Hard News by Russell Brown

49

Media Take: The creeping politicisation of the OIA

Brent Edwards' story last week on official advice to ministers on child poverty was interesting not only for its substance, but its circumstance.

Edwards explained on Morning Report that he originally requested the first of the documents (some of them now nearly two years old) May last year.

It took a complaint to the Ombudsman's Office to force former Social Development Minister Paula Bennett to release the information - but even then she managed to delay the release:

" ... and even twice before the election I was contacted by the Ombudsman's office and told that the minister's office had … agreed to the release the information and asking if I had received it. Well I had not. And of course as you say child poverty was a campaign issue. But these reports were only finally sent to me well after the election."

This seems a clear and evident breach of the Official Information Act 1982, which requires such information to be released as soon as practically possible, and a decision to be made within a maximum of 20 days -- but carries no sanction for agencies that fail to comply.

On Morning Report the next day, the Prime Minister explained that the government deliberately flouts that law:

"Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that's in our best interest to do that."

Things may actually be considerably worse than that in parts of the public sector. Shortly before the election, David Fisher reported this story for the Herald:

A former high-ranking Customs lawyer says he resigned from his job after allegedly being told to bury information that could embarrass the Government.

Curtis Gregorash said he was told by senior Customs executives to refuse Official Information Act and Privacy Act requests, which he believed was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.

That has sparked a wide-ranging inquiry by an "appalled" Chief Ombudsman. But it seems it's just the tip of the iceberg of an increasingly politicised environment around the Official Information Act, one where it's the default to withold and delay. Check out the number of requests to Child, Youth and Family marked "long overdue" on FYI. Marvel at the correspondence around this still-unfulfilled request seeking details of the "coinciding requests" that supposedly prompted Cameron Slater's fast-track access to an SIS briefing.

Fisher gave a speech to around a hundred public officials in Wellington last week, in which he traced a change that he believes took hold in the last term of the Clark government and has created an environment dominated by media management, obstruction and political interference.

I'd post the whole thing if I could (and I reckon the Herald should, because it's great), but you can also see David Fisher discuss his conclusions, along with barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan, on last night's MediaTake. Go have a look.

I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources. But I still think we have real problems with a transparency law that once proudly led the world.

40

Friday Music: There have been many worse years

The New Zealand Music Awards finalists were announced last night and they're quite a varied and interesting bunch. Lorde's Pure Heroine  is eligible this time and you'd assume she and Joel Little will be up on stage more than once on the night, but there are some other good records there too: most notably Ladi 6's Automatic, her most mature and authoritative work to date.

Ladi's up against Lorde in all but one category -- best hip hop record -- and with all due respect to David Dallas and PNC, it'd be a shame if she didn't win at least that.

Elsewhere, the, erm, controversial @Peace are nominated for best group (I'm calling for an onstage collab with Sol3Mio) and Tiny Ruins is officially out of the "obscure" category with three nominations, including best album.

Supergroove are this year's Legacy Award recipients, which suggests a jolly evening all round. Shame I won't be there on November 20, but I have a beer-appreciation appointment in Europe and that's where I'll be.

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@Peace also have a new video for 'Gravity' from their @Peace and the Plutonium Noise Symphony album out this week and man, they're getting old ...

Vice's Noisey section has an interview with Tom Scott about the making of the video.

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In less cheery industry news, the bottom is falling out of the music retail business. US digital sales (iTunes, mostly) for the first nine months of 2014 are down significantly  on the same period last year (12.9% for singles and 11.5% for albums) and not one artist has cracked a million sales for the year. Vinyl sales are the only retail category on the rise, and also the smallest.

The streaming music era is fairly rushing up and it's not really clear how it's all going to work out. For now, streaming is only delivering good income to megastars and companies with large copyright portfolios.

In not-unrelated news, Iggy Pop spoke frankly in this year's John Peel lecture, not least on the matter of YouTube's dealings with indie labels and artists for its new subscription deals: 

Pop said: "YouTube's trying to put the squeeze on these people because it's just easier for a power nerd to negotiate with a couple of big labels who own the kind of music that people listen to when they're really not that into music. Which of course is most people.

"So they've got the numbers. But indies kinda have the guns. I've noticed that indies are showing strength at some of the established streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody. People are choosing that music.

"It's also great that people are starting their own outlets like Pledgemusic, Bandcamp, Drip etc. As the commercial trade swings more into general showbiz, the indies will be the only place to go for new talent outside the Mickey Mouse Club.

"And so I think they were right to band together and sign the Fair Digital Deals Declaration. There are just so many ways to screw an artist that it's unbelievable."

That's going to be on BBC 4 on Sunday and I think I'll have to get a copy for purposes of criticism and review.

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Of note on Audioculture this week: Gary Steel's look at the singular Rattle Records.

And at the other extreme of style, taste and, well pretty much everything, that Hogsnort Rupert retrospective you've been waiting to show your grandkids.

Andfinally, a profile of the fabulously obscure -- and fabulous -- 70s psych-funk outfit from Fiji, Mantis. They made one album and it sounded like this:

And they looked like this:

You may know longtime man-about-the-Auckland-club-scene Bharat Jamnadas. You may not know that he was Mantis's manager!

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Jakob's long-awaited album Sines is officially out today, sorta. The vinyl version has been delayed until the end of November by global demand on pressing facilities. It's been there on iTunes for a few days, but the Bandcamp version is still stuck on pre-order. If there's any album you'd want in full spectrum format it's this one, so I think I'll either be waiting for Bandcamp or trying my luck a record shop.

If you're in the neighbourhood of Ponsonby, there is a Sines listening part at The Golden Dawn from 6pm-8pm, where should create an interesting vibe for after-work drinks.

Also in Auckland this evening: Margaret Gordon's documentary about Christchurch's long-running art project/Sabbath tribute band Into the Void screens at The Academy Cinema at 6.30pm and that's followed by an actual Into the Void gig at Wammy bar.

The Clap Clap Riot and Buzz Mollar show is at Meow in Wellington tonight and at the King's Arms in Auckland tomorrow.

And I'm picking a late night in Queenstown as @Peace begin their vinyl release tour tonight.

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I noticed that The Checks posted something to their Facebook for the first time in ages this week. and then I noticed that Sven and Ed from The Checks are back playing with their new band Racing and they have this track on TheAudience. It's some absolutely shit-hot rock'n' roll:

She's So Rad have taken a track from Kimbra's 90s-inspired album and wound it back to the 80s.

Gorgeous minimal house from the London producer Dauwd. Thanks to Eddie Johnston for the tip. From an EP out in digital form next week:

Things still happening for Janine and the Mixtape. Her song 'Hold Me' is now out in a new version with a rap verse from Pusha T:

And finally for your weekend -- some up-on-the-downstroke funk for the download:

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

218

The Hager saga continues

Nicky Hager joins us on Media Take this week, to discuss the recent extraordinary police search of his home and the position he's now in. I will also ask him for his response to the Givealittle fund launched to help with his legal expenses in seeking to recover the material seized, which has now passed $50,000.

The news of the police raid came through as we were preparing to record last week's programme, and the week since has, if nothing else, demonstrated what a polarising figure Hager is. While more than a thousand New Zealanders have contributed to his legal fund, others have to taken to the internet to declare him guilty of "receiving stolen property" (actually, he isn't a suspect and such an offence does not even apply to this case).

Most of those convinced of Hager's guilt were curiously silent upon publication of David Fisher's story about the way Cameron Slater used the thousands of private communications and other documents on an allegedly stolen hard drive as part of an insane vendetta against former Hell Pizza marketing manager Matt Blomfield. On the other hand, few of those people seemed to be demanding that Fisher himself receive a visit from the police, even though he was relying on the same source as Hager had for Dirty Politics.

Blomfield actually laid a complaint two years ago with police, alleging the hard drive had been stolen from him. The police failed to act on Blomfield's complaint but are now "reviewing" it.

Fisher's report notes the comments of Justice Raynor Asher in a recent decision requiring Slater to reveal his sources as part of Blomfield's defamation action against him:

"In the ordinary course of events persons do not legitimately come by the personal hard-drive and filing cabinets of other persons. Even if Mr Slater was not party to any illegality, it seems likely that the information was obtained illegally by the sources, and this diminishes the importance of protecting the source."

Justice Asher said there was an even lower public interest "in encouraging persons who are in a private dispute with others from going to the media with unlawfully obtained confidential material to hurt them".

"This material prima facie is in that category."

On Twitter this afternoon, Slater pointed to a letter from the Independent Police Conduct Authority which reported police saying the hard drive was found to have never been stolen.

The letter, sent to Slater, made no reference to whether police had investigated the accessing of the information, which is the subject of the current review.

Update: Cameron Slater has sent me a copy of his letter from the Independent Police Conduct Authority, which addresses several complaints from Slater, including that that the constable on the case is acting as an "intermediary" for Blomfield, and says in conclusion that Blomfield's statements to police:

... outlined a number of possible offences. These were all investigated by Police. 

The Authority accepts the explanations provided and is unable to identify any clear situation where there has been a neglect of duty or misconduct by the Police. The Authority will therefore take no further action in the matter and in the absence of any new and compelling evidence; your file will remain closed.

Strikingly, Fisher's main story quotes a series of Facebook messages in which Slater appears to be trying to procure a prison hit against Blomfield's brother. There is no evidence that this went any further than talk. Indeed, part of the problem of working out exactly what Slater and his associates did do is that they were such bullshitters in their communications with each other.

New Zealand Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan was furious when John Key released an email from Slater to his associates linking her to what looked like a conspiracy to undermine financial regulators on behalf of Mark Hotchin. The next day, Matt Nippert's story on the whole ugly business was published.

In her Weekend Herald column yesterday, O'Sullivan quoted subsequent emails to her from Cathy Odgers which seem to confirm that O'Sullivan was no part of the so-called "sting" on Serious Fraud Office head Adam Feeley -- and revealed that the email that prompted John Key to sack Judith Collins during the election campaign was given to him by National Party power-broker Tina Symmans, who got it from Odgers.

Slater responded by alleging that O'Sullivan had committed a crime under the Inquiries Act by threatening witnesses (ie: Slater, Odgers and Carrick Graham) to the inquiry into Collins' conduct when she wrote this:

This week, I gave evidence to the Chisholm Inquiry as a "witness", not as a "participant" - a distinction that will not be lost on sensible readers.

This week also brought with it the disturbing news of an extensive raid on investigative journalist Nicky Hager's house by police seeking information that would lead to the identification of the hacker whose theft of Slater's emails and messages provided the basis for his Dirty Politics book.

But while the police have been busy poking about in Hager's affairs - hacking is, after all, a crime - they do not appear to have actively followed up on Acting Opposition Leader David Parker's pre-election complaint over various actions disclosed in the Dirty Politics affair, including the alleged "SFO/Hanover Sting".

This suggests to me a failure of prioritisation on the part of police chief Mike Bush and his team.

I believe he could start by requiring Odgers, Graham and Slater to say just who paid them for apparently trying to fit up Feeley.

And why they obliged.

The issue is too big to be swept under the carpet by mere politics and a focus on chasing whistleblowers instead of the real issues.

Not everyone agrees with O'Sullivan on the significance of the matter or the targeting of Hager. Rodney Hide's Herald on Sunday column is basically a stacatto recitation of Twitter talking points in which Slater and his friends are the poor victims. It's what you'd expect from Hide, who is a partisan rather than a journalist. But John Roughan's Weekend Herald column is more surprising -- and not in a good way.

Roughan was responding to a column by Hager published on the Guardian website several days after the election, in which he said, among other things, that John Key's government "has worked systematically to close down critical voices: academics, scientists, media and more. Leaked documents in Dirty Politics show that a key tool was using National party-aligned blogs to launch personal attacks."

Stuff and nonsense, said Roughan:

Hager made this claim about academics, scientists and so forth when he launched his book. News media did not follow up the claim, probably because it did not ring true. Whale Oil was nasty but not quite that terrifying.

That Roughan hasn't read the Dirty Politics book seems obvious, but it's tempting to wonder if he reads his own newspaper. Certainly, people can differ on how much of what Slater did and said can actually be linked to the government, but he said environmental scientist Mike Joy, a persistent critic of the government, should be "taken out and shot". There was a pattern of attacks on school principals who opposed government policy, noted here and here, where it appeared Slater was working with Anne Tolley's office. And of course the commercial "hits", often aimed at scientists and health advocates, are, according to the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, ongoing.

Roughan continues:

It is one thing to over-egg your story in a book aimed at a domestic audience who are in a position to assess your evidence in the knowledge that John Key's reign of terror is not exactly evident around here. It is another thing to put this impression in the minds of readers who are a long way from this country and probably know next to nothing about it.

Guardian readers worldwide give great credence to its name and this may be the only account of the New Zealand election they see.

The website labelled the piece "comment is free", which its regular readers might know to be code for, "we don't necessarily believe this", but Hager does not write in a style of comment on recognised facts. He asserts facts newly discovered.

As regular readers of The Guardian's website will actually know, "Comment is free" was not in fact the headline bestowed on Hager's column. It's the name of the Guardian's online opinion section, named for C.P.Scott's memorable quote "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

Roughan then goes on to declare that "just about all of Julian Assange's Wikileaks disclosures were ... candid internal comments of diplomats that were no more than tittle-tattle." Even a cursory glance at the Wikipedia article on information disclosed by Wikileaks renders that statement farcically untrue. Roughan was presumably referring to the 2010 diplomatic cable release, aka Cablegate, but even then it seems worth noting that this "tittle-tattle" moved the people of Tunisia to overthrow their government, sparking the Arab Spring. His is the commentary of someone who hasn't followed the story at all.

It's true that those more ready to think ill of the protagonists of Dirty Politics are more likely to read it and to cite its contents. But where the criticism of the book isn't simply in bad faith, it's often hapless, as Roughan's column is. Nicky Hager should not be beyond criticism. But it seems fair to say he really does deserve better critics.

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If you'd like to come to the Media Take recording tomorrow (ie: Monday), come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ by 5.45pm.

39

Friday Music: Cilla!

For purposes of criticism and review, our household was watched Cilla, ITV's three-part story of Cilla Black's early years. It's great: funny, touching, well-written and apparently true-to-life. Sheridan Smith makes a fine job of the lead role, not least in being a 32 year-old playing a teenage Cilla.

Smith can sing too, but that's where Cilla falls short. She's not Cilla, and for all the air she moves, she doesn't really come near the blaring, brassy voice, with its remarkable dynamic range, that seemed to come effortlessly to the Liverpudlian singer.

In a musical sense, Cilla is a glimpse of what might have been. Smith is at her best playing teenage Cilla White belting out rock 'n roll numbers at The Cavern. As far as I know, there are no recordings of the real Cilla performing such material, and the nearest thing is her debut single, the Paul McCartney-penned 'Love of the Loved'.

Which The Beatles themselves played in their 1962 audition for Decca.

But after that, Brian Epstein and George Martin decided -- quite correctly on the subsequent commercial evidence -- that young Cilla was better suited to a big ballad, and Martin commissioned an anglicised version of this barnstormer by the Italian singer Umberto Bindi:

That became 'You're My World', which went to number one in the British singles chart and, in July 1964, number two in New Zealand. She's just miming to the master recording in this British pop show appearance a week before its release, but you'll get the picture:

I think she's singing live in this version of the follow-up, the Bacharach-David song 'Anyone Who Had a Heart', which also went to number in 1964:

From there, it was teaming up properly with Bacharach to record the theme for the film Alfie (the dramatic portrayal of that episode basically recreates this documentary footage) and some not-so-great songs before she took Epstein's advice and went into light entertainment with her own TV show, which did have the blessing of a theme song by Paul McCartney:

Again, it was visionary advice on Epstein's part -- she was for years the highest-paid performer on British television - but it it seems a shame that she didn't record anything interesting, or even good, thereafter. Imagine if she'd tagged along with The Beatles as they explored music. Or am I missing something? Was there a brilliant B-side along the way?

Anyway, Cilla will presumably turn up at some point on Prime or UKTV. It's a really good watch, la.

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Public Address reader and throughly good chap Ben McNicoll is the main man behind The Auckland Jazz Festival, which begins next week and extends the Creative Jazz Club ethos out to a bunch of other venues -- including The Golden Dawn, Tom Tom, The Portland Public House, the Vic in Devonport, Hallertau and 1885 Britomart -- with the CJC itself playing host to three international acts in the second week. Many of the smaller gigs are free. It's really worth a look.

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There's some pretty remarkable reissue action going on. The Chills' new label, Fire Records, has licensed the three BBC Sessions (what everyone used to call Peel Sessions) the band recorded from 1985 to 1988, remastered them and packaged them up into an album to be released on CD and LP early next month.

They've posted a taster from the 1985 session: 'Rolling Moon'.

Meanwhile, Flying Nun has beefed up its crowdfund-the-vinyl-pressing strategy and applied it to its 90s back catalogue, as The Reissue Club. Announced so far (with track listings to come soon) are double LP versions of Garageland's Last Exit to Garageland, Bressa Creeting Cake's eponymous debut and the Headless Chickens' Body Blow. The last will easily fill the two LPs -- it has already been released in two major versions with different track listings, and there are multiple remixes to choose from. The way it works is that as each title reaches 100 preorders, it goes off to be pressed. So you'll get yours sooner if you prevail on your freinds to invest too.

The same system applies for the vinyl version of Heat Death of the Universe, the new album from Samuel Flynn Scott's side project Bunnies on Ponies, which comes from Sam's fuzzed-out period on painkillers for debilitating back injury. It sounds ... fuzzed out and buzzy.

And, not exactly a re-release but ... Athur Ahbez' 2013 album Gold (recorded to eight-track over two years with all-analogue kit) is finally getting the vinyl release that always seemed its destiny. He's doing an album release show with his band Superbird at The Wine Cellar on October 16 ($5 or $25 with the LP) and then two free gigs, at the Waitakere Festival on November 2 and the Darkroom in Christchurch on November 8.

There's also a video by Jason Block for 'Wine Store Woman':

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Late-breaking: Dictaphone Blues' epic guitar-pop song song 'Her Heart Breaks Like a Wave' now has a video. And it's quite meta:

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I'm still pretty much in a state of denial about the fact that Caribou is playing Laneway 2015 but not in Auckland. But it's something of a consolation that his quite glorious album Our Love is finally out. You can buy that in formats up to and including 24-bit WAV or FLAC from Bleep.com. Reasonable people will argue over whether the 24-bit format is really relevant, but I think buying this kind of music in lossless format is a really good idea if you have the storage space.

Why? Because the future. You've paid for those bits, and at some point you may want to convert them for use on another device or in another context. And converting/transcoding from a lossy codec may give you a pretty poor result.

A confirmed this for myself last week when I finally decided to free up space on my 32GB iPhone 4S by using the iTunes options to convert all the music I was copying to Apple's standard 256k AAC. It worked brilliantly in one sense -- I can fit a shitload more music on my phone -- but the sound quality seemed disappointing. Well, in the case of the 320k MP3 files I was crunching down it did. The lossless stuff in my library seems fine.

I could of course have opted to listen to iTunes in the Cloud -- I still pay the $40 a year for iTunes match -- but that shit's a shambles, still.

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I first noticed Hamilton dance music producer Terrorball on TheAudience last year, liked it, then didn't hear anything else. Well, he's back, with a new album and a new track on TheAudience:

That's actually not even my favourite shizz. Check out this disco style:

All the album tracks on his are available for download on Soundcloud, plus the download on TheAudience is lossless. And it turns out this is actually his fourth album for the year: everything else (including an album of found spoken word) is available at name-your-price on his Bandcamp. Crikey.

And this is good: a conscious, jazzy hip hop project being featured on TheAudience at the moment:

There's a whole album of that as a free download on Bandcamp.

Speaking of that Caribou album, here's the first track:

Lorde's first New Zealand tour begins at the end of the month, and along with her she'll have Christchurch-native diaspora band Yumi Zouma, who make dreamy alt-pop like this new single:

And finally, a glorious disco gift from Dimitri from Paris:

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

Help from the crowd

Independent journalism, whether conducted online or in more traditional ways, is not an easy path to pursue. For all the dreams of an army of truth-tellers swarming the space left by a shrinking media monolith, there is one particular time when you'd rather be with the dreaded MSM: that is, when the law comes into play.

By the very nature of speaking truth to power, the other guy is generally going to have better resources than you do, and that's particularly the case when the other guy is the state.

There are various ways to address this. Cameron Slater has funded some of the considerable legal help he has required in recent years through a form of contra: allowing his legal firm to place unattributed stories on the Whaleoil site in exchange for legal services, although it's less clear how he paid for the services of a QC recently.

The more conventional means is to rely on the goodwill of members of the legal profession by accepting pro bono legal advice. I am very grateful for the way such advice helped me see off a spiteful defamation action last year.

Nicky Hager also enjoys consistent pro bono legal support. Even so, he will face substantial costs in trying to recover the documents and possessions taken from him in last week's extraordinary police raid. It seems well within the theory of crowdfunded journalism for those who value Hager's work to offer help to cover those costs, as a statement of solidarity if nothing else.

That's the aim of the Givealittle campaign to help with Hager's costs, which was launched yesterday and has now passed $20,000. More than 500 people have donated.

I could envisage even people who regard themselves as politically opposed to Hager kicking in to this fund, on the assumption that there are still some small-state classical liberals who have not taken leave of their principles. This is, after all, an indivdual who has been subject to extraordinary state action without being charged with, or even suspected of, a crime.

One objection -- that Hager is principally in it for the money and has enriched himself by writing and publishing Dirty Politics -- can be dismissed. As Chris Keall demonstrates on the NBR website, this is not a lucrative trade, as anyone familiar with the realities of writing such books would already doubtless know.

I haven't opened comments on this post -- there's a discussion already raging on the rights and wrongs of the police seizure. But I thought it was appropriate to make an observation on what's happening here.