OnPoint by Keith Ng

402

Sunlight Resistance

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. It always seemed like a self-explanatory concept: Wrongdoing is exposed, wrongdoers scuttle back into the shadows.

But what happens when you crank up the sunlight, and the brightly-lit assholes just stand there staring back at you, giving you the fingers?

--

The score so far is grim.

Consider what we know about Judith Collins: Her facilitating (or maybe outright commissioning) of character assassination against a civil servant, her appointment of Slater's accomplice Aaron Bhatnagar, her "tip-line" contributions, her nonchalance at being told Slater was getting a piece of evidence by Police to discredit people who had charges against them dropped (quote: "Oh gosh, what a shock."), and of course, Oravida.

Keep all of that in mind, then consider this: She survived all of that.

Judith Collins resigned by accident, the day before Matt Nippert's piece on Mark Hotchin came out. Key believed (incorrectly, it turned out) that Nippert had evidence linking Collins to Hotchin's campaign, and pushed her before the story hit. This wasn't Key looking for an excuse to fire Collins over what was already known. Her resignation came because of what Key thought was coming.

If they waited another 24 hours to act, Collins would still be a minister right now. This was no victory for sunlight, just a fortuitous fuck-up.

Ede's departure is obviously a result of Dirty Politics, but he was just (to borrow a word) a henchman. He was the link between Key's office and Slater, and he managed to hide for the entirety of the campaign, having never said a word about how much Key knew.

That he has resigned is better than nothing, but it's not accountability in any substantive sense. The people who gave the orders were never held to account, and Ede's career isn't dead - he is simply metamorphosing into the next stage of his lifecycle, into something further away from the public eye, like Carrick Graham or Simon Lusk.

--

Journalists haven't been lazy this election, nor have they been biased. They hit Dirty Politics hard for weeks, and they're pretty indignant at people heaping scorn on them. I feel for you, guys, but you need to look at this from the outside. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant" is supposed to be a description of your job, your role in the democratic process.

And you have failed. It might not be your fault, but nonetheless, you have failed.

"Asking the hard questions" is a means, not an end. People hold up Guyon Espiner's interview with Key as a fantastic piece of political journalism. It was certainly engaging. But (to borrow a phrase) at the end of the day, it was just Espiner yelling at Key for not answering any goddamn questions. And while Key sounded like a dick, he won - no amount of yelling could make Key say anything apart from his scripted lines. Despite continual pressure over the following weeks, Key successfully avoided questions about how much he knew about Ede's involvement with Slater and delivered his lines to discredit Hager and distance himself from Slater.

"Key sounding evasive in an interview" is not meaningful success; but failing to get a single honest answer is meaningful, abject failure. We are so used to never getting a straight answer out of politicians, we don't even see it as the point of interviews anymore!

To get some perspective of how bad things are, we virtually considered it a victory when he declared Judith Collins to be "unwise". A minister who legislated against cyberbullying conspired to send a mob of cyberbullies towards a civil servant, lied about it then got found out. "Unwise." That was the closest journalism got to holding anyone accountable this election.

I appreciate that this isn't the fault of journalists. You asked tough questions. You reported the answers faithfully. It's not your job to swing elections...

...except it kinda is.

This goes to the heart of Key's line about Hager and Greenwald - that it is wrong for journalists make stories political issues during election time, that elections are times for politicians to speak, and the media's proper role is simply to report what they say. It sounds reasonable and straightforward, except it's at odds with the media's responsibility to hold politicians to account. The only leverage journalists have to do this is political, and that leverage is strongest during an election campaign.

I'm not saying this is something political journalists should do. I'm saying this is what political journalists already do. I felt I had to say it anyway because "journalists trying to swing elections" seem like dirty phrase, but when you think about it, it is what they do everytime they "hold someone to account" for bad behaviour - they make it hurt like hell politically.

Think of it this way: If a Gallery journalist broke Dirty Politics and Key lost the election, would they say that it had nothing to do with them because it's not their job to sway elections, or would they claim the shit out of that scalp and put it in the trophy room?

I'm also stating it explicitly because the connection needs to be made: National's landslide victory means that the media's reporting of Dirty Politics has had no effect. The media had no power to punish politicians for bad behaviour.

This is why people are being dicks to you, journalists. They only see the failure, not the effort. You can't blame them for not giving you points for effort. And if you show no sign that you share their concerns at the failure, then of course they're going to think you didn't care in the first place.

--

Reasonable people can disagree about why the media failed.

It could be that the Left were just abysmal fuck-ups - so even when people were convinced National was doing bad things, they refused to vote for the alternative. If this was true, I think it would be quite genuinely not the media's fault.

Or maybe these things simply take a long time to play out. Nixon won by a landslide after Watergate because it took a long time for the complex allegations to crystalise, and longer still for it to pierce Nixon's public image. Maybe the media is having influence in terms of cleaning up politics, but it just takes a long time for it to become apparent.

Or maybe Key is right that people only care about tangible things, not wishy-washy things like integrity. Maybe they expect no integrity from politicians.

Here I think the Press Gallery in particular has to start taking some responsibility. The Gallery congratulates "good political management" (aka spin) as if getting away with shit was a virtue and getting caught is the sin; it talks about "it's bad look" as if every issue was a matter of mere appearance, without actual consequences or right and wrong; it tripped over itself to declare dirty politics to be something which savvy insiders knew all about, and that to be shocked or disgusted by the systemic assholery is to be naive.

The Gallery's reporting has contributed to a culture where "political engagement" means to cynically understand "the game". Can we be surprised then, that this has finally permeated into public consciousness, and anything and everything is all just part of the game?

(I won't go on about it any more here, but basically it's Jay Rosen's Cult of Savviness argument. If you are a political reporter, you need to read this.)

The scariest possibility is that National have finally achieved full-spectrum dominance over the media. That the combination of sophisticated polling and focus-grouping (Hi David!), Key's personal brand, and media management system (including the use of back channels like Slater and... others) now allows them to subvert the media's every move. They know that the cost of completely ignoring your questions is neglible. They know that they can negate a bookful of allegations just by calling Hager partisan. They know you'll give up on Ede if they just hide him for long enough. They know they can throw a bunch of CORTEX-CYBERHACKING-ANTIVIRUS-BUTTS-MALWARE-METADATA obfuscations into the air, and simply choke a story with irrelevant facts.

Again, reasonable people can disagree about why the media failed. But, if you accept that the media has a role as a watchdog, then you must see that it has utterly failed in that role.

If you don't believe me, believe Cameron Slater, Simon Lusk, Carrick Graham, Jordan Williams and Katherine Rich.

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