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Unless you’ve been in a coma lately you will have heard of Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment. As the full title indicates, the deliberate tactic of poisoning politics – making it all seem like a stomach-churning mess – is the ‘big picture’ issue that this book highlights. It’s not just about ‘bad politicians’. Or ‘bloggers’ generally. Nor is it even just about Judith Collins. Hager wrote this because he wants us to understand why we are feeling confused about politics, and what we can do about it. John Key tells us that most New Zealanders are not interested in this book. This may be true, but it is also true that politicians throughout history have known that ignorant voters are easier to deal with.
Hager is an independent journalist. He does not work for a big corporate company, so he is able to write about things that other journalists are afraid to tackle. He has to be accurate in his claims because millionaires tend to be litigious. At the last election, John Key sued a journalist for leaving his recorder going during Key’s well-publicised cup of tea with John Banks. Hager is also independent in that he does not work for any political party. His publications have tackled issues for both National and Labour Governments. In a previous book he critiqued Labour’s handling of the GE corn issue. However, Hager has a special interest in PR-spin, so for this reason he has been critical of developments within National. Hager’s books are internationally-acclaimed. His first book Secret Power for instance, sparked a European Parliament inquiry. This latest book is based upon ten years’ worth of Cameron Slater’s e-mails and documents which Hager received on an 8GB USB stick after his source hacked into the Whale Oil site. Slater complained to the police about this hacking but is now facing court prosecution himself.
Slater’s e-mails reveal that in the last election he boasted about how easy it was to manipulate NZ voters, and how he ‘owns the news’. It reveals how he is paid by several people and corporates, but regularly by a consultant for British American Tobacco (Ch. 7). He also works with the National party pollster, David Farrar of Kiwiblog, Simon Lusk, a National party strategist, and Jason Ede, the PM’s longest-serving media advisor. Judith Collins feeds him material for his site. The book does not mention that Slater’s dad, John Slater, recruited Key into the National Party, but it does explain how, as with Reagan and Bush in the US, Key provides the smiling face, while others do the dirty work. The book mentions relationships with political commentators such as Mathew Hooton (p.91-92), Paul Henry and Patrick Gower (p. 134), and the afterword spotlights Mike Hosking on Seven Sharp. But it generally focusses on the way Slater, Farrar & Co act as an unofficial, unregulated, bully-boy media arm for National.
Chapter Nine explains how Farrar attended an international right-wing forum hosted by the Republican Party and the International Democratic Union. The latter organisation, like a lot of far- right groups, uses a leftie-sounding name to distract from its real purpose, which is to share and promote right-wing tactics. One of these tactics is to use unofficial blogs like Farrar’s and Slater’s to evade caps on election spending. Another is to run orchestrated and well-funded smear campaigns, or campaigns that consistently attack an opponent’s credibility in more subtle ways. These do not always succeed in making people vote for the right, but they do have the effect of turning everyday people, who might vote on the left, off politicians. Slater’s e-mails expose the systematic campaign against Len Brown which was being planned from around 2010. They also reveal the campaigns that have been run to discredit the Labour leader prior to the last election, and David Cunliffe and other opponents in this one.
Hager has written this book as he believes that in a democracy where people have to make an informed vote, it is the role of media to offer clarity, to act as a watchdog, and to hold politicians to account, regardless of their party affiliation. He believes that by demanding more from our politicians, we can put a stop to our democracy going the way of America’s.
Top tips for countering dirty politics
Be aware that bad politicians love non-voters. It gives them an easy road.
On-line voting polls and websites are easily manipulated by those with vested interests. iPredict, which is run by VUW, is an example of an easily-manipulated poll (pp.54, 64).
None of us will ever agree entirely with everything that any one political party does or decides, so a sign of a healthy democracy is lots of detailed debate from different perspectives. So …
- Demand televised political debates with the spectrum of political parties, not just the main two. Prior to National we had this.
- Don’t accept Seven Sharp, Womens’ Weekly-style political commentary and comedians acting as political commentators. This stuff just keeps us dumb.
Be wary when bloggers or journalists entice you with ‘harmless’ jokes and neutral commentary to appear aloof from politics, when overall their comments have the effect of pushing you in one political direction. Occasionally they appear to be siding with the very people they are attacking, but this is also a strategy.
Watch out for repeated words and phrases, or variations of words with the same meaning. This is a sign that politicians and their media buddies are trying to stay ‘on message’ to make sure you get the message. This tactic can be used to get good messages across. But it is also used as a distraction, cover-up or as part of a smear campaign. Watch out for groups and organisations with leftie-sounding names who might be the opposite, e.g. the NZ Taxpayer’s Union, the International Democratic Union (Ch.9).
Demand better. Worry less about personal gossip about politicians and more about their performance within their position. Illegal or corrupt activity counts as bad performance!
Explore the background of people who make a living as ‘political commentators.’
Get smart. Read about far-right Republican tactics in the US – they are here (e.g. Ch. 9 of DP).