Gordon Campbell on no more Mr Nice Guy

When future historians seek to identify the exact moment when the prime ministerial career of John Key hit the downward slope, they may well point to Key’s interview yesterday with Guyon Espiner on RNZ’s Morning Report. In particular, they’ll cite the broken record moment when Espiner repeatedly asked Key whether he thought the behaviour of his Justice Minister Judith Collins was OK, and Key kept on trying to ignore the question. Was it OK with Key that one of his Cabinet Ministers has admitted that she secretly released to Cameron Slater the name of a public servant that she thought might have leaked some information that had embarrassed the government, thereby exposing that individual, as Espiner noted, “to some pretty serious death threats.” Is that OK?

Key couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the question, choosing instead to repeatedly bluster about Nicky Hager’s motives for writing his book, Dirty Politics. As a result “Is that OK?” could well be chanted at Key every time he appears in public for the next five weeks. For now, the government is banking on the fact that relatively few New Zealanders have read Hager’s book – at best, just north of 4,000 copies are currently in circulation. Therefore, the strategy being followed by both Key and his Cabinet trouble-shooter Steven Joyce is to talk past the interviewer, talk past the press gallery, talk past the people who have read the book, talk past the people who were never going to vote for him anyway.

Instead, they are carefully pitching their message to the people who remain oblivious to the vile crew that the Prime Minister of this country has been cheerfully colluding with since 2011, at least. The message that Key is trying to deliver comes down to (a) the emails were selective (b) they were stolen (c) everyone does it, anyway, so no big deal and (d) its all a big smear campaign instigated by the left in collusion with the dastardly Dotcom.

None of this stacks up. Key, his ninth floor staff and the party he leads have been caught red-handed and the current response is simply damage limitation. If only, Key and his cronies must be thinking, we were back in the good old days of the Spanish Inquisition when we could just slap Hager’s book on the Index and forbid National Party voters to read it under pain of mortal sin. Forget the left wing stuff. The real damage to the party of Keith Holyoake, Jack Marshall and Simon Upton will come when National Party members get to read how viciously Cameron Slater and Simon Lusk screwed the National Party candidate selection in Rodney to get their man, Mark Mitchell, selected. Is that what National stands for now, and is this the company it now keeps? Will National Party members be happy when they realise their leader has been working in tandem with someone who chortles about the “scum” in Christchurch who supposedly deserved to die in the earthquake, because they voted for Labour?

After reading Hager’s book, a number of decent conservatives in the rural heartland may come to conclude that losing this election could be the price required to cleanse the National Party of its current running mates, and to restore its traditional values. In the meantime, lets look at the arguments that Key has been trying to run in the last 48 hours.

1. The emails are selective. Really? You mean there are other emails where Justice Minister Judith Collins urges Slater not to hang an innocent public servant – Simon Pleasants – publicly out to dry? Is there an email that shows Key contacted Slater to say that the mother of the West Coast ‘feral’ wasn’t a “slut” who deserved no compassion for the death of her son? If Hager was selective then there’s a clear remedy. Release the other emails that prove it. No? Didn’t think so.

2. Everyone does it like Slater. Well no, they don’t. No one else gets briefed by Beehive staff on how to write OIA requests – and no one gets them so speedily from the SIS. Slater’s status, and the vile tone in which he has conducted his operations, was unique. He got SIS files virtually on the same day he asked for them, while other journalists were being denied them. To liken everyone else to Slater – as Key has tried to do – is something every journalist in the country would reject, and with good reason. No blogger on the left operates like Slater.

Astonishingly, Key tried to argue on Morning Report that the particular OIA reply in contention was sent out unilaterally by the SIS without the relevant Minister – John Key – ever seeing it, much less signing it. According to Key, non one in his office even knew about it; presumably apart from Jason Ede. What was the Minister of the SIS, and Ede’s boss – Wayne Eagleson, chief of staff – doing at the time? How often, as Matthew Hooton speculated on Nine to Noon yesterday, would OIA ministerial responses go out from the office of say, MBIE Minister Steven Joyce without Joyce seeing them or signing them, or without any of his senior staff vetting them? Never. Not even when the OIAs are about relatively trivial matters. This OIA release was criticising the Leader of the Opposition three months before the 2011 election. As Hooton concluded, Key’s attempted “I knew nothing” explanation to Espiner was completely unbelievable.

On RNZ’s Checkpoint last night, lawyer Felix Geiringer – who in the interests of full disclosure had given Hager some legal advice in the book’s early stages – made the point that much of the illegal and unethical behaviour disclosed in the book (usually, in the very words of the people concerned) has yet to enter the public discourse. As Geiringer says, whoever hacked Slater’s site was committing an illegal act. Yet the accessing of private information on Labour’s site by Jason Ede and Cameron Slater was also illegal, regardless of the security measures – or lack of them – on the Labour site. As Geiringer explained:

If somebody leaves their door open and you walk in and take all their family silver you are guilty of a crime. And it’s the same with computer crime. The section is very clear. For it to be a crime, there needs to have been no authority – and no one is suggesting that the Labour Party gave the National Party authority to rifle around in this private data, and secondly you need to know you don’t have authority or be reckless that you don’t have authority. The suggestion that Mr Ede or Mr Slater thought, when they were rifling through this private information that mistakenly, they did have authority to do so, is frankly risible. On the surface of it, if what Mr Hager says in his book is true, there’s an overwhelming case of criminal activity.

So far, Key has not condemned the behaviour revealed in the book – either by Ede, or by Judith Collins. Nor has he distanced himself or National from the vile comments in the book from Slater and Simon Lusk. While there has been public discussion of the ethics and legality of hacking and the alleged conspiracy to commit blackmail (of Rodney Hide) Geiringer points to other evidence of what he sees as illegality contained in the book.

There appear to be breaches of the Advertising Standards rules. You’ve got Mr Slater pretending to be giving blog posts under his own name when he is actually posting materials written by commercial entities for their commercial benefit.

Slater’s subsequent denials on this point ring hollow, given the evidence in the book, and the subsequent email dump yesterday. As Geiringer says, Slater’s and Key’s denials about the content of the book have been shown to be completely untrue:

The denial that Mr Slater gave in the past few days is that he has never been advised by the National Party, Mr Ede or anyone else how to do OIA requests. And there we have in the email release [yesterday] Mr Ede telling him how rto do an OIA request, who to ask, what to ask for. All designed to embarrass the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is the Prime Minister orchestrating a campaign to embarrass one of his own Ministries because he doesn’t like them challenging the [MFAT] reforms…

And so on. The actions of the lawyers detailed in the book – one lawyer seems to have urged Slater and Hooton to facilitate physical harm to Hager – should be of interest to the Law Society. Geiringer’s final point is a crucial one about the bogus “balance” that is being applied. Over the last couple of days, the contents of the book – which are couched almost entirely in the actual words and emails of the people involved – are being set alongside blanket denials and claims that the book’s contents have been made up, and that its narrative is unravelling. Despite the lack of any evidence that these responses are true, the two elements are being given equal weight.

Again, Key and the National Party hierarchy are relying on the media’s notion of “balance” to help them muddy the waters with the majority of New Zealanders who have not read the book.

One last thing. Hager, however, does not appear to have contravened the law by reprinting the content derived from the hack. There is a ‘public good’ defence available in revealing said content. In this case, that puts Hager in a long and honourable tradition. Time and again, whistle blowers have obtained documents, emails and videos and released them publicly, for the greater good. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know a lot about the current systems of global surveillance. Thanks to Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, we’ve learned a great deal about how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been conducted, and how diplomats have tried to manipulate public opinion.

Thanks to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, the American public learned how they had been systematically misled about the causes and likely course of the Vietnam War. Thanks to the Winebox papers, we learned about the corporate tax dodges that flourished here in the 1990s etc.

In each case, the public learned that the official version was not painting a true picture of what was going on. Similarly, what Dirty Politics illustrates – with any number of examples – is that a two-track system of politicking has been run out of the ninth floor of the Beehive. On one hand, Prime Minister John Key has been encouraged to project a likeable public persona and to deliver positive messages. Yet simultaneously, a series of “dirty tricks” have been outsourced by some of his staff, working in tandem with Cameron Slater and National’s other allies in the blogosphere. Sometimes against Labour, sometimes against trade unions, sometimes against ordinary members of the public.

It is Key’s ‘nice guy” persona – not the contents of Hager’s book – that is now unraveling.