Media restructure needed says Dirty Politics author
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Greater transparency in our political system and a more robustly independent, publicly-funded news media are needed to ensure attack bloggers do not exert undue influence on New Zealand politics, Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager told a gathering at Massey’s Manawatu campus last Friday.
He told the crowd of around 200 staff, students and members of the public his book was aimed at raising awareness of the phenomenon and power of right wing attack bloggers on New Zealand politics so that people will understand how they operate and not be tricked by them.
The theme of the book, much of which centres on Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater and his close alliance with senior National Party leadership, set out out to disclose what lay behind Hager’s initial observation of “a great disconnect in the way politics was presented to the public.”
He says there is a discrepancy between Prime Minister John Key’s image of a “competent leader and all-round nice guy on one hand…and the rising level of personal attacks, scandals and smear campaigns.
“We had this friendly, relaxed front of the government and continuous negative politics on a scale we hadn’t seen before,” he said.
His growing concerns about the style and character of New Zealand government were shared by many, he said. But his interest in investigating this perceived changed was triggered when he was the target of dirt-digging by right-wing bloggers after he commented briefly on their role in the New Zealand media in his 2012 Bruce Jesson lecture on investigative journalism.
What he discovered was that there were hundreds of people who “put their heads above the parapet to write letters, comment on blogs and express their views”, only to find they were then targeted with abuse.
By the time he’d become the “serendipitous recipient” of Cameron Slater’s hacked emails earlier this year, he’d already heard enough information to “join the dots” and had gathered stories of people being unfairly and inaccurately attacked on KiwiBlog or Whale Oil blog.
The hacked information, which he says he used justifiably because of the public interest, documented a scenario that “wasn’t about random bloggers but about an organised system that had a pipe coming from the sixth and ninth floors of the Beehive”, to feed information to Cameron Slater.
Hager says the roughly 10-year-old presence of bloggers in the media means they are still a relatively new phenomenon. “We haven’t got used to how they affect the balance of politics and media in a way that we are used to.”
He said that in the United States, Republican politicians see bloggers as “a fantastic way to bypass the mainstream media, which doesn’t do smears that aren’t true or only rumours. It has standards like fairness and balance.
“Bloggers don’t. Yet they kind of look like the news with articles, commentary and ads. They mimic the media but they don't have the standards of the media.”
He outlined the book’s revelations about the ongoing work of the bloggers’ “attack machine” beyond politics and against people in the health sector and other spheres of public life.
“That’s why transparency in the political system is so vital because if people believe they can get away with things they act differently.”
Hager described the notion of “negative politics” – a new style of politics that does not set out to win over supporters by saying what they believe in. “It’s where you choose tactics that will alienate people from politics”.
“If you’ve got a demographic – like for example young people, who are not going to vote for your party – all the better if they stay home and don’t even think the election is about them.”
The result is a slow “poisoning” of the political system in which cyncism thrives and “everyone thinks everyone is bad and politics is stuffed – and it genuinely does turn people off.”
The book ends on a positive note, he reassured the crowd, with his remedies to dirty politics.
“You can’t outlaw deception and lies, but all you can do is have more transparency and build up the good side, the undiscouraged side, the public interest side of politics”.
He wants to see the creation of a more robustly well-informed, independent commentariat in the media, and he criticised the “carelessness” of who we choose to comment on politics. “We do need right wing people but they need to be independent,” he says. There is too much reliance on partisan voices, and paid lobbyists and PR people, he says.
Rather than blame journalists, he sees it as a structural issue. He says the business model for newsrooms needs to be reviewed because they are staffed largely by young, less experienced journalists under pressure and who don't stay in the job for long.
His answer is to triple the funding to Radio New Zealand, diversify its platforms and put more reporters back in the regions. He says blogs and social media have “failed to provide an alternative to the daily production of news which a society needs”.
Speaking to Massey’s External Relations communications staff after the talk, he said Dirty Politics is his fast-selling book ever, and that he didn’t expect it would have such strong reaction. He has no idea what it will do to the election, but he emphasises he didn’t write the book to affect the election polls, and that the issues it raises will take years to “play out”.
Hager says journalism is “a fantastic profession and plays a powerful role in society, but its not an easy place to work at the current time”.
And he urges aspiring journalists to read plenty. “Don't just read tweets, read books. Be informed.”
The event was hosted by the School of People, Environment and Planning, and included responses from three Massey academics; Associate Professor Margie Comrie, and Dr Sean Phelan from the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, and Dr Russell Prince from the School of People, Environment and Planning.