Investigating The Democratic Sausage: Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s Table Talk No. 6 “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”



BOBBY KENNEDY often joked that democracy is like a good sausage: tastes great – but you really don’t want to know what goes into it. Otto von Bismarck said something very similar about the making of laws. Regardless of its provenance, the point being made is an important one. The stuff of which politics is made: self-interest, class prejudice, religious bigotry, economic and social necessity; is often ugly and disreputable. That the final product so often turns out to be publicly palatable, is proof of our politicians’ over-riding need to preserve the system’s legitimacy in the eyes of those who elect them.

The distinguishing characteristic of left-wing investigative journalism, however, is that its practitioners are never satisfied with just the taste of Democracy’s sausage. They will not rest until a full list of ingredients, how they were combined, and for how long they’ve been cooked, is prepared and presented to the public. As often as not this is done without the slightest public encouragement, and the results are frequently received with considerable animosity. That’s because Democratic Sausage is generally consumed by the voters in blissful (and often wilful) ignorance of its contents.

They really don’t want to know what goes into it.

The people attending the Ika Seafood Restaurant & Bar’s Table Talk No. 6, “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”, disagreed. That’s because the journalists on stage: Dirty Politics’ author, Nicky Hager; left-leaning columnist, Dita Di Boni; veteran business writer, Fran O’Sullivan; and the evening’s emcee, the martyred and marvellous, John Campbell – along with the people packing out the restaurant to hear them – all fervently believe that the voting public not only has the right, but also the duty, to understand how the Democratic Sausage is made.

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There’s no disputing that Hager’s Dirty Politics reveals an unprecedented amount of information about what was going on behind the scenes of New Zealand politics in 2014. The wealth of material contained in Hager’s book could not, however, have been acquired outside of the thoroughly digitalised society we’ve become. Thousands of hacked e-mail communications to and from Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil blogsite had been passed on to Hager, revealing a host of startling connections between Slater, the Prime Minister’s Office, Justice Minister Judith Collins, numerous journalists, and a strange coterie of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers calling themselves “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”.

That similar exercises in political character assassination, media manipulation, and influence-peddling went on in the past is equally indisputable. It was only very rarely, however, that evidence of such dirty deeds ever came to light. The shrewd operators of the pre-digital era took care to leave no paper trails for pesky journalists to follow. Granted, telephone landlines could be tapped, but not, in the usual course of events, by the Left. Nor was there an Official Information Act to trouble wayward civil servants and Cabinet Ministers. Dirty politics was easier to get away with in those days – and investigative journalism much harder!

The result, paradoxically, was that public trust and confidence in our political institutions was much higher in the past than it is today. What the journalistic eye could not see, the electorate didn’t grieve over.

Everything changed in the 1970s, however, when the whistle-blowing of Daniel Ellsberg, and the investigative efforts of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodwood and Carl Bernstein, forced the American people to confront the realities of Democratic Sausage-making in an unprecedented way. The Pentagon Papers exposed decades of dishonesty about the Vietnam War on the part of the US Government. And the Watergate Scandal revealed to the people of the United States that their President, Richard Nixon, was a crook. Overnight, investigative reporters became heroes, and the fearless Fourth Estate was hailed as a more effective guardian of the citizen’s rights and freedoms than any politician.

Many Baby-Boomers convinced themselves that this was how it would be from now on – but they were wrong. The blossoming of media freedom in the 1970s was actually an aberration – not a new and beautiful thing. The owners of the news media, frightened by the effective deposition of a President by journalism, tightened-up their control of newsrooms and reined-in the efforts of investigative journalism worldwide. There would be no more Watergates.

Partly this was in defence of the capitalist system, but it was also about giving the news media’s consumers what they wanted. And what these readers, listeners and viewers wanted most was to get the hell out of the sausage factory. They had seen enough. The truth made them uncomfortable. They wanted to believe that all was well with their democracy. That Richard Nixon was an exception, not the rule. Accordingly, just six years after the villain of Watergate had been driven from the White House, a much more dangerous President, Ronald Reagan, was moving in.

Nicky Hager, Dita Di Boni and Fran O’Sullivan all spoke eloquently about the difficulties facing conscientious journalists in the digital era; about the proliferation of media platforms and the constant shrinkage of newsrooms everywhere. And John Campbell, just by being there, reminded the Ika audience of what can happen to a television current affairs show that strives too earnestly to reveal the composition of the Democratic Sausage.

What they didn’t discuss, however, was the one, incontrovertible, fact about the publication of Dirty Politics. Namely, that as a political purgative, it didn’t work. Unlike Richard Nixon, John Key was not forced to resign, and his political party was not voted out of office. In fact, a year (and a bit) after the book’s release, Key’s National Government remains as popular as it ever was. The bitter truth is that most New Zealanders reacted to Dirty Politics by moving towards – not away from – the National incumbent. Outside the relatively small circle of New Zealanders who celebrated Nicky Hager’s investigative efforts on their behalf, most Kiwis responded to his attempt to show them what was happening behind the façade of their democratic institutions with anger and resentment.

They liked the Democratic Sausages sizzling on John Key’s barbecue. They did not want to know how they were made. And they definitely didn’t want to be told what – or who – went into them.



  1. Keys confected sausages on the bbq are way overdue to burst and inflict permanent damage on all those who keep banging on about his popularity and in fallout range in my opinion!
    His puerile Panda and Fleg desires as legacies while Kiwis struggle and even die for minimal extra support, on top of the debt this government has driven, show third term arrogance and rot has set in.
    He should go play golf permanently.
    He is a handicap to NZ’s future wellbeing!

  2. New Zealanders are like sheep or lemmings and will believe what their friends and family tell them rather than thinking for themselves. Also we have the 1.0 million who did not cast a vote and I believe it is these people who are hurting the most, who did not get off the couch to vote.

  3. It’s not quite as simple as that!
    At the same time Dirty Politics came to light we had the Patrick Gowers, Tova Obriens, Mike Sabins, Mike Hoskings and Paul Henrys, to name but a few of the N.Z media world, all running interference for Key with smear campaigns of David Cunliffe , Hone Harawira and Kim Dot Com.
    Remember the “you puffed up little shit ” comment by an enraged Pam Corkery when the media tried to nullify the thrust of their meeting by reporting trivia!
    Remember David Cunliffe being vilified for wearing a red scarf !
    Remember Keys bum boy Mike Hosking, got to control the debates and when Cunliffe made Key look like a schoolboy in the first two, they conveniently had the 3rd one shortened and then Hosking wound down the clock by talking trivia.
    Remember Hosking’s so called ‘ interview’ of Hager where all he did was tell Hager that he had nothing on Key over and over again.
    I don’t think Nixon had that luxury !
    Which was the whole point of the Ika Bar meeting.
    You can kid yourself all you like, but if N.Z had for every Hosking or Henry, a Nicky Hager and Dita de Boni , with their own shows in the same time slots offering an alternative point of view, i think many New Zealanders would have choked on their sausage rather than eaten it . John Campbell put it so succinctly when he said something along the lines of , “i don’t mind a right wing bias media and i don’t mind a left wing bias media, so long as i get an equal dose of both . Then i can make an INFORMED opinion.”
    And that is the problem . Balance in N.Z does not exist !
    Change that and the pundits will soon be looking for steak !

    • You can kid yourself all you like, but if N.Z had for every Hosking or Henry, a Nicky Hager and Dita de Boni , with their own shows in the same time slots offering an alternative point of view, i think many New Zealanders would have choked on their sausage rather than eaten it .

  4. The bitter truth is that John key had the full support of mainstream media to deflect negativity of dirty politics away. Lies, deception and spin won National the election, and key and his government are certainly looking pretty tarnished now.

    If the media had of told the truth, John Key and his National party would not have been elected.

    • +100%

      The disgraceful state of NZ’s news and mainstream commentary in the media, in particular TV3, NZ Herald, and all mediaworks operations, manipulated the outcome of the 2014 election result.
      They had more impact than any other single factor – including party leadership choices, new parties and alliances.

      • When Martyn Bradbury was banned from Radio New Zealand for life for having the temerity to criticize John Key .
        At the same time Mike Hosking, on tax payer funded TV1 , gets to call David Cunliffe and the Labour Party a bunch of morons for having the temerity, (according to him), to hold their ‘State of The Nation’ speech over a long weekend.
        Hosking still has his job !!

      • The political right always believe in free speech, oh yes! as long as that free speech is confined either to 1.worship of John Key and rolling out the spin that supports the illusion that his government is good for the country; or 2. topics that are non-political.

  5. You’re almost correct in your analysis Chris.

    Firstly, where I think you went wrong is in assuming the general voting public aren’t aware of how politics is done. We’re more politically mature than you might think. National were returned to power because the revelations of Hager & Co were quite unimpressive – a damp squib.

    Most of us said “So what?” and voted for the least awful candidate, just as we have always done.

    Secondly, the ‘dirty politics’ episode showed us that the those pointing fingers at National were equally dirty. So it was a zero sum game with the entire political establishment and media dragged down into the mud.

  6. People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest.

    After a tsunami of evidence that there was corruption right to the heart of the Key administration, all it took was one person (and there were many, of course) saying “they’re all at it. Labour do it too” and that is the end of that for those who want to believe this unsupported assertion. And “look at that fat German running down New Zealand and trying to buy our election.” And some bogus story about terrorist be-headers plotting on-line in Australia (a story that magically disappeared shortly after the election) to prove the GCSB is useful and good down at the Black Bayou.

    The fact is the only way to get elected is to connect to the voter, then give them something more appealing to vote for and I don’t mean lollies: just a future they like the sound of. Maybe just the chance of being proud to be a Kiwi. John Key has taken care not to hurt the middle class so they have never had to wake up. But although the project to improve the flow of information to the public may be vital, it is essentially a wonk-based concept. It may energize your base, but it won’t move the uncommitted. Until John Key’s marvelous ability to “intuitively” see the blindingly obvious falters, our energy is better spent on teaching Andrew Little to enjoy media interviews. Currently he always seems to be wishing he was at the dentist. Compare that to the Helen Clark-John Key moment this morning. You may not like what she said (about TPPA) but the clarity, the assertiveness and the succinctness of her statement reduced John Key to just another member of her audience.

    Something to learn there.

  7. “….Namely, that as a political purgative, it didn’t work. Unlike Richard Nixon, John Key was not forced to resign, and his political party was not voted out of office…”
    Because unlike current MSM, The Washington Post wasn’t owned by the government of the day, and held them to account

    • If private ownership, or independence from the government ownership was the answer, then TV3 and Mediaworks etc wouldn’t be behaving in the manner they are.
      In fact, the Govt owned RNZ is one of the very few MSM operations still functioning as watchdog, even if it is a shadow of its previous self.

      Your observation that accountability has vanished is true, but your attribution as to cause isn’t.

  8. What has changed a year on is that dirty politics, thanks to National, has now become a normal part of New Zealand life instead of what it used to be – an aberration.
    What hasn’t changed a year on is the MSM’s total indifference to this.

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