Hard News by Russell Brown

40

Never mind the quality ...

Well, hold the top of the post. Before you read on, the update on what's written below. New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie has tweeted the following:

I never like the feeling of doing anyone out of a gig, but this does seem an appropriate decision. The Herald has also emphasised that Bryce Edwards will continue to write for the paper's website.

Also, I didn't connect it at the time, but althgh he set Twitter a-flurry, Bryce didn't really "reveal" anything. Audrey Young's column of July 28 was about the paper's campaign lineup and included this:

Guest columnists will include the acerbic Cactus Kate from the radical right, former Labour candidate Josie Pagani and broadcaster Mark Sainsbury.

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Bryce Edwards revealed on Twitter last night that he hasn't been invited back as one of the New Zealand Herald's outside columnists for the election campaign. Instead, the paper of record has opted for Josie Pagani and Cathy Odgers.

Yup. Cathy Odgers.

I presume the decision was made before Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics cast its unflattering light on on her character. (Well, let's be frank: on her humanity.) But the Herald's editors presumably believe the value of her dull, clunky prose and facile zingers outweighs the reputational damage of showcasing someone who solicited a journalist's address in the hope of "vicious" retribution.

Pagani, on the other hand, seems more popular with the mainstream media than amongst people on the "left" she'll be nominally representing in the paper and spends a lot of time justifying herself. (Last week on Pundit, she somehow managed to make an outraged post on Dirty Politics be about people being mean to Josie Pagani.) She writes serviceably well but I wouldn't be looking for any dazzling distillations of the political zeitgeist.

The pair have been picked for the printed paper, but will also presumably have their columns online. Odgers will say stupid shit and commenters will reply by quoting passages from Hager's book at her. Pagani will dispense her usual third-way nostrums and Martyn Bradbury will write three posts a day denouncing her. Both will be boring.

But here's the dirty little secret of newspaper opinion columns. Tendentious, partisan arguments generate more traffic via comments than finely-worked theses and sparkling prose.

At which point I should confess: you know what else drives traffic? Angry political conflagrations like that generated by Nicky Hager's book.

I was out of town working last Thursday and Friday and my Wednesday evening post about the book wasn't much more than a way of launching a topic I knew people would want to discuss. We're now at 738 comments on that post and Analytics is showing 119,000 page impressions off 47,000 user sessions in the past seven days.

This is gratifying, but also a bit of a pain. The fact that this place works as it does is a matter of active moderation, almost all of which is done by me. You're a great bunch, but I've had to remonstrate a lot more than usual. It's going to be a busy four weeks.

But I am interested in receiving pitches for informed commentary during the campaign, especially on policy, but also on the political process. I can't promise I'll want to run it, but send me your best shot and we'll see how it goes.

205

We can do better than this

When I got off a plane in Christchurch last week, having read nearly all of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment, I turned on my phone and typed these words in a tweet: "Christ, what hideous people."

I was shocked and I seem to have been far from alone in my response to the book. Danyl Mclauchlan and Andrew Geddis have both written great posts along those lines and I don't really have much to add. But I do have some thoughts as a journalist.

There have been calls for the central figure in the book, Whaleoil blog publisher Cameron Slater, to lose the Canon Media Award he won this year. I'm not particularly interested in campaigning for that  -- it's a matter for the organisers and I don't really care. But I do have some thoughts about what Rick Neville, chief executive of Canons organiser the Newspaper Publishers Association, said in a statement to Media Take:

... the only justification for even considering this would be if concrete evidence came forward of illegal or highly unethical methods having been used to obtain the Len Brown story. Nicky Hager has made a number of allegations but these are not the same as evidence or proof.

Actually, we do know and did know long before the award was given that Slater had pressured, manipulated and abused his source, a vulnerable woman, and then vilified her when she told her story to another journalist. We didn't need the book to tell us that. We knew there was substantial evidence that Slater was not principally acting as a journalist, but as part of a nasty -- and, lets be honest, somewhat banal -- attempt to bring down an elected mayor and install his opponent. We could read it in the newspapers.

No one could with a straight face have given an award to the actual story Slater used these means to publish. It was a vile, pornographic tract designed principally to hurt, harm and shame. The reports that did subsequently raise real questions about Brown's conduct as a public official -- principally, his acceptance of free and discounted hotel rooms -- were delivered by Jared Savage and others at the New Zealand Herald.

Giovanni Tiso has a good post that looks at the same issues.

In 2012, I was shown an email conversation in which Slater bluntly demanded money to write posts in favour of a particular PR agency's client. I subsequently got Slater to admit on Media3 that he did indeed take money run certain lines on his blog.

Dirty Politics says that this was not only routine, but that Slater's $6,555 monthly stipend from Carrick Graham's Facilitate Communications formed a major part of the Whaleoil blog's income. That Slater more or less constantly published under his own name posts by Graham, Jordan Williams, Jason Ede and others, and that many of those posts were smears and attacks on public health advocates like Doug Sellman, Tony Falkenstein and Women's Heath Action, published in the interests of paying clients such as the Food and Grocery Council.

The book also says that Fonterra was a client, via the Food and Grocery Council. Hager can't directly tie Fonterra to the nastiest of it -- a series of posts attacking breast-feeding advocates (who wanted restrictions on the sale of infant formula) as the "Brestapo" -- and offers only "grounds to suspect" that. Fonterra has emphatically denied any involvement. But he told me on Media Take that he had seen invoices linking Fonterra to Whaleoil. If those invoices are released by Hager's now independently-acting source, that opens up a whole new front on this sprawling story.

The morning after the book's release, Slater confirmed to Sean Plunket on Radio Live that he had, as stated in the book, sought sexual dirt on Duncan Garner after Garner had annoyed him. Slater explained this is simply being what journalists do. Both men seemed to find some mirth in this (Slater actually giggled), but I doubt Garner felt the same way. At this year's Canons, a jubilant Slater offsider told someone I know (a journalist who I have no reason to disbelieve) that they had a "hit" in the bag on Patrick Gower, should one be necessary. This isn't "normal" and we should resist any attempt to normalise it. It's evil.

But there is an extent to which political journalists especially are required to play the game. If Gower got his Mein Kampf story on Dotcom from Slater (and I don't know if that's true) he wouldn't be doing his job if he refused a further story. The Herald's David Fisher, no friend of Slater, confirmed to Media Take that he had quoted Slater as a source in several stories and there are probably a couple more in which Slater was involved anonymously.

Politicians also tip off journalists, and that's an acceptable part of political media if it leads to stories in the public interest, which I think can be quite widely defined. One small example of this happening to me is footnoted in the Hager book.

When someone from the side of the Auckland city council aligned with Dick Hubbard, who had been dumped out of the mayoral office the year before by a resurgent John Banks, asked me in 2008 look at what seemed like a campaign of malicious Wikipedia editing by by Banks' advisor Aaron Bhatnagar, I did. And I was able to determine that Bhatnagar, under the pseudonym "Barzini" had in fact been maliciously editing Wikipedia articles on his opponents.

He and David Farrar had been attacking Christine Caughey for a submission to the Justice and Electoral committee’s review of the 2007 local body elections seeking regulation of "advertising by way of blogging [and] use of Wikipedia or similar". So, yes, there was a public interest in showing what Bhatnagar had been doing.

Four years earlier, a reader had directed me to an open directory on Bhatnagar's website that contained images, including PDFs from the NBR's infamous hit job on Hubbard, that gave lie to Bhatnagar's disingenuous laments about others on his side falling prey to the "dark side" in distributing such material. It's actually quite similar to the Labour Party's website issues in 2011, if on a tinier scale. But I didn't download screeds of personal information and discuss using it to hurt people and breach their privacy.

Justice Minister Judith Collins has acknowledged feeding Slater the name of a civil servant, Simon Pleasants, she believed had leaked information abut Bill English's use of accommodation allowances. Pleasants was named and attacked in Whaleoil and subjected to death threats in the comments. Revenge is a constant theme in the book and, it appears, a frequent theme in Collins and Slater's correspondence. It's pretty ghastly.

We don't have to accept this. We're not obliged to believe Slater's "tipline" is any more than slime fed to him by a handful of allies in the government, or part of a commercially-ordained PR hit job. We know now that much of what Slater publishes under his own name is written by the likes of Carrick Graham Simon Lusk and Jordan Williams. We ought to be able to see the naked spin that has poured forth since Hager's book was published last week for what it is.

And when I say "we" I include the majority of decent people in the National Party. The 'Simon Lusk's Plan' chapter in the book -- which has barely been reported -- states that there are MPs who are in Parliament principally because they were clients of Lusk, who worked with Slater to deter and even destroy their opponents in electorate selection races. Good people were really hurt.

In one of the early reports that annoyed me, Radio New Zealand's political editor Brent Edwards, talked about smears being unleashed to "blogs" and "the blogosphere". Actually, we're not all like that. The multitude of bloggers, political bloggers included, have no part in this. And while the cynical side of politics is not new, I do believe that the scope, scale and nature of what is described in Hager's book is unprecedented.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can, all of us, do better than this.

Tonight's Media Take, at 10.20pm on Maori Television, focuses entirely on Dirty Politics and includes separate interviews with Nicky Hager, conducted by me and by Toi Iti. We're proud of the show.

761

Dirty Politics

That there was a connection between Whaleoil, Kiwiblog and a senior advisor in the Prime Minister's office, Jason Ede, has been a matter of political gossip for several years. But it has remained that: gossip. Nicky Hager's new book, Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment, appears to have changed all that.

The breakthrough in the writing of the book sounds exquisitely karmic. After Whaleoil publisher Cameron Slater wrote a revolting blog post headed 'Feral dies in Greymouth, did world a favour' about a young man who had died in a car crash on the West Coast, his site was hit in a presumably related denial of service attack, which took his site out for two days.

But it did more than that. It provided access for unnamed persons to retrieve a trove of correspondence between Slater, Ede and other senior figures -- which became a breakthrough in a story Hager says he was already working on. He regards the gulf between Prime Minister Key's clean, positive public image and the grubby political reality as a key element of the book.

“You are not going to believe what you read, and how bloody awful it is," said Hager at the launch this evening that was so helpfully streamed live by TV3 news.

Sadly, perhaps it's not so hard to believe.

And that's where Hager's status as a journalist beyond the day-to-day rumble of political journaism is most valuable. The self-styled bruisers of Parliamentary gallery reporting may not have been part of it, but they depend on the same system, the same people, the same words-in-their-ears for their stories.

To an extent, that's always been the case. Most great "scoops" by gallery jouraists are fed to them. Their jobs simply don't permit real, long-game investigation. There are active incentives to procure the gotcha for tonight's news. But it seems -- and, to be honest, has seemed for a while -- that what has been going on is of a different order, not least in the revelation that these people have used information gathered by the SIS for political purposes.

It's good that we get to see behind the curtain.

175

Not doing justice

It's probably no surprise to you that I know a few people in the Labour Party. Not the sort who get their names in the news generally, but party members who participate in good faith in the grassroots political process. Some of them are part of the discussion community here, but others are people I respect who have started talking about their active membership as the election campaign has begun.

They're decent, intelligent people with a clear idea of why they're doing it. They give lie to doomy prognositications about the party's wellbeing. And I  feel sympathy for them whenever the Parliamentary party -- Labour's public face -- fails to do their efforts justice. I felt a particularly acute form of that sympathy when Labour's Rangitata candidate, Steve Gibson, hit the headlines yesterday.

As you probably know by now, Gibson made a comment in a Facebook discussion in which he compared John Key to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice. The comment, which also declared that "many here have no idea what [Key's] connection to the GFC is", was the kind of thing you'd expect from some nameless idiot on the internet, not a major party candidate. But the Shylock comparison, with its anti-semitic undertone, was something else.

Gibson insists he was unaware of that undertone, so the best-case scenario is that he's simply a fool. But how does such a fool get selected as a major party candidate? Quite simply because no one else applied. When the former candidate, Julian Blanchard, tired of competing in an unwinable seat (which has become even less winnable with recent boundary changes), the Rangitata LEC seems to have collapsed and Gibson, who had only recently even joined the party, became the new candidate.

It's not like the signs weren't there. When Andrea Vance travelled to Pleasant Point, where Labour leader David Cunliffe grew up, last month, she got this quote:

David Cunliffe just can't catch a break. Even his oldest childhood friend doesn't fancy his chances in September's general election.

''The local candidate [Steve Gibson] for the Labour party is a complete and utter idiot,'' Pleasant Point sheep farmer Andrew Steven tells the Labour leader. ''I'd like to support David but I can't support the local candidate,'' he says.

With hindsight, it's clear that if Labour couldn't find a better candidate than Gibson, it should not have stood a candidate. Cunliffe could have visited a few times as local-boy-made-good and drummed up the party vote. That's a tough call for a major political party, but it would have avaoided undermining the real vitality of the party in the places where it is strong and smart. Maybe the thinking needs to change.

50

Media Take and Godwin's Election

Sean Plunket and I have a bit of a barney on tonight's Media Take. There's no ill-will -- we enjoy butting heads -- but having got him on to talk about his new, serious Friday night show Prime Time with Sean Plunket, I did feel bound to suggest that it was a bit rich of of him to open last week's debut programme by declaring it an "FJK and sugar-daddy-free zone" when he'd spent the preceding days wallowing in all that in his Radio Live day job.

Sean's Newstalk ZB counterpart Leighton Smith -- who has spent years creating his own reality -- seemed convinced last week that the Party Party video had unleashed a nationwide Nazi threat (and I really only slightly exaggerate there) and Sean certainly didn't go that far. But he had strongly endorsed his listeners' right to compare a bunch of boisterous students with, ahem, "the Hitler Youth".

He also claimed to me, days after that baseless claim was debunked, that Kim Dotcom had filled the Party Party punters full of free booze to whip them into a frenzy.

I was surprised by that, but not as surprised as I was this morning when Rawdon Christie put the same claim to Laila Harre. Given that Harre had been invited on Breakfast to respond to John Key's equally baseless claim that her party was responsible for (and had "promoted") the daft burning-in-effigy video, you'd think someone would have done some basic fact-checking. Christie's defence was effectively that it seemed like it might be true and it was up to Harre to "clarify" it.

Don't these experienced journalists get that they're being fed this stuff in a deliberate fashion? More to the point, don't they read my blog? At any rate, Harre tore strips off Christie, who, as someone observed on Twitter, looked like he might cry.

Anyway, Prime Time With Sean Plunket has an interesting format (opposing experts alongside opposing politicians) and it's worth watching, even if it is rather high in fibre for a Friday night.

As is, of course, our show tonight, which also includes Jon Stephenson discussing Gaza's media war and Toi's interview with Frank Stark, CEO of the new merged media archive Nga Taonga Sound & Vision. That's 10.20pm on Maori Television, right after the Wasteland documentary. Go on, have a look.