One tweet early on summed it up nicely: “Never have so many people had an opinion about a book they haven’t read since English Lit tutorials at university.”
I’ve read 75% of Dirty Politics. I had to take a break yesterday because I was getting too depressed. I found it depressing not because there are people in the world with different political views from mine, but because the system is being successfully rorted which disenfranchises us all.
I don’t believe in conspiracies. Mainly I don’t believe in them because they are too neat, and life isn’t neat. No one has enough power and enough influence to touch enough people and organisations to stitch together a neat conspiracy. So far I don’t really see that Hager is suggesting a tight, wide-ranging conspiracy. Suggesting that would be nonsense. Which is why Key and Farrar are suggesting it. What comes across is a group of people in the National Party who have the loose idea that the kind of thing Cameron Slater is engaged in is useful for the National Party; that Slater’s practices are uneven but overall officially approved of. John Key doesn’t bother himself with the details, but is comfortable with people on his staff and Ministers in his Cabinet making use of blogs to achieve political goals without having to worry about any legal or ethical niceties.
One thing that strikes me in the commentary about the book is that people like David Farrar say that their connection to the National Party is well-known and has never been hidden. Within a very small circle who live and breath New Zealand politics this statement may be true, but for the other 99% of New Zealanders (like me) it is not. Up until a few years ago David Farrar was routinely presented as independent when he appeared in the media. This doesn’t happen so much anymore, but even knowing that someone is pro-National doesn’t mean that you assume they worked within that party for eight years, and are contracted by that party to do its polling. Nicky Hager is right – it is extremely disingenuous for David to say that he has a number of clients and one of them happens to be National. Polling is part of politics and part of party strategy. David Farrar is involved in National Party strategy and is in no way shape or form neutral.
Cameron Slater is another example of this. Until I read (75% of) this book I just thought he was an asshole; I had no idea his father was a former National Party President. What your parents did, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but I think it’s a “nice to know” when reading Whale Oil (god help you). In the same way that it’s nice to know how connected and how friendly a blogger is with a Minister when reading their posts. Especially posts that appear to contain insider knowledge in the Minister’s area of responsibility.
The danger, though, with this book, is that all the commentary becomes personal: Hager is a left-wing conspiracy theorist and Slater is a low-life. I’d rather the media did not go down that path. What bothers me most in (the first 75% of) this book is the abuse of democracy. Of our democracy.
Let’s take the chapter about the Rodney electorate, and the National Party selection process. Because Rodney is a “safe seat” for National getting selected for this electorate is like getting a free pass into parliament and, in this case, government. Like you, I am not hugely interested in whether Scott Simpson or Brent Robinson would have been better for Rodney than Mark Mitchell. What I am interested to know is how National Party members in Rodney feel about what appears to have happened in that selection process, because what appears to have happened is that a couple of people (Lusk and Slater) effectively decided that selection for them based on what they thought was right. If I were voting in a selection process and had heard certain things, and read certain things, and changed my vote as a consequence, right now I’m not sure how I would feel. Maybe angry, maybe betrayed. Both of these might be better though than feeling dis-empowered, and feeling like my political system had been gamed, because feeling like that might make me disengage.
If these allegations over the selection process are true then surely the National Party membership would want this to be investigated in detail for the good of our democracy as a whole, and the health of their party specifically.
Or we could take the chapter about Judith Collins and Cameron Slater. Again, it would be easy to be distracted by the personalities of the people involved, but that is a distraction. The core issue is that a Minister appears to be leaking information to a friend in the media for political advantage. Not for the public good, but for political advantage. This friend in the media also appears to have been given preferential access to government information through the rorting of the Official Information Act process for, again, the political advantage of the political party in government. This preferential access has often been at the expense of the fourth estate.
This also is wrong, and must be investigated in detail for the good of our democracy.
We could look at how Jason Ede is involved in all of this. Not because he is Jason Ede, but because he is a civil servant employed by the people of New Zealand to assist the Prime Minister in his work, and if any civil servant was found to be doing what he has been accused of doing in this book then I would expect people across the political spectrum to demand action, because…
it is wrong, and must be investigated in detail for the good of our democracy.
Nicky Hager is right. This is a book packed full of information that will leave a lot of people with a lot to think about. Perhaps the people at i-predict are having a think now. Probably there are a lot of journalists having a think too. For journalists there are a lot of things to think about.
A while ago I read a book called Stop Press by Rachel Buchanan. It was a book about newspapers in New Zealand and Australia. Buchanan’s book pined for the era of the newspaper that was written, edited and printed in a single building. That era has well and truly ended thanks to globalisation and the internet. For Buchanan the monopolising of media into conglomerates for economic efficiency in a global market has some worrying implications for news as a part of the democratic system. Concerns that aren’t really directly relevant to this post.
Her other area of concern was the internet. With much so news moving from paper to digital formats she notes that in 2012 Norske Skog halved the production of paper in its Kawerau plant. Steven Joyce noted of the dying newsprint industry, “the reason it’s a dying industry is, people carry them around every day – smartphones, iPads and all those things.” It is not news that the news is moving to digital formats, or that many of those formats have more of an entertainment focus, and encourage reader comments, and snap opinion polls, and show “what’s popular” side bars to drive more clicks. It’s also not news that these sites often have aggressive advertising all over them in colour, with moving parts and flashing lights. It’s a blurring that can make a blog and a news site look and feel quite similar. Especially if the blog is getting tip offs and breaking news stories. Especially if journalists are getting painted as venal, cynical and political. To have journalists painted that way in general makes blogs and news sites begin to look the same although they are held to very different standards.
The two blogs implicated in Hager’s book – Kiwiblog and Whale Oil – had 2.5 million visits in July this year. They are not really “just” blogs.
The decline of print, the monopolies forming in media, and the blurring of digital lines between news and not news (with all kinds of differences in legal accountability) is not a vast right wing conspiracy. It is the result of change in society over decades. Information technology has changed society. Market reforms have changed society. How this confluence of events is being used by some in the media to rort our political system currently is the problem. Nicky Hager’s book shows us how it has been done and by whom. The onus is on us to make those who should be beginning inquiries start them. Not later, but now. Shrugging and saying “it’s all lies” is not good enough.
The onus is also on Nicky Hager to put all the documents on Wikileaks. Doing so is in the public interest and for the good of our political system. The sooner the evidence is tabled the sooner an investigation can begin and people can be held to account.
Update: I finished the book. It makes me feel angry. I’m glad I feel angry because it means I care. Hager is right. Key is complicit. It is disgusting. I prefer to live with a political system in which there is a contest of ideas. Anything else is not the democracy I signed up for.