets in the future. In particular, we have concerns that this could impact the competiveness of key third players in these markets such as 2degrees and Vocus.

“This is also against a backdrop of fibre being rolled out, making it an opportune time for the merged entity to entice consumers to a new offer. If significant switching occurred, the merged entity could, in time, have the ability to price less advantageously than without the merger or to reduce the quality of its service. Given we are not satisfied that we can say that competition is unlikely to be substantially lessened by the proposed merger, we must decline clearance.”

Sky's shares are tumbling in the hours since the news. And yet, Sky made nearly half a billion dollars in revenue and $60 million in profits in the past year. The local launch of the Viceland channel on Sky also serves as a caution about the real ability of content creators to make money on the open internet. Even Vice, the enfant terrible of online TV, realised it needed the reliable dollars of linear television. Sure, the growth is over, but the income isn't.

But there's a cliff-edge ahead. In 2020, New Zealand Rugby renegotiates its coverage deal, which sustains the game in this country. The chair of NZ Rugby's board is Brent Impey, the former CEO of MediaWorks. Does anyone think he won't do everything he can to control those rights and maximise the benefit to his organisation?

It's not hard to see Impey approaching Spark (or, for that matter, Vodafone) and pitching them a deal where they do all the hard stuff – technical delivery, marketing, customer relations – in exchange for the ability to bundle premium content with their services. As Spark has demonstrated on a smaller scale with Lightbox, telcos don't even need to directly make money from that content.

2020 is also the year targeted for 80% of New Zealand households to have access to fibre internet – and for the special regulations pertaining to the UFB rollout to be replaced by a new regulatory framework. MBIE began taking feedback on what that new framework should look like in July last year.

The submissions make interesting, if dense, reading. Most submitters, including Spark and Vodafone, view the Commission's proposed 15mbit/s "anchor" product as plainly unambitious (given that our early-adopter household already has gigabit service, yeah). Retail providers are looking forward to having access to "dark fibre" on the network, rather than buying services from Chorus. But however the rules eventually fall, it seems clear that 2020 will be a year of change: new means of wholesale acccess, new products – and the availability of the country's most valuable screen content.

It seems clear that 2020 is going to be a very interesting year.