Nicky Hager has long been concerned about the need for journalism to be in the ‘public interest’, and to critically speak truth to power, in order to enable democracy to thrive. His latest book, Dirty Politics, shows why we need a news media, or at least a strong section of it, that is independent of both manipulation by politicians and governments, as well as being independent of commercial, especially powerful corporate, influence.
Hager outlined his perspective on this in his Bruce Jesson lecture a couple of years ago. Dirty Politics is about the insidious, often covert and malicious influence of those trying to establish and maintain influence and power, in the interests of some of the most powerful groups in society.
In the preface to Dirty Politics, Hager summarises the content of the book:
New Zealand junior minister John Key had constructed an easy-going and relaxed public image. He began the 2014 election year by appearing at university orientation weeks, not to give speeches or debate policy, but to pose in ‘selfies’ with a crowd of students, more celebrity than politician. In rural Te Kuiti, he smiled for a beautifully composed photograph that would feature that night on his Facebook page. To the public, he was a man who stayed above the name calling and personal attacks of politics. He had declared during the 2011 election campaign ‘there’s no room for negative campaigning in New Zealand’. The reality was very different.
Key had overseen a government involved in more personal attacks and negative politics than any in living memory. Robert Muldoon, National leader in the 1970s and 1980s, is remembered for his abrasive, attacking style, but the Key government had outstripped it in the frequency and breadth of attacks, while still managing to maintain the leader’s genial image. It had done this in part by using others – political allies, bloggers and the news media – to deliver the blows. The result was a new kind of attack politics that was rapidly changing the political environment in New Zealand. That is the subject of this book.
In the course of the book, Hager shows how mainstream journalists colluded (not necessarily intentionally) with the attack politics of the Lusk-Collins-Slater-Williams-Ede faction of the National Party and government.
There are systemic problems with our current mainstream media, because it is dominated by powerful international corporates. The bottom line is profits. So they have increasingly cut back on spending on investigative journalism, and journalism in general. Consequently, journalists under pressure for speedily created content, latch onto sensationalist stories of conflict, celebrities, and drama, in order to attract more eyes and ears to their publication and news broadcasts.
The primary tactic of two track politics, borrowed from US Republicans and repeatedly used by the Lusk-Slater smear team was one [p.36 Dirty Politics],
where the primary purpose of the attack politics is to embroil the opposition in petty crises and scandals so they cannot get on with promoting their own messages.
Hager differentiates this politics of distraction from holding politicians to account “in their exercise of power”[p. 34 Dirty Politics]. Right wing bloggers aimed to draw many mainstream journalists into running their lines. Hager explains how this developed [p.21 Dirty Politics]:
The configuration was to be Ede-Farar-Slater, with Lusk in the background, and stories and attacks fed out from them to people such as Rachel Glucina and a series of journalists and underresourced news organisations willing to take an easy scoop. Farrar’s brand was independent, rational analysis and Slater’s aggressive attack dog, but the consistent mission week after week was defending their party and mauling its opponents.
For Hager, its about the democratic ideal [p.14 Dirty Politics]. Today Lucy Lawless has an op ed piece in the NZ Herald making some similar points.
Even if dirty politicking is nothing new, the scope of influence of malefactors via toxic blogs is unprecedented. Mercenary string-pullers are now able to access and repackage sensitive information at a rate not dreamed of in the 90s – and with very few people involved.
Never before have New Zealand’s mainstream media been so systematically sabotaged by vested interests. No wonder they’re pissed off. A free press is one of the cornerstones of a democracy.
In her article, Lawless fantasises about playing one of the villains in the a dramatic enactment of Dirty Politics: a story of:
Playing Crusher Collins is a dream role that I may one day have to arm-wrestle Robyn Malcolm for. (I suspect I’ll lose and have to settle for Cactus Kate.)
And the malevolent males are beyond Shakespeare’s villains, whose conflicted selves produced the great soliloquies. No such trouble for Slater & Co, whose revelations come by way of pathological boasting. Excessive pride exposes what Nabokov called “the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through even the most competent tyranny”.
Their lust for power is grotesque. Who’s more powerful than the king? A kingmaker.
But the really curious thing is that the main players seem to crave approval from some beast higher up the food chain. And they all seem a little in thrall to Mistress Collins.
I understand the attraction for an actor of playing a villain. However, if Cactus was played by Lawless, I fear her malevolence would be overlaid with Lawless’s celebrity status.
Our media needs to change in the interest of democracy. That is why I am interested in this debate on Sunday, organised by the Caoalition of Better Broadcasting: ‘what’s going on with broadcasting in NZ?’ I see Laila Harre and Colin Craig have now been added to the line up:
AUCKLAND – Sunday 31 Aug at 6.30pm (Doors open 6.15pm)The CBB presentsthe Auckland Broadcasting Debate.With new guest speakers – Colin Craig and Laila Harre!Come to the Pioneer Women’s Hall on High St, Auckland City to see speakers:Maggie Barry – NationalKris Faafoi – LabourJulie Anne Genter – GreensLaila Harre – Internet ManaColin Craig – Conservativesmoderated by Guy Williamsand asked pointed questions by you the public