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Hager: Use Commentators Not Spin Doctors

Use Independent Commentators Not Spin Doctors

I would like to propose a New Year's resolution for news organisations: sorting out the difference between genuine media commentators and giving regular media space to political party spin doctors. The recently retired Frank Haden was an honourable example of a genuine commentator. I quite often did not agree with his views but I respected his independent and considered opinion. But why should newspaper buyers have to read the other type?

Richard Long's recent columns about 'stolen emails' and allegations of shadowy Labour Party involvement in my book The Hollow Men are classic pieces of political spin doctoring. Before repetition gives credibility to his claims, let's consider how absurd they are.

According to Mr Long, Don Brash and other senior staffers had their computers 'hacked' to provide the internal papers used in my book. But hacking into the parliamentary computers is effectively impossible – they have very secure systems. Neither National's private detectives nor the Police have found the slightest evidence of hacking. They will not. It did not happen. Also, the hacking allegations do not explain why non-computer-based faxes and printed reports, accessible only to insiders, are also in the book; nor how the book contains very detailed information, given in interviews, that was never written down on computers.

There is also no basis for his claim that my book was somehow a Labour Party plot. Indeed it is laughable. He blithely overlooks the fact that my earlier book and articles about the Labour Government earned me frosty relations with that party. I am hardly the person they would have chosen for secret collaboration.

The real explanation for the leaks is the unprincipled and dishonest behaviour of the National Party leadership group from 2003-2006. Some decent people in and near the party were sufficiently concerned that they were willing to help publicise what was going on. This kind of leaking is democracy at work. Lots of the people exposed by these leaks, including Mr Long himself, are anxious to divert attention off the contents of the book and to discourage people from reading it. Thus their personal attacks on me and the invented stories of hacking and skullduggery (in public relations, this diversion is known as 'painting yourself as the victim').

Richard Long was head of media management for Don Brash, planning the daily 'lines' used to evade issues and spin the news. For instance, he and his staff penned all the untruthful lines about the Exclusive Brethren that later helped lose Dr Brash the leadership. Here is one of the series of secret internal media scripts they prepared for him:

Q. Did anyone in the National Party have any knowledge of these pamphlets?

A. Well, I can’t speak for the tens of thousands of party members all around the country but I can assure you that the party’s governing body had absolutely no knowledge of the material you describe, and neither did the leader or any other member of the caucus.

Mr Long even planned for Dr Brash to feign irritation if journalists kept pressing him about the Brethren – “time to get mildly irritated”, his media notes said, then “If it continues, [get] even more irritable”. Dr Brash carefully followed the prepared lines and then feigned irritation, using the proposed words, to avoid further questioning.

Truthfulness did not seem to figure. In another example, 'When any journalists asked Richard Long about National’s internal polling, which was being conducted weekly at that time, his prepared lines were that “Unlike Labour we do very little polling. Too expensive. Labour is poll driven, we are principled.”’ And so it went on. At the back of The Hollow Men there are precise references to the hundreds of inside documents quoted.

Mr Long and his colleagues were all being paid large public salaries. They should answer to the public for their actions, which, as one journalist summed up the book, showed people drunk with power. That would be a more appropriate subject of his columns than attacking the messenger.

Which brings us back to the New Year's resolution. The public should be able to read columnists who are independent of the subjects they write about or who at least honestly declare their conflicts of interest. This was highlighted for me by the list of columnists who attacked my book most strongly – each studiously avoiding the important issues it raises.

Besides Long, who failed to mention his own central part, they included Michael Bassett, co-author of Don Brash's Orewa speeches; Matthew Hooton, strategist for Brash then John Key; Jane Clifton, long-time partner of National strategist Murray McCully; and others with undeclared links to National or Dr Brash. That is, some of the very people shown acting cynically and deceptively in the book. The public deserves better.


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