Gordon Campbell on Nicky Hager’s new book

Illustration by Tim Denee

According to Minister of Everything Steven Joyce – whose duties now extend to fielding questions about Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics – Hager has got it all wrong, and the apparent collusion recorded in its pages between the prime minister’s office and blogger Cameron Slater is really no more than business as usual between government on one hand, and the journalists they brief as a matter of course on the other. Nothing to see here, move on.

If that’s true, one wonders why almost all the key players mentioned in the book have gone to ground, and don’t seem to be available for interview. To date, the other well-worn route of response has been to cast aspersions about Hager’s motives and to denigrate his modus operandi. Prime Minister John Key laid out that line of defence yesterday – even before Dirty Politics was out of the box – by trying to write Hager off as “a screaming left wing conspiracy theorist” who didn’t really know what he was talking about. Methinks the PM protests too much.

The simple antidote to all this ad hominem abuse is to read the book. I doubt that many people who do read the book – and especially the emails that provide the bulk of its narrative – will feel very happy about how politics is being conducted in this country right now. That’s the thing. Hager hasn’t needed to clothe the content in a conspiracy theory: the emails speak very eloquently for themselves. Just as in The Hollow Men, the damning material is right there in black and white, in the contributions of Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Carrick Graham, Judith Collins etc. And that’s the real problem for Key with this stuff; if he didn’t know about the conniving that has been going on right under his nose, he is incompetent. If he does know, he is complicit.

By now, most of us know the general thesis of the book and how it came to be written. As Hager explained at the book launch last night, Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil website got hacked and crashed in January, in the wake of widespread outrage over a particularly vile posting by Slater. Thousands of emails were collected, and were eventually handed over to Hager.

So what do the emails reveal? Primarily, they show Slater to have been a major cog in the National Party’s spin machine. It is a spin cycle that’s been designed to allow Key to project a likeable public persona and deliver the positive messages, while keeping himself at a plausible distance from the “dirty tricks” techniques that are (a) being outsourced to National’s flunkies in the blogosphere and (b) then get beamed back into the mainstream media coverage. It is kind of ironic that Kim Dotcom is being accused of money laundering, among other sins. On the evidence in Hager’s book, the government has become a dab hand at laundering the seamier side of its own political operations.

The government’s systematic use of the blogosphere to outsource its negative campaign messages is of such an extent as to introduce an ugly new dimension to our political culture. It also runs counter to any notion of healthy open government for the leader to be presenting a carefully-constructed facade to the public, while his underlings do the hatchetings of its opponents (and/or its erstwhile friends) behind the arras. Hager’s book suggests for example, that Rodney Hide was pressured into resigning as Act Party leader by threats that Slater was about to publish release inappropriate texts allegedly sent by Hide to a young woman. There are many revelations in the email trail that the book draws on extensively.

One’s level of tolerance for this sort of thing will vary from reader to reader, but on the evidence presented by Hager, Key’s press officer Jason Ede played some part in the hacking and/or use of material hacked from the Labour Party’s computer system in election year 2011. On a regular basis, it also seems that Ede would contact Slater when an OIA request was about to be released to the media or to the Opposition parties; allegedly, Ede would invite Slater to lodge a request for the same information and then release it to Slater first, so that Slater could help to nullify the story. On another occasion, Ede allegedly primed Slater to request certain SIS secret documents, which were then speedily de-classified on the understanding that Slater would use them to humiliate Labour leader Phil Goff. Ede may also have assisted Slater with the framing of OIA requests in order to enable Slater to attack MFAT staff who were opposed to Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s programme of reforms at the Ministry. And so on.

Moving right along, some readers are likely to be appalled by the climate of collusion between Judith Collins and Slater and their apparent readiness (see pages 49-50) to use access to the likes of ACC information to settle scores and go after critics and suspected enemies. There are also revelations that content was published under Slater’s name on Whale Oil that was actually written and paid for (at a rate of circa $6,500 a month) by lobbyist Carrick Graham who, like Slater, hails from an old National Party family. These ghosted postings would routinely target academics and others critical of the tobacco and alcohol industries, or – in another example – to attack and undermine campaigners against the sugary drinks known to be linked to New Zealand’s obesity epidemic.

Other chapters in Dirty Politics deal with Slater’s celebrated role in the Len Brown sex scandal expose, and with the attacks made on David Cunliffe and Kim Dotcom this year. The attack on Winston Peters for what Key revealed as being three visits to the Dotcom mansion – a triangulated release of information that apparently involved Key, Slater and NZ Herald gossip columnist Rachel Glucina – is discussed at pages 122-123. Hager sums it up in these terms:

Key did not control Slater, but when it came to smearing the reputations of their political opponents, they willingly worked together. Key was not responsible for everything Slater, [David] Farrar and colleagues did; but as leader of the National Party and head of the prime minister’s office, he was directly responsible when his staff and the party worked with them. The bloggers were now a routine part of John Key’s political management. The Winston Peters three-visits hit had been a typical collaboration and there were more to come.

The series of attacks on David Cunliffe this year also seems to have involved Ede, who appears to have been tasked with monitoring the Labour leader’s every statement and action – including the photographing of Cunliffe by Ede in Copperfields café at Parliament – and then feeding a rolling series of negative images and information to Slater. This strategy was in line with techniques successfully deployed by the Republican Party which (p126) had proved to be a key ingredient in the successful campaign to defeat Senator George Allen. Hager, again:

He lost, the [Republican] study suggested, because ‘his opponent had a staffer whose sole job was to record everything Allen said in public’ Any time he said anything stupid, or anything that could be made to seem stupid, it was ‘put on the Internet within 24 hours’ and seen by large numbers of people at almost no cost to the campaign.’ Someone appeared to be playing this role in New Zealand, and feeding the results to the attack blogs.

From there, the attack lines could feed back into a mainstream media increasingly dependent on blog analysis. Crucially, as Hager says (p 132) “the trick of political management is not to get this or that press release covered ; it is about framing how journalists perceive issues.” In Cunliffe’s case, a series of small mis-steps (and in one case, a trap sprung by the government’s access to historical documents released with suspicious speed to the media under the OIA) have seen Cunliffe successively framed within the mainstream media in terms of a narrative of bungling and distrust. In the process, the negative perceptions of the Opposition leadership have probably received more media attention this year than the government’s own (lack of an) economic strategy and its likely third term agenda. The two track strategy – which has successfully insulated a popular Prime Minister from the collusion of his office with the attack blogs – has worked like a dream (until now) for the National Party. It is working far less well for the health of our small democracy. In summing up about the government’s strategic love affair with negative campaigning, Hager concludes by repeating at the outset, a chilling quote from National Party strategist Simon Lusk:

“There are a few basic propositions with negative campaigning that are worth knowing about. It lowers turnout, favours right more than left as the right continues to turn out, and drives away the independents.’ In short, many people stop participating in politics. If politicians cannot be trusted, if politics looks like a petty or ugly game, and if no one seems to be talking about the things that matter, then what’s the point of bothering to participate? Just leave them to it. There are innovations in US Republican Party thinking on this point; election tactics do not have to be just about winning votes; they can be equally effective if groups of people in society just stop voting altogether. We should not assume that everyone thinks low voter turnout is a bad idea. Sitting in the midst of the negative politics was John Key…

So far, the objections to what Hager has exposed – and how he’s gone about it – seem trivial. Especially when set alongside the ample evidence he provides on a variety of related subjects – from political attack gambits to systematic union bashing to tobacco and alcohol industry pandering, to the evidence of Slater trawling for sex scandal information from sex workers that he could use for hits against the politicians and journalists he didn’t like – that Hager has amassed. It is an ugly picture, in toto. Briefly, let’s go through the usual objections:

1. Hager either stole the emails or was a receiver of stolen goods. Well, duh. If people are manipulating the political and news agenda in secret, chances are they won’t confess to doing so, and won’t be volunteering the evidence. What Hager has done is whistle blowing. The motive is to disinfect politics, and to better inform the public about the nature of those people standing for re-election to higher office. As one commenter in the blogosphere has already pointed out, there is a difference between the tactical use of taxpayer funded intelligence services against one’s political opponents – for which the book gives a disturbing example – and the outing of that practice for the public good. In any case, Slater can hardly complain. As the book shows, Slater began his jihad against Labour by being complicit with how the hacking of the Labour Party website was exploited. He has now been exposed by much the same means. Some would see that as karma.

2.Everyone is doing it. Hardly. As mentioned, one of Slater’s early coups came via the hacking of the Labour Party website and the subsequent pressure put on Labour Party donors. There is no evidence of the Clark administration doing likewise, on anything like the scale portrayed in the pages of Dirty Politics. Moreover, many of the actions in question seem to have been orchestrated from the ninth floor of the Beehive. This is not simply a case of Bad Attitudes common to the Beltway. It has involved abuses of power by some of the most powerful people in the country.

3.Cameron Slater may be a nasty piece of work, but that doesn’t mean John Key is to blame. True, there’s a lot in Hager’s book to suggest that Cameron Slater is not a nice person. Yet the book is not simply a case study in the psychopathology of Cameron Slater. Ask yourself; if Key’s hands are as clean as usually presented, why has the Prime Minister been ringing this patently grubby guy on a regular basis? (Such co-operation goes way beyond Helen Clark’s occasional calls to members of the press gallery.) Can Jason Ede – one of Key’s closest advisers on the ninth floor – really have worked on an entirely rogue basis with Slater for so long, without his leader’s knowledge and consent? To swallow that, we’d have to believe that Key and Slater didn’t mention Slater’s relationship with Ede during their phone chats, and that Key and Ede in turn, didn’t discuss what Slater was up to. That seems unlikely, on both counts.

Finally, it would be tragic if Dirty Politics merely gave people more grounds for cynicism and turned them off politics altogether. The reverse has always been Hager’s intention. Ever since he published Secret Power back in 1996, his aim has been to make government more open, and to render the exercise of power more transparent. This book is no exception.

There’s a further moral to this story, on a somewhat smaller scale. After the Hollow Men debacle, you wouldn’t think the National Party would need a second lesson that anything you commit to the digital realm can be – and eventually will be – exposed in public. Chortle and connive away online at your peril, because inevitably it will become public knowledge. From now on, surely no young, ambitious bright spark around Parliament and no Cabinet Minister with an eye for promotion will want to be seen dead collaborating with Cameron Slater. If it does nothing else, Dirty Politics may succeed in turning Slater into a political pariah: or at the very least, into a major election liability for National.

Hopefully, a lot of voters will read Hager’s book. They may reach the conclusion that Slater has been only a tool. The real culprits – who should suffer for it at the ballot box – are the people in the Beehive that Slater has served so assiduously.

RIP Jack Shallcrass
Word overnight is that the great New Zealand educationalist, writer and humanist Jack Shallcrass has died. This 1992 essay gives a lovely portrait of the man, and his view of the world.