Digging up dirty deeds, Nicky Hager writing in Walkley Magazine

The book I released in August about politics also raises important issues around journalism. It describes a dirty tricks campaign run by the New Zealand National Party to attack and smear its political opponents. Rather than the politicians standing up in parliament and fronting the
attacks themselves, the book shows senior politicians
using apparently independent bloggers (and some
media people) to do their dirty work.
The book was based on a large leak of internal
communications between the bloggers, the prime
minister’s office and the minister of justice – who
was forced to resign shortly after the book’s
publication. Political journalists had long suspected
links between the prime minister’s office and these
bloggers, but the activities were well hidden and
denied. The book shows a series of attacks and
manufactured scandals: researched and coordinated
by government staff and then fed to journalists via
the attack bloggers. It is a classic example of where
a leak was crucial for the story getting out. The leak
occurred early this year and I worked to get the book
out before New Zealand’s September 20 election.
The fist issue the book raises is about the place
of blogs in modern politics. I quote an internal
US Republican Party presentation explaining that
parties can use blogs without them needing to be
“associated (in name) with your party or campaign”.
The presentation notes that blogs “don’t have the
same limitations as ‘old’ media”, which meant the
“same standards”, and so are an ideal platform for
discrediting opponents. It paints media as “lazy and
under-informed”, boasting that they frequently used
stories off blogs and that blogs “often determine
media content and framing”. (It is an interesting
document – contact me if you’d like a copy.)
This sums up the role of the two attack blogs
featured in my book (Whale Oil and Kiwiblog).
Year after year they attacked anyone and everyone
on the public interest or left side of politics. Many
hundreds of people found themselves maligned,
with the apparent intention of shutting down
criticism of the National government. One of the
blogs is run by a former National Party president’s
son, the other by the National Party’s chief pollster.
The leaked documents prove decisively that both
men were collaborating with the National Party and
prime minister’s staff.
Despite being blatantly partisan, both bloggers were
and still are used as political commentators by the
New Zealand media. This includes the party pollster,
who briefs the prime minister regularly on how to
manage public opinion. I think this is irresponsible
of the news organisations. It’s fie for commentators
to be left- or right-leaning, but the public deserves to
hear from people who are not extensions of a political
party, government or corporate public relations
campaigns. We have to do better.
What about the journalists who quietly took
stories off the bloggers? Journalists often get stories
passed to them from various sides of politics. This
isn’t necessarily wrong. But the book highlights the
risk of being used as part of undeclared strategies.
There are some terrible examples of this. A few
media people – for instance one gossip columnist
– appeared to be willing participants in National
Party attacks. But mostly, I think, it was busy
journalists being offered scoops and not thinking
hard enough about what was behind them.
The book was possibly the biggest news during the
election campaign. Media coverage of it was mixed.
I thought many journalists pursued the issues well
and kept asking questions. Some others were pathetic,
acting as if I had done something wrong by raising
the government’s record during an election campaign.
Elections, apparently, should be left to the reporting
of prepared spin. There were very striking differences
between news organisations in the quantity and
style of coverage – interesting comparisons can be
made. Also, you can tell when a news organisation
is hostile towards you: they choose the most awful
photographs they can!
Nonetheless, I believe that revelations such as these
have a positive effect. After weeks of controversy,
journalists will hopefully be on the lookout for similar
activities and John Key’s National Party government
(which was returned to power) will be much more
careful not to be caught in similar abuses of power.
As always, there were numerous ethical issues
to work through with a big leak. The information
came from someone who hacked the Whale Oil blog
computers. My lawyer said this was a legitimate source
only if there was a very high public interest. Dirty
tricks and abuse of power by the prime minister’s staff
and minister of justice easily met this test.
But a leak like this also includes a lot of genuinely
private information and so a lot of the material was
not used. Further, incidental names and details were
removed from the drafts. Leaks are an essential source
of public information, but I believe we must also
staunchly defend privacy – including unscrupulous
people’s privacy.
The fial issue is about negative politics, which
is well known to turn the general public off politics
and lower the rate of voting – indeed US Republican
Party strategists talk of the value of discouraging
voting in certain demographics. Our recent election
unsurprisingly had the second lowest turnout in our
history. For anyone interested in these issues, the
afterword of my book looks at what can be done in
media and beyond to counter the negative effects of
this style of politics.
I should warn Australian readers that the book
is of course about personalities and events that are
strictly from New Zealand. However, reading a case
study about dirty political tactics can be a very useful
way of spotting and understanding them in other
contexts and countries.
If you’re interested in political strategy, including
the use of blogs and third-party actors, I recommend
the book. You can read some chapters free at http://
www.craigpotton.co.nz/flpbooks/dirty_politics/
index.html.