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« New book by Nicky Hager | Main | Is Whale Oil a journalist (2)? »

Did Nicky Hager “make stuff up”?

By Steven | August 18, 2014

As many of you know, I act for Nicky Hager. I vetted his book, Dirty Politics, and the three before that.

It is a surreal experience watching what happens to Nicky’s books in the days after their publication. It often seems as if the book that’s being discussed by politicians and in the media is entirely different from the one I’ve just spent weeks vetting.

What’s more amazing is that politicians who admit they haven’t read the book and don’t intend to are given free rein to speak authoritatively about its content. Often they say things that are completely contradicted by evidence that’s set out in the book, but aren’t even challenged about it. Nicky is often accused of being a “conspiracy theorist” as if this is an answer to the evidence he sets out in the book.

This time around, though, my sense is that things are different. The government’s denials are such blatant flannel that they are being seen as beyond the pale, even by our most grizzled political journalists, who have seen plenty of spin in their time.

I want to go through some of the spin.  I want to do that because the Prime Minister is claiming repeatedly that Nicky has “made stuff up”, that he’s in cahoots with the “Fuck John Key” mob and the “Planet Key” song-writer and the effigy burners, and that he’s done it to distract attention from the real issues.

Let’s just pause on that last one. Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Nicky or his writing, whether they agree with him or not, surely cannot escape one conclusion: Nicky’s goal is to get us talking about the real issues, and to expose and critique the tactics that are used to derail genuine political engagement. In fact, Dirty Politics  is about exactly that.

I have to say, I really wish Mr Key had displayed this same affection for debating the issues when Nicky put out Other People’s Wars, a book about New Zealand’s hidden foreign policy during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, based on hundreds of leaked defence documents and interviews with insiders, written over the course of ten years. Key’s response? It’s a “conspiracy theory”.

Then there’s the insistence that Nicky makes stuff up and that the allegations are “unravelling”. So what has he got wrong?

National’s involvement in the ”hacking” of the Labour Party database? Nicky doesn’t call it a hack. He exposes and criticises the collaboration between the PM’s office and Cameron Slater. He says they accessed the database, dug around, and downloaded information.

John Key on Thursday said repeatedly that “National had nothing to do with it.” Yet in almost the same breath, he admitted that his staffer Jason Ede might well have gone in and had a look. But that had “nothing to do with National”. In fact, National has also acknowledged that “it appears” a staffer downloaded files. Dirty Politics sets out correspondence between Ede and Slater discussing the information. While Nicky makes it clear that the site was insecure, it’s an open question, as a matter of law, whether this means it was not a crime to go digging around in it.

The PM’s involvement in the extraordinary early release of SIS briefing notes to Slater under the OIA? Nicky says that given the PM was minister for the SIS, the briefing notes were a hot potato, and they got declassified and released to a partisan blogger within days of a request, it looks like the PM knew about it. “The head of the SIS would surely never have done anything so unusual, so public, and so political without their minister’s knowledge and approval,” he suggests. He quotes Cameron Slater emailing friends about it, boasting about the fact that the information was on the way, would be “catastrophic”, and that he had been “sworn to secrecy”.

The PM told journalists last Thursday, ”it was nothing to do with me.” Phil Goff disagrees. The Dominion Post notes that they put in a request for almost the same information at the time and were turned down. This really doesn’t look to me like something that’s been disproved, or can be dismissed as “baseless”. It raises serious questions about the PM’s involvement. I see that blogger The Ruminator says that in 2009 someone in (Corrections Minister at the time) Judith Collins’ office called up to expedite an OIA request to Cameron Slater, pressing for it to be processed within half an hour. And we should remember that Dirty Politics cites other instances of Ede drafting OIA requests for Slater (though the evidence Nicky received doesn’t show him drafting this one).

The alleged attempted blackmail of Rodney Hide? Nicky claimed that Cameron Slater and Simon Lusk conspired to get hold of some compromising text messages sent by (then ACT leader) Rodney Hide, to try to pressure him into resigning. (Let’s not mince words here: Lusk writes they should tell Hide someone has the texts “and will leak them if he doesn’t resign by friday.”) Nicky quotes Slater’s subsequent blog post, which contains hints about Hide so broad you could land a plane on them. Hide resigned shortly afterward. DimPost outlines Hide’s adamant refusal to resign until that point. Dirty Politics says there’s no evidence of any direct threat made to Hide, and there may well have been other reasons for Hide’s resignation.

Hide has laughed off the suggestions that he was blackmailed or that this had anything to do with his resignation. But that doesn’t really answer the point, does it? Was there a plan to blackmail him? It seems there was. It can’t be said, anyway, that this suggestion is a “wild allegation” or ”made up” or ”a conspiracy theory” or “baseless”.

Judith Collins passing on the name of a civil servant so he could be excoriated by Slater? Judith Collins admits she passed on the name to Slater. The PM was asked repeatedly whether this was acceptable behaviour on Morning Report this morning and kept trying to change the subject.

Judith Collins passing on information to Cameron Slater about ACC client Bronwen Pullar? Steven Joyce says this is “completely false”. But Cameron Slater’s messages to a friend at the time say he’s spoken to Collins about it, that he knows the information is in a spreadsheet not a database, that he knows Pullar’s identity (though he doesn’t name her), that she “tried to get money for it” and that she is about to get “rat-fucked”. This all happens shortly before the Pullar/Boag email was leaked to the press. Dirty Politics notes it could have been leaked by ACC or the email’s author Michelle Boag. But Nicky suggests that Judith Collins’ office had more incentive to leak it. Of course, Collins denies this. But again, it can hardly be said that this allegation is fabricated or groundless or wild, or that it’s been proved wrong.

All Nicky’s books contain “left-wing conspiracy theories and don’t stack up”, particularly Seeds of Distrust? The allegations in Seeds of Distrust were submitted to exhaustive scrutiny in the Select Committee’s inquiry into Corngate. That inquiry was controversial and the committee was divided. But half of the members thought Nicky basically got it right - including all the National Party members.

Anything else? As far as I can tell, there is not a jot of evidence that Nicky has “made stuff up.” Nor is there any that his reporting is “baseless”, or that he “doesn’t want facts” as the PM puts it. Judith Collins has called the bits about her mostly lies. But she’s admitted the passing-on-of-the-name allegation, admitted that she has been in frequent contact with Cameron Slater, and said that she wouldn’t be able to sue because the book was full of speculation and might-bes. That doesn’t sound like lies to me. Let’s just treat that as praise for the careful and honest way that Nicky has separated out what he knows from what he’s not sure about, so readers can make up their own minds about the evidence he presents.

I note there has been a roaring silence from others criticised in the book, such as PR agent Carrick Graham and political consultant Simon Lusk. These do not strike me as men who are incapable of putting out their side.

Nicky’s allegations are based on a 150-page book with 500 footnoted sources, most of them from emails that Cameron Slater has admitted were taken from him.

What are your allegations that he “made stuff up” based on, Mr Key?

[I’ve obtained Nicky’s permission to blog about this, but he has not previewed this post. I have disabled the comments function. I’m not really in a position to debate this back and forth publicly and I’m not going to provide a platform for people to slag him. You can email me with comments if you like: steven.price@vuw.ac.nz. I do encourage you to continue to debate the book on other, much better read platforms such as Kiwiblog or Public Address. It would be nice if you based your criticisms on evidence.]

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