Twenty years ago, England’s renowned television playwright Denis Potter died of pancreatic cancer. Readers may recall his two masterpieces ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’. During a final television interview with Melvyn Bragg, Potter declared that he had named his cancer ‘Rupert’, as in Rupert Murdoch, because:
There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press. And the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.
The recent News of the World hacking trial revealed a cancerous growth throughout the British establishment. Rebekah Brookes, proxy of Rupert Murdoch, and Andy Coulson, former aide to Prime Minister, David Cameron, ruined private lives through the News of the World in order to sell newspapers, please Murdoch and advance their own careers. Their ideological objective was to humiliate left-wing political figures, especially those who challenged News International. Meanwhile, successive governments cravenly deferred to Murdoch’s interests, their political futures were at stake. The Guardian’s disclosure that the News of the World had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a missing Surrey schoolgirl inadvertently highlighted the extent of Murdoch’s interests. As News International was attempting to takeover BskyB, Murdoch titles attacked the BBC and Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator. David Cameron’s culture secretary was about to approve the takeover just as the hacking scandal erupted. When Parliament immediately blocked the deal, the extent of the cancer first diagnosed by Denis Potter was exposed for all to see.
A similar moment has arrived in New Zealand with the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics: how attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment. After reading the book and observing the fall out, I would say this: the United Kingdom is in worse health, but we are catching up fast. Both the New Zealand body politic and media system are in a condition of decline. I will now provide a diagnostic history of the disease, identify recent symptoms, and suggest appropriate remedies.
A healthy democracy requires public spheres of communication which guarantee freedoms of association, expression and publication. Citizens, groups and intellectuals should be allowed to confer without restriction on matters of shared interest. In principle, public sphere activities should proceed independently of state power, religious authority, and undue commercial influence. Public sphere activities and their lack can be evaluated within many environments, I will restrict myself here to the political process and the media domain.
Let’s begin with the 1970s, my favourite decade. Most people will instantly think Muldoon; accumulator of executive power, arch-intimidator of political opponents, in parliament, through the media, and with the help of the SIS. Yet, it is also worth remembering the growth of public sphere principles and practices. The press gallery was expanding and long-form current affairs television emerged: Gallery, Close Up, Dateline Monday, News at Ten. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) and Radio New Zealand (RNZ) became established institutions. The latter allowed radio programmes, such as In the News, Checkpoint and Viewpoint to provide political commentary. Contentious issues of the day played out across the print and broadcasting media; Māori land rights, equal power for women, Vietnam, trade union militancy, forest conservation, and sporting contact with apartheid South Africa. Journalists tackled volatile topics, such as race relations, gang culture, drug use, student protests and police corruption. The political system was forced to absorb the national argument between the new social movements and the conservative depression/World World II generation. One must acknowledge here that the first-past-the-post electoral system diluted the popular vote and entrenched hierarchies within caucus and cabinet.
As the decade unfolded, political debate over New Zealand’s economic direction ranged from left corporatism (Labour Party Left) to regulatory Keynesianism (Muldoon) and monetarism (National Party right). Overall, the 1970s score reasonably well on a public sphere checklist; New Zealand democracy had ailments, but was healthy by world standards.
During the early 1980s, Muldoon ruthlessly exploited democratic weaknesses in the political system. During the 1981 Springbok tour, the police and intelligence agencies were used against protesters. Later that year, our first-past-the-post electoral system allowed National to regain office with less than the popular vote. As both Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Muldoon was able to institute a wage-price freeze, threaten budget cuts to broadcasting organisations and appear regularly on television to frame news agendas. After Labour’s snap-election victory of July 1984, it seemed that democracy itself had prevailed. This impression was mistaken. Behind the celebration of victory and the demonization of Muldoon, new forms of cancer set in which are still with us today.
Firstly, under Finance Minister Roger Douglas, Labour abandoned its election manifesto. Neo-liberal economic policies were introduced in accordance with a Treasury publication, Economic Management.
Secondly, New Zealand’s political economy became less democratic. Treasury acted as a conduit between powerful elements of the corporate economy and the most influential cabinet ministers, who in turn dominated the major policy committees. Key Treasury officials actively supported neo-liberal zealots from the New Zealand Centre of Independent Studies. Such organisations belonged to a new milieu of think tanks, lobbyists, consultants, and professional mediators. Groups such as Consultus, Communicor and Strategos devised publicity strategies for financiers, corporate heads, state-owned enterprise managers, the Reserve Bank, Treasury and senior cabinet ministers. This collusive network of power reduced the influence over government policy of traditional pressure groups (especially unions and manufacturers), parliament and parliamentary watchdogs (eg the Ombudsman and Auditor General). Thirdly, Labour and subsequent National Governments built an entire stratum of private pollsters, spin doctors, image consultants, public relations practitioners, and other communications specialists to manage the news and undercut opposition to unpopular policies, such as privatisation. News journalists were swamped by advertising and public relations campaigns designed to promote neo-liberal policy initiatives, such as personal income tax ‘reforms’, the privatisation of Telecom, the Employment Contracts Act, and the restructuring of public health administration. In these and other cases, public relations firms advised on how to pre-empt potential conflict by monitoring the fears, doubts and desires of ordinary citizens. Market research opinion polling and focus group sampling were used to translate community concerns into nationwide advertising slogans. The general purpose was to identify resistance to the product, in order to changes its image, rather than the product itself.
Fourthly, as news management strategies restricted democratic debate, the quality of news journalism deteriorated. Once TVNZ became a state-owned enterprise, a team of America-based news consultants transformed issues-based current affairs into infotainment packages. The over-riding purpose was to build and maintain ratings flows between advertising segments. Holmes, 60 Minutes, 20/20 and subsequent shows dominated prime time. Eventually, mid-evening current affairs programmes lost their watchdog role. The deregulation of public broadcasting (1989), the entry of TV3 and pay television (1991) and the lifting of restrictions on foreign media ownership (1991) weakened the mediated public sphere. Since then, transnational corporate ownership of newspapers, magazines, radio and television has thinned out news journalism and thus assisted the spread of corporate public relations and government-led communications management.
The first cancerous development elicited a democratic response. During the early 1990s, a referendum campaign in support of an MMP electoral system highlighted the non-accountable nature of policy-making under Labour and National Governments. It was hoped that, in a new electoral environment, multi-party rather than single party government would increase political responsiveness to public concerns. Certainly, once MMP was implemented in 1996, successive National-led governments were less able to implement extremist, non-mandated initiatives, such as the full-scale privatisation of health, education, and roads. However, MMP alone could not broaden policy debate over New Zealand’s economic direction. And it could not turn political parties into forums for popular participation. Instead, professional mediators continued to shape the channels and messages of communication on behalf of party elites. In fact, an ever-increasing number of spin doctors from four or more parties battled for news space and favourable treatment from journalists.
From November 1999 until May 2002, Helen Clark’s Labour-led government fused together media management and political management. This was done by manufacturing Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ rhetoric for local consumption and by projecting Helen Clark, tirelessly, as New Zealand’s pre-eminent public figure and by constantly monitoring media perceptions of the Government’s performance. The Government’s strategy, under the watch of Helen Clark’s all-purpose personal adviser, Heather Simpson, was successful. Poll results were favourable and the Prime Minister remained pre-eminent. However, case-by-case spin doctoring was incapable of dealing with complex matters, such as immigration, the ‘leaky buildings’ crisis, and the introduction of genetically modified agriculture. In the latter context, vehement Ministerial responses to Nicky Hager’s Seeds of Distrust generated rancour amongst journalists. Government control of the media landscape was no longer uncontested.
After the 2002 election, National attempted to regain office in 2005 by combining the expertise of fundraisers, market researchers, private pollsters and negative campaign specialists. Through Don Brash’s leadership, a cohort of insiders set out to inflame popular prejudices against Māori, beneficiaries, unions, environmentalists and Helen Clark personally. At the same time, a secret alliance with the Exclusive Brethren sect provided National with financial resources, billboard labour, and a seemingly independent, anti-Left pamphleting campaign. As we know, the strategy was upended by a mass leak of internal National Party emails and the exposure of the Exclusive Brethren arrangement. In 2006, Nicky Hager’s Hollow Men documented, comprehensively, the course of events on behalf of ‘the principled conservatives of the New Zealand National Party’.
As I have intimated, the cancerous growths within New Zealand’s democracy did not begin with Don Brash and his handlers. What then was distinctive about the Hollow Men thesis? On my reading of Hager’s analysis, a new malignancy had emerged. Campaign strategists, Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby, had introduced into New Zealand the techniques of cued focus group questioning and ‘push polling’. Their objective was to dig out personal anxieties and underlying prejudices about Left-leaning politicians and parties. These anxieties and prejudices were the raw material for negative advertising throughout the mass media. This general strategy was reinforced by orchestrated personal attacks on the enemy (in this case Labour and Green politicians).
After losing the 2005 election, Don Brash gave way to John Key. Upon his 2008 election victory, cancerous threats to democracy proliferated further.
Hager’s Dirty Politics: diagnosis and fall-out
Now we know. National devised a two-track plan to stay in office. John Key was branded as a sensible, low-key everyman equally comfortable with English royalty, the US Presidency, gay/lesbian gatherings, and ordinary New Zealanders. He spoke haltingly and sincerely and appeared untainted by the controversies that surrounded him: mining in National Parks, Sky City, the Rio-Tinto smelter, Chorus, Judith Collins et al. Unassailable poll ratings and a disorganised Labour Party ensured re-election and the prospect of a third term. Hidden from public view, however, individuals from John Key’s office, Cameron Slater and Judith Collins and a refreshed cohort of ‘hollow men’ operators, were gleefully nobbling their opponents in Labour, the public service, Auckland local body politics and the National Party itself.
If this general picture is correct and the cited emails in Dirty Politics are authentic then its time for another health check of our political democracy and media system.
The electoral process
Electoral contests for government office require a full adult plebiscite. Attempts to reduce voter turnout for political advantage are thus anti-democratic by nature. From this perspective, National Party strategist and adviser, Simon Lusk, is clearly an enemy of the people. For him, attack politics is advantageous and its anti-democratic consequences are to be encouraged (p. 132). International evidence suggests that if voter cynicism about political conduct increases and electoral turnout declines, right wing parties generally benefit. For Hager, this is a cardinal assumption of National’s election strategy; Left constituencies must be discouraged from voting. So much for those Electoral Commission advertisements.
In a democracy, political parties are comprised of members who rank and select candidates in each electorate. Negotiations between selection committees and party head office may determine the outcome. In Dirty Politics an entirely different process is revealed. In Botany, Rodney and other safe National seats, Simon Lusk and Cameron Slater worked to advance their favoured far right candidates by vilifying their competitors on Facebook and Whale Oil. Such tactics violate basic public sphere principles. Within local party branches tainted by the Slater-Lusk machinations, character assassination overruled political argument. One hopes that National’s ‘principled conservatives’ can fight the cancer in their midst.
The policy process
Reversals of government policy usually entail some kind of public debate. In parliament and/or the mass media. Hager, however, documents a less democratic scenario. An accord between the Building Service Contractors of New Zealand (BSC) and cleaning unions over government building contracts was subverted by an orchestrated smear campaign. Regular Whale Oil posts ridiculing the BSC President were written by corporate public relations/lobbyist Carrick Graham under different pseudonyms. He lobbied cabinet ministers including Judith Collins and Simon Bridges to renounce the contracts.
Meanwhile, the managing director of a cleaning company wrote anonymous comments on Whale Oil which equated unionists with vermin and demanded policy change from the Government (pp. 93-95). Once this occurred, the perpetrators bragged of their accomplishment on the Whale Oil blog. If this kind of subversion becomes routine, public policy formation will fall outside of the democratic process.
My initial exposure to Dirty Politics induced feelings of nausea. Emails, Facebook conversations and blog comments involving Cameron Slater, Simon Lusk, Aaron Bhatnagar, Carrick Graham and others were vile, brutal and relentlessly vindictive. For example, back in 2011, Phil Goff forgot to mention his briefing from the SIS concerning the Israeli spies who were in Christchurch during the February earthquake. Slater quickly obtained the relevant files through an Official Information Act request, and featured them on his website. As the story exploded across the mainstream media, Slater gloated that ‘Goff was dying by inches’. Later, on Facebook, in response to a question about whether he was having a good day Slater remarked ‘yep’, ‘fucked him hard’ (pp. 39-40). Two years earlier, Justice Minister Judith Collins had leaked Slater the name of a public servant thought to be responsible for an embarrassing release of a Bill English accommodation allowance claim. The Whale Oil blog then described the man, falsely, as a ‘Labour Party snitch’. Vile anonymous comments followed the posting: ‘the prick should be sacked immediately’, ‘we must sack the fuck!’, ‘Somebody fire the c_ _ t – can we get the prat harpooned? And shamed… and tarred and feathered’ (pp. 4950). Slater’s own comments, although relatively restrained, were designed to whip up vigilante fervour. During the 2012 Auckland Ports of Auckland dispute, Slater publicised the leaked personal files of a unionist. After several news organisations picked up this information, Slater described himself as ‘a one man union wrecking machine’ (p. 91).
I was also nauseated by the misogyny. After a young man died in a Greymouth car accident a Whale Oil blog described him as a ‘feral’ who had ‘[done] the world a favour’. After the deceased man’s mother spoke out, Slater remarked to a friend on Facebook: ‘why would I apologise to that slut?’. Slater also described the woman in question as a ‘feral fucking bitch’ (p. 133). Misogynist language also pervades Slater’s email and Facebook correspondence concerning the ‘outing’ of Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s affair with Bevan Chuang. Interested readers should turn to the chapter entitled ‘Sex Scandal’ and ponder what might happen to National’s women’s vote in this election.
Now, it staggers me that John Key has not, to date, criticised such language. One can only conclude that the quietly spoken ‘everyman’ image is a façade. Key’s own response to Dirty Politics has largely consisted of ad hominem tirades against the author and Orwellian claims that the Left are smearing the Government rather than debating ‘the issues that matter’. Hager and his colleagues are said to be ‘stealing’ the election from ordinary New Zealanders. The reversals of meaning here are profoundly anti-democratic; personal invective substitutes for argument and falsehood poses as truth.
Media and journalism
National’s two-track strategy of leader image management and attack politics required a compliant media. After years of commercially-driven news content and journalist lay-offs, our mainstream outlets were receptive to salacious blog content. Slater, Lusk, Eade and others used radio, television and the press as conduits for pre-arranged hits on political opponents. Journalists who should have known better perused the Whale Oil blogsite for political gossip and hints of scandal. Back in the 1970s, our mediated public sphere was healthier. On television, the likes of David Exel, Ian Fraser, Bill Earl and Keith Ovenden held Muldoon to account. Today the Prime Minister can rest easy, as mentioned earlier long-form current affairs has disappeared from the screen. The media reception for Dirty Politics has illuminated new malignancies. Newstalk ZB hosts, TV3’s Paul Henry, Seven Sharp’s Mike Hoskings and Radio Live’s Sean Plunket have internalised the government line, selectively criticised the author and downplayed the democratic issues at stake. Together, such people have considerable profile yet they ignore the public sphere precepts of journalism.
More subtle denigrations of Hager’s concerns are displayed within a recent issue of the NZ Listener (August 30-September 5, 2014). The editorial declares that ‘Hager, of course, is no less guilty than Slater of trying to exert influence on the political process’. This is true and nothing to feel guilty about. The real issue here is means rather than ends. Hager is an investigative journalist who has used hacked emails for what he regards as the public interest. Cameron Slater and colleagues vilify opponents, destroy reputations and advance corporate agendas without attribution. And, their activities have been abetted by elements within the National Party and the Prime Minister’s office. Hager receives no such backing, he operates independently. These observations contradict Jane Clifton’s claim that ‘what’s beyond corny is that both sides made equivalent transgressions yet neither can see it’ (Dirty Rotten Politics, NZ Listener, 2014, August 30-September 5). There has, of course, been some incisive coverage of the allegations within Dirty Politics. However, the cancerous growths identified here weaken scrutiny of National’s attack politics and accentuate the anti-Hager spin.
My health check of our political and media systems is cursory and incomplete. After Dirty Politics one could also elaborate upon the politicisation of the SIS, the trashing of the Cabinet Manual and the actual ravings of far right media personalities. However, the basic symptoms are clear, our democracy is in poor and worsening condition. A bleak prognosis is certainly plausible. Already, our intelligence agencies can legally ‘hack’ computer files, internet sites and social media communication. A re-elected National government might take advantage of this situation. Metaphoric threats of violence against others from those associated with right wing blogs could become frighteningly real. And, the successors of Cameron Slater might start hacking into private phone records on behalf of powerful paymasters. The activities of Rebekah Brookes and Andy Coulson and their shadowy crew of private investigators already provide a schema for local operations.
There are, of course, potential remedies. The last chapter of Dirty Politics advocates a dramatic increase in long-term funding for public broadcasting networks, statutory independence for non-commercial radio and television, an upgrade of the Official Information Act and public funding for party election campaigns (pp. 134-138). To this I would add a nationwide civics section within High School Social Studies’ programmes. Young people require basic knowledge of our political institutions, electoral system and constitutional framework. Finally, I concur with Dame and Professor Anne Salmond. This country needs a Royal Commission of Inquiry to provide an official democratic health check for the entire political system (Anne Salmond: Royal Commission needed to clean up dirty politics’, NZ Herald, 2014 August 26). Pertinent areas here would include ministerial responsibility, public service neutrality, funding of political parites, the role of ombudsman positions and reform of the Official Information Act. If the remedies suggested here are ignored by future governments, New Zealand’s prognosis is definitely bleak. The kind of cancer identified by Denis Potter, Nicky Hager and myself will become untreatable. Our democracy will then exist in name only.