The apparent resignation of Alastair Thompson from Scoop – there seems to be some dissent as to whether he has resigned or gone on sabbatical – was triggered by the release of information about his involvement with Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party. If his exit does prove to be permanent, this would be a sad way for Al to end his leadership role at this site. Scoop has been the flagship for alternative journalism in New Zealand for nearly 15 years.
I’ve personally known Al for over 20 years, since he walked in off the street while I was acting features editor at the Listener, and handed over a piece of well-researched journalism into the noise problem at Wellington Airport. Then as now, Al seemed to be a born journalist: curious, idealistic, and impulsive enough not to second guess whether something could really be done. Al just went ahead and did it, somehow. That impulsiveness has now come with a cost. Some of the fallout from his involvement with Dotcom has been at a personal cost for Al, some of it damages Scoop’s reputation. Obviously, this incident has not been helpful to the role envisioned for Scoop by its new investors.
Scoop has always struggled, financially. For much of its existence, it has had to rely on the willingness of the extended Thompson family to keep it afloat. Just before Christmas, Al informed me of his intention to get involved with Dotcom, and added that – understandably – strong misgivings were being voiced within his family about the wisdom of him doing so. At his request, I wrote an outline of the pros and cons for Scoop of his decision, which I did knowing that his decision was a fait accompli, and that the rationale would be used only to try and ease family tension. Ironically, many of the family’s initial misgivings have proven to be well founded.
For those of us connected with Scoop who watched the debacle unfold yesterday – and like everyone else, we did so by reading about it online – the details were alarming. It is painful to draw attention to them because Al’s entrepreneurial drive has been essential to sustaining Scoop as a forum of ideas ; but equally, it is impossible to condone a media outlet signing up the domain name of a political party, while reporting on political events. Al was an associate member of the press gallery. He also had an administrative role with Scoop that required him to generate new business for the site. Some hats that would be shared around in a traditional news organisation were worn by Al alone: such are the economic realities of Web publishing. These multiple roles always had the potential for conflicts of interest in both the political and business coverage.
For a news outlet however, a political client is not just another business client. Especially in an election year, any potential conflicts had to be identified and dealt with beforehand in a way that maintained the necessary distance. Instead, the boundaries in this case were actively blurred.
The domain name registration was indefensible. Left unaddressed, it would have been the sort of thing Scoop would normally seek to investigate and critically expose, if it were being done by anyone else. When that same political party also took out substantial advertising on the news site that has just registered its domain name – preparatory to launch – then the proximity became intolerable. One of the worst things about the situation is that Al’s resignation – assuming that it stands – was almost redundant. It was agreed that he would have been stepping aside anyway, if (a) he went through with his plans to become involved with Dotcom’s party and (b) if Dotcom’s own plans to launch a political party hadn’t fallen apart before then. As things stand though, it is now a moot point whether the unacceptable blurring of boundaries could have been addressed by bringing forward (by a few days or weeks) Al’s stand-down from his role as Scoop editor. The belated emergence of the news about the domain name registration made yesterday’s instant action necessary, and inevitable.
And what of Dotcom’s political party ? Assuming that it does eventuate – and this column will report on it fully once it becomes certain that the Internet Party does not disintegrate before launch – such a party has made a change of government its declared aim. To that extent, Dotcom has the potential to split the existing anti-Key, centre left vote – in much the same way that Ralph Nader did in the 2000 US election – without either winning an electorate or crossing the 5% barrier, nationwide. If so, a significant share of the centre left vote would be wasted. No doubt, Dotcom has foreseen that risk. One can only assume that he believes he can attract large numbers of new voters – most of them young, some of them in south Auckland.
To that extent, Dotcom’s efforts could arguably run in parallel with Labour’s announced plans to mobilise that pool of 800,000 non-voters nationwide, many of them resident in south Auckland. Dotcom certainly has the resources and contacts to wheel in hip hop /EDM artists who would get the attention of young voters way beyond the capacity of Labour and the Greens. Whether he can transform a dance party into a political party still seems a big call however, especially given the need to reach a 5% threshold. Much rests on pure faith that new high calibre political activists would somehow magically emerge out of the woodwork.
Moreover, the party name and scant details released to date suggest that Dotcom intends to focus almost exclusively upon Internet freedoms. In doing so, he seems willing to outsource the boring old political stuff – you know, like having a credible health policy or economic policy – to Labour and the Greens. If so, he cannot hope to have much pull with the libertarian, National leaning voters who might share his zeal for Internet freedom.
Because so much of the Internet Party looks like a toy and vanity project for Dotcom, the likelihood is that such a party will function – at best – as only a voter recruitment vehicle that by mid year, will have lost its ability to amuse Dotcom. Especially if and when the polls are indicating by then that the Internet Party hasn’t a hope of (a) winning a seat or (b) reaching the 5% mark that would make its “kingmaker” role anything more than delusionary. At which point, Dotcom may think that he can throw his imagined legions behind Labour or the Greens. If that’s Plan B, he’s dreaming. The likelihood is that the only lesson that Dotcom will have given to the kids of south Auckland is the one that they’ve already sussed out : never trust a politician. It is distressing to think that Al Thompson may have thrown away so much, for so little.