Hard News by Russell Brown

210

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.

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