My weekly Guardian column:
It’s extremely rare to have the genesis of a political smear campaign uncovered for all to see, just like it is uncommon to read the correspondence between senior government officials and media backers to attack opponents and critics. And yet, that’s exactly what is unfolding in New Zealand.
New Zealanders are currently witnesses to an expose of unprecedented proportions. These details are contained in investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s new book, Dirty Politics: How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment. The work has caused an earthquake, entrapping more players every day. New actors like Kim Dotcom are revelling in the outrage, and US journalist Glenn Greenwald has beeninvited to speak in Auckland a few days before the September poll.
The story revolves around prime minister John Key, the conservative leader facing re-election. Hager has obtained information, emails and Facebook messages from the files of right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, founder of the Whale Oil website. The documents show a deep and intimate connection between Slater and Jason Ede, former senior advisor to Key.
The situation is made worse by the allegation that a senior cabinet minister, Judith Collins, established close ties to Slater to bash enemies. Hager claims that the blogger, with the assistance of Ede, breached an unsecured opposition party Labor computer to obtain private information. Labor party head David Cunliffe says the allegations are “the closest New Zealand’s got to its own kind of Watergate”.
Hager is an experienced journalist with a history of receiving leaks from deep inside the establishment. His 2011 book, Other People’s Wars, was an explosive examination of New Zealand’s extensive involvement in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror”. A close associationwith Wikileaks, along with constant attempts to challenge the country’s outward perception of being a quiet nation with few geo-political ambitions, places Hager as a leading, independently minded reporter getting past the spin so dominant in modern politics. He shows how smear, fear and arrogance have become key ingredients of Key’s administration.
Wellington-based blogger Danyl Mclauchlan wrote in mid-August on the significance of Hager’s latest scoop:
“Whatever the wider implications, the book has had a profound effect on me, personally. Something that doesn’t come across in the news coverage about Dirty Politics, and Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Jordan Williams, Simon Lusk et al is just how fucking awful these people are. They spend their lives trying to poison and contaminate our politics. They enjoy seeing people suffer. They get excited by the idea of breaking up the marriages of their political enemies and ruining their lives.”
These sentiments explain why Dirty Politics and its warning extend well beyond New Zealand’s borders. The revelations detail a form of attack-dog politics that’s now common-place in global affairs.
In the book’s preface, Hager explains how Key was desperate to continue his success by constructing a charming public persona while pursuing “ more personal attacks and negative politics than any in living memory.” I asked Hager to tell me more:
“It is about political PR and particularly what the US Republican party strategists have called a two-track approach. This is where the leaders are presented as positive while other people, the second track, conduct personal attacks and dirty tricks against their opponents. There were particularly nasty people doing the government’s dirty work and it didn’t look good for the government when they were exposed.”
This style of politics will be familiar to even a casual observer of insider journalism. It’s a worldwide trend. Journalists routinely receive “exclusive” leaks from government insiders that provide perfect ammunition to attack the other side. Hager shows how in New Zealand, the relationship between government and its media allies suits both their agendas – it simply is the method of today’s corporate politics.
I’m currently in America, where things are eerily similar. Watching Fox News is like a rehearsed ballet: every show over the last week has claimed that president Obama’s response to the murder of journalist James Foley has been so weak because he issued a statement before going back to his golf game while on vacation – host Judge Jeanine’s monologue epitomised the channel’s sentiment.
Arguing over Washington’s response to the ISIS threat is legitimate, but it’s hardly accidental that Obama is being damned for not bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria before dinner-time. Fox News has a history of telling its hosts (and even guests) what to say and think – it’s Republican party PR as journalism.
This brings us back to New Zealand. Hager has been pleasantly surprised by the best-selling success of his book – his biggest yet. He says that the small, local media market risks being abused by powers with ulterior motives. “Our small, mostly foreign-owned media risks being a push over for well organised PR campaigns”, Hager argues. “Political manipulation is helped by poor media. But this isn’t a criticism of the journalists themselves, who of course want to do good work.”
Without a central leaker, Hager would have no book. He salutes their bravery. “We mustn’t fall for the idea that whistleblowers are doing something wrong. They are the natural reaction to undemocratic government.”
The same applies to Australia. We desperately need a healthier leaking culture to uncover the murky dynamics between corporate, media and government interests. It’s a shame so few journalists are willing to foster this environment and protect sources beyond the reach of intelligence agencies so keen to monitor dissent.