Kiwiblog – David Farrar’s nine-year old baby

By David Cohen In Technology

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David Farrar, photo by David White

When he was a kid, David Farrar suffered from a grinding speech defect. Language had arrived relatively late, and when the magic finally came it sometimes felt like the words were sticking to the back of his throat, crawling out of his mouth, marking him as some kind of fool. For a time, life seemed to have delivered him a raw deal. As he recalls, it took the better part of a decade of intensive speech therapy to get his language fully up and running.

Even in 2012, Farrar admits, he sometimes needs to practise a new word as many as a dozen times before he feels confident enough to wheel it out in one of his familiar public appearances. But what he remembers the most about that challenging period is not so much the speech therapy he received as the moral instruction provided by the same therapist. Her name was Mrs Gordon and she worked near Kimi Ora School, a specialneeds institution in Wellington whose pupils usually lack motor skills to a signifi – cant degree, often cannot com municate using speech and have little chance of ever leading an unassisted life. “I remember one day feeling a bit miserable for myself, and saying so. So Mrs Gordon took me across the road to Kimi Ora, where, you know, people have very, very challenging significant disabilities,” Farrar says. “I don’t think I ever again did the woe-is-me routine.”

Around this time he was also working as a paperboy delivering the Evening Post. Officially, he did just the one round, but he would help out friends by sometimes doing up to three runs. This was in the 1970s, when Wellington’s afternoon newspaper went to virtually every house in the greater city, and it’s not hard to imagine the now morally chastened young Farrar marvelling as he clattered along the streets of Island Bay at the power of the mass communication media to magnify one person’s reportage or commentary for the benefit of thousands. Today, the Post is long gone, and much of the surviving news media isn’t in great shape. But Farrar’s gravelly voice is doing just fine, thanks to the national billet he now enjoys as a one-man opinion industry whose efficiently grammatical media performances are many and whose regular online followers now number more than some fully staffed news operations.

Farrar makes his home in a restless Thorndon penthouse uncluttered with knick-knacks, obvious family memorabilia or, it has to be said, social pretension. Instead, in the main room at least, one beholds electronic gadgetry, a smattering of mostly unopened packages from Amazon and, curiously, a pair of binoculars. At 44, he looks in relatively reasonable shape, all smiles and throaty chuckles as he greets his visitor like a long-lost enemy. Thanks to regular visits to the gym, the Bunter esque figure Farrar used to carry appears to be receding, even if his diminutive stature and weight still lend his gait something of a rolling quality as he makes his way over to a sofa to start the afternoon’s reveries.

His mother is a fifth-generation New Zealander, descended from an Anglo-Scot who arrived here in the early 1840s and was apparently distantly related to Mark Twain. On his father’s side, the family story gets choppier. An Austrian grandfather, Fritz Feuer, was briefly interned in a European concentration camp before he and his wife, Fritzi, made their way to New Zealand, changing their name to Farrar en route and determining to live an assimilated life in their adopted Antipodean homeland. The family’s Jewish dimension only dawned on David as a teenager after he remarked to his mother that a friend at school was Jewish, whereupon his mother mentioned their family’s own background – a fact that still pops up from time to time in his work.

Farrar himself came of cultural age during the Robert Muldoon era. His first abiding political memory is of the night of the National Party’s landslide victory in 1975. Three years later, he again stayed up late on election night, tallying the votes, and feeling pleased as he did to see they were solidly going National’s way. By the still-tender age of 19, he had “pretty much accidentally” become a regional chairman of the Young Nationals. This last role was to be as much a learning curve in media etiquette as conservative policy. “I had quite a good lesson at my first regional conference on the perils of speaking candidly to the media … well, not candidly but unguardedly, because they interviewed me after my speech and asked me questions, like ‘Are you taken seriously by the senior party?’ And I said sort of ‘No’. Then they asked, ‘What age do you have to be to be a Young National?’ and I said “under 60”, and then, ‘What if they don’t take you seriously and don’t listen to you?’, and I said, ‘Well, we’ll be here in 30 years and they may not be.’”

Possibly to the discomfort of some older party members, this cheerful interlude made it onto the following evening’s news bulletin. It was the time of homosexual law reform in New Zealand, and Farrar had just begun his studies at the University of Otago. “I was quite conservative – I’d even use the term homophobic – and at university that became exposed. I was actually anti-homosexual law reform, God forbid, or at least had concerns about it. But over the four years at university, as my social circles expanded, as I got to have gay friends, my views changed quite dramatically. So you can see I was becoming philosophically more coherent in terms of the classical liberal view of what the state can and can’t tell people about how to live their lives.”

Despite these useful life lessons, however, he didn’t graduate from Otago, or from Victoria University, where his part-time studies in the mid-1990s were interrupted by a job offer for what would become an eight-year stint with the National Party, including a couple of years working for then Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. “It would be nice to finish a degree,” he says today. “I don’t like not finishing things.” Including relationships? Farrar has never married or lived with anyone, as it happens, something he puts down to the long hours he keeps and a busy travel schedule. “I don’t put enough time into relationships, it’s really as simple as that. But, you know, on the good side, I’ve never had a relationship end particularly badly.” His current status? “It’s, um, complicated,” he says after a moment’s silence. “Look,” he continues, “I would like to have kids and have a family. I love my nieces and I think one of the greatest contributions you can make is bringing up good kids. To some degree I’ve been trying in the last six months – and partly succeeding – to get better work/life balance so I’ve got more time for that. So yeah, I’m still hopeful. I’m lucky, being a guy, that we don’t have the biological time clock to the same degree.”

On the other hand, of course, Farrar is the proud father of a bouncing nine-year old baby named Kiwiblog, whose sometimes lunatic cries – more than 8000 registered have posted more than 800,000 comments: the arithmetic speaks for itself – have often kept him awake at night, and for whose life he has given much worldly insight – more than 22,000 posts to date. The work constitutes the keynote of his public existence, a squall of political bromides, number-crunching, names of the rich and famous and jerky travelogues, and clearly there have been many takers. Impressively, figures from the Nielsen Market Intelligence Total Domain survey in March 2012 show Kiwiblog attracted more than 257,000 sessions across the month from almost 70,000 unique browsers, making it one of the Market Intelligence Top 100 unique browser-ranked website brands. It boasts three times as many monthly unique browsers as Public Address. Little wonder that Farrar’s blogging efforts are better known than, for example, his work with the New Zealand Internet Society, or managing his own polling company, Curia, both of which have gathered steam over the same period.

In a sense, though, the success of Kiwiblog seems like a perfect complement to those activities, in the same way blogging at its best – and Farrar’s success surely earns that accolade – fits the media landscape of the past decade. In much the same way that poetry is verse that cannot be exactly expressed in prose, blogging is journalism that cannot be quite compressed into reportage, and the popular reach of Farrar’s better work rather illustrates that point. He may be no great shakes as a stylist, still less a disinterested pundit, but he lightens the load of those who are. It would be difficult to find a working political reporter who doesn’t check Kiwiblog’s political offerings at least a couple of times a day for possible godsends. “There are a number of factors why Kiwiblog took off as well as it did – and why it continues to do well,” Farrar adds, ticking a couple off on his fingers.

First, he says, there’s how much time one puts into it, and Farrar, who like his early political heroine Margaret Thatcher can get by on little sleep, has put in oodles. Which in turn has led him to discover one of the counter-intuitive truths of the commentary racket: far from tiring of a pundit’s voice, many readers will incorporate it into their daily routines and demand it all the more. Another positive factor, according to this lifelong National Party man, is what he sees as the need to sometimes criticise one’s own political team. During the year Farrar was working for his party and actively blogging, “there actually were attempts to close it down from some people in the National caucus because sometimes I was saying things that weren’t totally in line there”. He shakes his head sorrowfully. “I was probably quite lucky to survive.”

This may be overegging the narrative a bit. Much like the academics who court the label of being the nation’s “critic and conscience” without ever putting much visible effort into the conceit, Farrar has to some extent created a reputation for himself as a provocateur (his website picture was photoshopped to make him look like the Devil) without ever going to the trouble of offering genuinely dangerous opinions. Then again, as left-leaning political-consultant-turned-commentator John Pagani notes, Farrar’s apparently easygoing tone might be among his greatest advantages. “He has a more reasonable tone than, say, the left blog the Standard, whose idea of political is embittered and angry and it’s therefore hard to read,” says Pagani, who has sparred often with Farrar on Newstalk ZB. “He is actually a seasoned political operative who intuitively knows pressure points for his opponents and much of what he publishes is cunning and designed to create political pressure, like a good parliamentary question.”

But it would be a mistake to assess Farrar’s work in terms of pure commentary. Rather, his real skill is as a “rational explainer” of the centre-right position in New Zealand politics, interpreting what the Government is doing using reason and reasonableness, often to great effect. He pours cold water early on potential emerging issues that need to be put to bed. He uses humour to defuse potential future problems for the Government, and he quickly catches out inconsistencies, hypocrisy and incoherence in the words and deeds of the Opposition. One former parliamentary worker turned senior public servant puts it this way: “Farrar’s advantage over the Press Gallery is that he has a much deeper knowledge of parliamentary procedure, how to read Crown accounts, what has been happening in Parliament since the 1970s and how to interpret opinion polls than is available in the ranks of daily political journalism in New Zealand. “So, even if you aren’t on the centreright, he’s worth reading because he will regularly have genuinely interesting insights into what’s happening … and as for his summary of polls from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, I’ve never seen anything so concise.”

If only he had a dollar for every time his online work found its way into the news. By Farrar’s reckoning, Kiwiblog nets him “around” $2.60 an hour, a figure he calculates on his income from the advertising his site attracted in the second half of 2010, which he puts at $14,000, of which “30% goes to my advertising agent, 20% to my ISP and 10% to Fred Hollows Foundation, who were voted the Kiwiblog charity. Of the remaining 40% Bill English and the IRD kindly take a third off me. So I actually get about 28c of the dollar of not a lot to start with.” So, what’s the motivation? “Because I love doing it,” he replies. But will the readers continue to love him for doing it? In 2003, it was a commonplace among bloggers to predict the news media’s imminent demise. And to be sure, in 2012, the media continues to live in challenging times. Yet many bloggers seem to be doing worse. Recently, the Economist, which only a few years earlier had heralded the permanent arrival of the blog (“it’s all about the links, stupid”), reported that two of the world’s most popular hosting sites, Blogger and WordPress, are in a state of chronic stagnation.

The reasons seem obvious enough. The challenges of writing over any sustained period are hard. Couple that with the lack of a working business model for making money from it, not to mention the dramatic upsurge of social media, and this great new form is clearly at risk of assuming the dinosaur status its practitioners once delighted in conferring on the dreaded mainstream media. Even on Farrar’s own site, a long list of recommended blogs now mostly contains dead or inactive links. Yet Farrar continues to pull in the punters, adding new fans even as he bemuses those among his competitors still left standing. “He’s very good company in person,” says Russell Brown of Public Address and TV3’s Media3 (which starts next week), “but I confess I don’t read Kiwiblog very often these days. Sometimes he struggles with the feral end of his readership, but I think other times he plays to it … I admire his productivity, if not always everything he writes.”

For now, the kid who once could barely speak seems happy enough with the full throttle public voice he has now acquired. “I’d like to keep blogging until the day I die,” he declares. “I like having a voice, and even though I’m a supporter of National, I actually like to say I’m now in my own party – the Kiwiblog party. It’s great to have a voice where you can say 100% of the time this is what you actually think on an issue.”

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