WE ARE IN A RACE. It’s a race between those wilfully ignorant and the deliberately spiteful New Zealanders who make up such an alarmingly large fraction of National’s electoral base, and that steadily growing percentage of the electorate who understand that the shocking revelations contained in Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, require an electoral response. If the latter overtakes the former by 20 September, New Zealand can breathe a mighty sigh of relief. If not, then the next three years are likely to be ugly – very ugly.
Just how real and significant this race is was brought home to me by an article posted on the Stuff website. Headlined “Voters Divided Over Who Plays Dirtiest” it quoted an elderly Taranaki woman who had been sent a copy of Hager’s book. When asked for her opinion ofDirty Politics she replied:
“I think it’s disgusting. It doesn’t surprise me at all from the author. He’s just a communist and that’s just the way he is. He’s just trying to unsettle the National Party.”
Remember, this woman had a copy of the book. She’d been given the opportunity to absorb its contents – to form an opinion. We must, therefore, hope that her stated view that Hager is “just a communist” whose only purpose in writing Dirty Politics was “to unsettle the National Party” means that she felt under no obligation to actually read the book. Because the alternative explanation, that she had read it and that this was her considered response, is just too depressing to contemplate.
The elderly voter’s response does, however, demonstrate how important it has been for politicians and mainstream journalists of both the Left and the Right to demonise Nicky Hager.
Ever since the publication of his first book, Secret Power, in 1996, people in both the parliamentary arena and the mainstream news media have been conscious of the enormous challenge his internationally celebrated investigative journalism poses to both institutions. It’s why they have so relentlessly attacked his credibility. Politicians and journalists, alike, understood that Secret Power and its successors exposed not only the misdeeds of legislators from both sides of the House, but also the consistent failure of mainstream reporters to uncover the stories that have made Hager’s reputation.
Nowhere was the undermining and diminishing priorities of this parliamentary-media nexus more in evidence than following the release of Hager’s fifth book, Other People’s Wars. A work of extraordinary thoroughness, born of superlative investigative skills, this book exposed the moral, military and diplomatic failings of both Labour and National in Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so it also exposed (in the manner of collateral damage) the cover provided to successive governments by New Zealand’s largely uninterested and easily reassured news media.
It is this potent cocktail of political fear and professional jealousy that has produced a public image of Hager so frighteningly negative that a little old lady in Taranaki felt justified in dismissing Dirty Politics without reading it. Ever since 1996, the unrelenting hostility of politicians – amplified and uncorrected by journalists who should have known better – has very effectively inoculated a depressingly large number of New Zealanders against anything and everything Hager might have to say.
They had help. Ever since the publication of Hager’s second book, Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign, he has been the sworn enemy of the powerful public relations firms which play such an important role in rendering the most distasteful government and/or corporate policies more or less palatable to the general public. The representatives of these firms – like the man who appeared on television the night Dirty Politics was released, telling New Zealand there was “nothing in it” – have never lost an opportunity either in public, or behind the scenes, to attack both Hager’s credibility and his character.
I well remember crossing swords with a young journalist in the Green Room at TVNZ after she blithely dismissed Hager as an inveterate conspiracy theorist and looney lefty. I asked her if she had read any of his books. She Hadn’t. I asked her if she was aware he had won international prizes for investigative journalism. She wasn’t. It hadn’t stopped her from casually defaming him, however. It never does. When John Key dismissed Dirty Politics as the work of “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, he knew there would be many thousands of Kiwis who would accept his characterisation without experiencing the slightest pang of doubt.
Will it be enough? That is the question upon which the result of this General Election now hinges. Is Dirty Politics strong enough to defeat the Right’s inoculating slanders? The evidence, to date, suggests that it just might be. The Colmar Brunton polling agency reports that the number of New Zealanders who believe the “suggestions” contained in Hager’s book has shot up 13 percentage points since the question was first asked of voters on the 14-15 August. Back then just 28 percent said they believed him. By the 27 August, however, the number was 41 percent.
It is its power to convince that is making Dirty Politics so influential. It’s as if all the warnings Hager asked us to take from his earlier books have been vindicated. Indeed, in this latest description of the way political power is wielded in New Zealand the themes of all his previous work have flowed together into an overwhelming torrent of evidence. In Dirty Politics we see them all: the security agencies; the public relations firms; the politicians; the journalists. And, of course, that latest manifestation of the will to power – the right-wing bloggers. In terms of sheer explanatory power, Hager’s book is without precedent. It’s why the Right is doing everything within its power to discredit it.
The race is on.