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The attacks on Nicky Hager and their flaws

The attacks on Nicky Hager and their flaws

By Branko Marcetic
21 August, 2014

It’s all made up and can’t be proven. But if it can, then it doesn’t matter, because it’s not that big a deal. Besides, everyone does it. These are just some of the rebuttals launched at Nicky Hager since his book, Dirty Politics, revealed the unsavoury underside of National Party politics. Figures on the right, from government ministers and broadcasters to the subject of the book himself, Cameron Slater, have lined up to launch a volley of attacks on the book and discredit its arguments.

But apart from the self-contradictory attempts to dismiss its actual content – the difficulty of which is reflected in the government’s shifting positions – these same commentators on the right have tried to sully the motives and journalistic character of both the book and Hager himself. Amongst the flurry of controversy, three arguments in particular have stuck out: that Hager is part of a wider left-wing smear campaign; that he’s profiting from stolen material; and that he’s engaging in exactly the same kind of dirty politics he’s decrying.

For a variety of reasons, none of these arguments are convincing.

Argument #1: Dirty Politics is part of a left-wing smear campaign

In a number of places, the Prime Minister has accused of the book of being part of what he called a “well and truly orchestrated, left-wing smear campaign” aimed at the National government and its key figures.

Speaking the morning after the book’s release, Key told reporters:

“Frankly, if there’s dirty politics in New Zealand, it’s actually coming from the left…What we’ve had from them this week is we’ve had Dotcom putting up a video of young people chanting. We’ve had effigies being burnt and displayed on the internet. We’ve had billboards being wrecked. We’ve had a parody out there on the [internet]. And now we’ve had this book of baseless allegations.”

The first incident referenced here is the Internet Mana Party video featuring Kim Dotcom speaking to a group of students chanting “F*** John Key”. The second incident refers to a video put online by a group called Vote Him Out, showing students burning an effigy of the Prime Minister, which both he and Cameron Slater swiftly tried to link to Kim Dotcom. The final evidence Key cites is a satirical song critical of him and the National Party that was written and performed by a Wellington blues musician.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister again tried to link these incidents together in an interview with Guyon Espiner on Radio New Zealand, calling the book’s allegations against Judith Collins part of a smear campaign, which began the week with “F. U. videos” and “went into burning effigies.”

The Prime Minister’s attempt to link these disparate events is hampered by the fact that there is absolutely zero evidence they’re connected in any way. Unlike the direct links between Cameron Slater and various figures in the National Party and government demonstrated by Hager, it’s clear that each of the videos Key is complaining about were made by individuals who had nothing to do with each other. Other than the fact that the videos are anti-Key, come broadly from the left and were cited by the Prime Minister, the idea that they have anything more in common is laughable.

More importantly, the examples cited by Key pale in comparison to the kind of outrageous activities described by Hager in his book. On the right we have allegations of: the Prime Minister’s press secretary unlawfully accessing information from Labour party computers; a government minister feeding personal information about a political opponent to expose him to attack; a staffer in the Prime Minister’s office tipping off a blogger about a politically damaging OIA request; and many sleazy accounts of attempts to gather embarrassing details on politicians’ sex lives.

On the left we have: some students chanting an obscenity; other students setting fire to an effigy; vandalised billboards, an election year tradition and hardly something National have a monopoly on; and a parody video that’s barely discernable from the typical campaign ads lobbed by parties during elections.

If someone on the left was using this to orchestrate a smear campaign, they were doing a terrible job.

Argument #2: Hager is profiting from stolen material

Upon first being challenged with the claims from Hager’s book, Judith Collins replied that Hager had used “stolen emails to further slur me, and, more importantly, the Prime Minister and the people in his office.” The emails, after all, had originally been hacked from Slater’s computer by an unknown source.

The use of the term “stolen emails” by the Justice Minister is a pointed one, meant to cast aspersions on Hager’s journalistic credentials and his intentions, giving the book a sordid feel. Not only that, but it also casts doubt on the legality of the book. As she went on to say: “That is deplorable behaviour, and I am sure the legal situation he’s in is quite interesting.” Hager wasn’t acting as a journalist, but as an attack blogger, and had broken the law in his zeal.

However, unlike Slater’s collusion with Jason Ede to snoop around in the Labour Party’s computers, there’s no evidence that Hager was involved in any way in obtaining the hacked emails. He was leaked the emails after the fact, and then published them selectively in the public interest. The obtaining of the emails by the original source may have been illegal, but thanks to the Bill of Rights Act’s protection of freedom of expression, Hager is well within his rights to publish the information.

As for the attempt to attach an association of grubbiness to Hager’s work, it’s useful to note that what Hager did happens routinely every day around the world. It’s called journalism: someone breaks the law or violates an oath by passing secret information on to a reporter, who then writes a story about it. It’s why Peter Dunne had to resign as a Minister after he was found to have discussed leaking the Kitteridge report last year, but the reporter who he leaked it to, Andrea Vance, went relatively unbothered. It’s also why, while the US government tries in vain to have Edward Snowden extradited to stand trial for his leak of NSA files, the websites and newspapers which published them have received praise and are untouchable by their respective governments.

The whole affair does, however, point to the lak of logic in the High Court’s recent decision that books are essentially not journalism. A High Court judge ruled on 19 June that only news articles enjoy journalistic legal protections, and so an author of a journalistic book could be compelled to reveal her or his sources. This now puts Hager at risk of being forced to reveal the identity of his source for Dirty Politics if a criminal investigation is launched. Absurdly, if he had taken the 14 chapters of his book and instead published them as 14 separate articles in a newspaper or magazine, he would not be.

Argument #3: Hager himself is engaging in dirty politics

“Nicky has clearly breached my privacy,” Slater complained to the Herald. “The guy is a sanctimonious hypocrite,”

“Obviously, the irony has not escaped you that you attack people for leaked emails, and yet your entire book’s based on leaked emails,” Mike Hosking said to Hager the day after the book’s release.

Even an editorial on Stuff suggested there was something untoward about Hager “using hacked emails from Slater’s private computer while also strongly believing that for his opponents to do the same would be the worst case of dirty tricks.”

The idea that Hager himself has done the very thing his book crusades against seems to be pervasive one. But just as with the difference between a parody video made by a musician and government officials working with some in the media to defame opponents, there is an ocean that separates Hager’s book from what Slater was doing.

As his critics concede when they accuse him of being “selective” with the emails he’s used, Hager has only used those emails which are newsworthy and are in the public interest – in other words, those emails which relate to the National government’s collusion in orchestrating attacks on their political rivals. Despite the fact that Hager had six years’ worth of Slater’s emails to work with, the book features no details about Slater’s sex life, what he gets up to in his spare time, or other irrelevant personal information. In fact, the recent email dumps by the original source, which aren’t as discerning, have made Hager’s selectiveness abundantly clear.

By contrast, excepting the OIA request on Phil Goffe’s briefing by the SIS, this is exactly the kind of information Slater, Ede and others were interested in. They weren’t after information that would reveal wrongdoing or corruption by political elites. The vast majority of their concerns involving digging up scurrilous information on politicians’ sex lives, catching them behaving badly on their off-hours, and using covertly obtained information to disrupt campaigns. Instead of revealing the wrongdoing of those in power, Slater’s work (and that of the officials he collaborated with) aimed to embarrass politicians with seedy details about their personal lives.

In addition to this, equating the conduct of a hacker to that of a staff member from the Prime Minister’s office is treading dangerous ground. Typically, governments are meant to hold themselves to a higher standard than your average citizen, let alone an anonymous computer hacker. While that might not make the actions of the hacker legal or morally sound, such violations are rightly considered more outrageous when they came from a democratically elected, taxpayer-funded government.

Because the government is unable to refute the actual content of the book - given that it’s well-documented, and a number of the parties involved have actually admitted to some of the charges - they and their supporters have resorted to an age-old political trick: attack the messanger in order to discredit the message. If they plan to keep doing so, however, they would do well to come up with more convincing arguments than these.

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