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illottengains
September 7, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Ill-Gotten Gains?

Whether the result of tactical planning or not, it’s difficult to see the point of bothering with voting and politics when, as Dirty Politics demonstrates, so much of what we’re told by news media has been manufactured and manipulated behind the scenes.

Hager is impressed with the mainstream media treatment of the contents of his book, “particularly impressed that John Key has been questioned much harder, in quite a different way to what we normally get.”

But how effectively can the media act as a watchdog when the infrastructure of our information systems rests on such shaky foundations – when our ‘news’ is often the fruit of less-than-salubrious investigation, fabrication, manipulation or leaking?

Game tactics

As students, it’s easy to feel as though politics has nothing to do with us. It doesn’t matter who’s in power because, at the end of the day, it’s unlikely our flats are going to get much warmer or more affordable, or our Student Loans any smaller, any time soon. What’s more, it’s difficult to discern what the various parties’ policies even are. In an interview with Salient, Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager said disillusionment with national politics is a rational reaction to the contemporary climate – “If politicians look like they’re just bickering amongst themselves and attacking each other [with silly little mini-scandals that seem to come from nowhere, any rational person thinks, ‘Well, what’s this got to do with me?’”

Although political scandal may be entertaining (let’s face it; politicians are as close as we get to real celebrities in New Zealand), the constant distraction and detraction from real policy issues is a real problem for those of us only just old enough to vote for the first, or perhaps second, time.

Hager described the political climate of the past six years as “an extreme period”, with “more personal attacks, more manufactured scandals, more manufactured politics than is normal, and less policy.” Duncan Garner, however, claims this is not remotely revolutionary – “shadowy attack-politics is not new and not the sole domain of National.” In his Dominion Post opinion piece, ‘Politics is a sleazy business – regardless of who is in power’, Garner alleges Helen Clark was the “biggest gossip of them all”, swirling allegations about her Minister of Māori Affairs Dover Samuels having sex with someone under the age of consent, which eventually led to his removal from office.

Hager claims voter disengagement is a result of “deliberate tactics, which discourage people from participating in politics”. Hager here refers to participation in two ways. While at one level there are tactical plays designed to remove specific individuals from politics, on another, the appearance of sleazy scandals leads voters, especially young people who haven’t witnessed politics operating any other way, to lose interest.

University students are more likely to vote for the Green Party, and perhaps now Internet Mana, than the National Party, for example. It suits National Party interests, in this instance, to have the youngest members of the voting public feeling disengaged from politics – it’s better for them that students don’t vote at all, than vote against them.

Whether the result of tactical planning or not, it’s difficult to see the point of bothering with voting and politics when, as Dirty Politics demonstrates, so much of what we’re told by news media has been manufactured and manipulated behind the scenes.

Dirty Politics reveals Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater as a central figure in the National Party’s spin machine. Held not to be a journalist in a 2013 District Court decision, Slater is unconstrained by “professional codes of practice which import standards such as accuracy [and balance” that journalists sign up to, says privacy-law specialist, Dr Nicole Moreham.

While Judith Collins urged Slater to hang a public servant out to dry (resulting in the public servant receiving death threats), Key was being photographed with Labrador puppies. As Slater pressured Rodney Hide to resign as leader of the ACT Party with threats to publish texts allegedly sent by Hide to a younger woman, Key was taking selfies. This is symptomatic of the National Party’s two-track approach: Key maintains his Mr Nice Guy persona from a safe distance while, as Hager puts it in Dirty Politics, “relying on other people for a continuous barrage of attacks and negative campaigning.” Stories published on Whale Oil were then picked up and rehashed in mainstream news media, unaware of their origins.

Moreham observes “a robust media is … recognised as a fundamental part of democracy: courts often call the media the public’s ‘watchdog’ and it is vital that they can perform that function effectively.” But how effectively can the media act as a watchdog when the infrastructure of our information systems rests on such shaky foundations – when our ‘news’ is often the fruit of less-than-salubrious investigation, fabrication, manipulation or leaking?

Who knows what to believe?

The emails and online conversations that form the basis of Dirty Politics, which Hager received (from an anonymous source), were admittedly acquired by an unlawful act. Following the Whale Oil site’s crash after outrage at an especially nasty post published by Slater one night in January, Whale Oil was hacked, and emails and online conversations obtained.

Jane Clifton’s recent article ‘Dirty Rotten Politics’, published in The Listener, suggests that both Slater and Hager have made “equivalent transgressions” by publishing private information and not giving their subjects a right of reply. Somehow, Hager’s book has come to be treated in mainstream news media as equivalent to the unlawful act committed by Slater and John Key’s senior adviser, Jason Ede, who accessed private information, including lists of donors and supporters, from the Labour Party website.

John Key says that this is totally fine, and used the analogy of the All Blacks looking at the Wallabies’ starting lineup before a big game, if it was published unprotected on a website. But just because something might be standard practice, as Key suggests, doesn’t mean it’s any more legal. As lawyer Felix Geiringer observed, “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.” Slater and Ede lacked authority to access the data, and they knew they lacked such authority. Geiringer adds, “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.”

Moreham explains: “the law draws a distinction between the acquisition of information and its disclosure. It might be wrongful to obtain information but legitimate for a third party who obtains it to use it. That depends on the public interest in the information.” Investigative journalism, as conducted by Hager in Dirty Politics, is “all about telling stories that people don’t want told. The law recognises that and, at least to some extent, protects journalists’ rights to work in the public interest.”

A fundamental pillar of democracy, freedom of expression encompasses the right to receive and impart ideas and information. As Moreham summarises, the law is careful to guard the media’s right to tell the public about “things they need to know to make informed decisions about their society and the way it is governed.”

Frequently, access to important information about the functioning of our democracy is shrouded in secrecy or restricted by denial and employment contracts. Hager says that sometimes, “leaking is a necessary safeguard against impenetrable actions of power.” Moreham sas “there is clearly a difference between using personal information to expose wrongdoing and using information to engage in wrongdoing.” It’s all about balancing freedom of expression against personal privacy interests. In Dirty Politics, Moreham sees the balance tipped in favour of freedom of expression.

In other words, Hager’s actions are justified as he published Dirty Politics in the public interest. Hager is aware of the heavy burden of relying on the public good as a defence to publishing private information that was acquired by hacking – “it means that I’m in the position of making those judgments, but someone’s got to do it.” Unlike Slater, who published innocent people’s private information, purely in order to embarrass the Labour Party, Hager was “ultra-scrupulous” about protecting the privacy of those who did not need to be held publicly accountable for their actions.

So now what?

Since taking leadership, there’s been little, if any, real coverage of Key’s politics, or his direction for New Zealand other than towards a “brighter future” – whatever that means. It’s far more difficult to imagine an instance of Key declaring policy than it is one of him holding a baby.

In the wake of the release of Dirty Politics, this seems to be changing. Hager is impressed with the mainstream media treatment of the contents of his book, “particularly impressed that John Key has been questioned much harder, in quite a different way to what we normally get.” And he’s not wrong. As Labour’s Grant Robertson stated, “John Key no longer gets it – Kiwis want answers: they are sick of his pathetic claims of left-wing conspiracies and constant attempts to dodge the question.” In a Radio New Zealand interview with Guyon Espiner on 18 August, Key’s diversion tactics and Nice Guy persona were put under pressure. Espiner asked Key whether he thought it was acceptable for then Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, to divulge the name of a public servant who was subsequently subjected to severe death threats. Key was unable to break away from what started off sounded like an irrelevant, rote-learned answer, and ended sounding like a performance of the Les Misérables hit, ‘At the End of the Day’.

Hager hopes that anyone who reads his book, or at least hears the essential points from it, “will be motivated and want things to be different, rather than just thinking ‘oh, here’s more stupid politicians.’” With the way the polls have been looking since the release of Dirty Politics, it certainly looks as though people are sitting up and paying attention. Blogger Gordon Campbell says “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 … with Guyon Espiner.” Hager’s book may well have sparked a turning point, not only in how politics operates, but our level of engagement with it. Here’s hoping.

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