Is the Dirty Politics debate making a mockery of the manifestos? And should authors have the right to right to use material that's obtained by criminal means?

A couple of weeks ago I said that every election has its surprises. But I certainly didn't see Nicky Hager coming down the track, book in hand. Perhaps I should have, since both my 2002 and 2005 examples involved him.

In any event, we are now just over four weeks from the election. Hager’s book has already used up one week of campaign time. And we have yet to get to the supposed Kim Dotcom time bomb due to explode on 15 September.

So is this going to be the first policy-free election?

One would hope not. We are still getting over the aftermath of the GFC of 2008-2011. The inequality debate is directly stimulated by that event. Christchurch has still got a lot of rebuilding to do, with all the different choices that implies.

But over the last week any substantive policy issues were virtually drowned out. How many people know about the Greens' child and welfare policies, or National's cycling announcement? And without actually looking it up, I could not think of what Labour has promised in the past week. On checking, it was free doctors’ visits for those over 65.

But that is the problem with non-party actors attempting to hijack election news; it crowds out the policies that will actually be the basis of governing the country. And if people can’t recall the policies of the parties due to their naturally limited bandwidth, they are more likely to revert to their general sense of which party they will support. Of course many would say that is a good enough basis to decide how to vote, but it rather makes a mockery of election campaigns and the manifesto commitments each party makes.

I suspect many readers will say I am rather naïve, that elections are never just about policy, they are also about the political process itself and the personalities involved. Of course that is reasonable. In the age of television and the all-encompassing media, both traditional and new, voters can constantly measure reactions, including both the oral and visual cues, of the main players. And make their judgements accordingly.

This leads me to the role of the new media. Pretty much everyone who visits this site will have a comprehensive political perspective. And that must also be true of virtually all those who visit the other well-known new media political blogs such as Kiwiblog, The Standard and Whaleoil. Certainly every commenter on these sites knows where they stand.

So in many respects they are venues for partisans, some who express their views reasonably. Yet there are many others who do not. I must say I wonder whether any of the intemperate commenters would ever actually speak to someone like that face-to-face, or in a public meeting. No wonder they need pseudonyms, some of which are actually quite colourful. I can’t believe many people would actually want to be known to own such language or such overt hostility.

In this respect the new media is very different to mainstream media. There will be many people during this election who get their information from the newspapers, radio and television, and who are genuinely undecided voters. They have grown up with the certain civility that is expected of these media outlets. They can actually use the traditional news media to help them decide. This could hardly be said of the blogosphere.

In many respects the blogosphere is still the wild west of media. You only ventured out to the west if you were made of hardy stuff. The shrinking violets stayed back in the east. But the wild west was ultimately tamed.

Although rather lost sight of in the current controversy, Whaleoil is a much more moderate (and now moderated) site than it was 12 months ago. David Farrar is going to go further than he currently does in his site. Andrew Geddis is right; it was very unfair to include Farrar in the Hager book. While David has a well-known political view point, you would be hard pressed to find his primary posts straying beyond the bounds of reasonable decency.

The Law Commission has issued a comprehensive report on the regulation of new media. And essentially other than the law of defamation and the criminal law, there are no controls. That is the constitutional reality of what free speech means. You can say anything you like within these bounds.

However, in a broad sense new media is the same as any other published material; it is not a private conversation. So do new media outlets have a responsibility for their commenters, some of whom seem to be quite happy to make criminal threats behind the shield of anonymity? Does the decision to create a blog site, also mean a responsibility to have a moderation policy? This was not suggested in the Law Commission report, but the events of the last week raise this question.

The Hager book also raises questions on the nature of a free press. Should authors and publishers have free rein to use criminally hacked material to publish private emails (or traditional correspondence), particularly where they relate to third parties in a way that can only further damage the reputation of the third party?

The fact that the third party may have already suffered reputational damage should not mean that anything goes.

I appreciate that writers and traditional media jealously guard their ability to protect sources, and do not look too deeply in how the source material was gathered. The current rule is that so long as the author and publisher themselves did not conduct the criminal activity, then the source material has legitimacy, even if the source has criminally obtained the material. The News of the World failed this test because they actually commissioned the criminal activity. The argument is that to have any restrictions would have a chilling effect of the operation of a free press. And that argument is compelling.

But I still worry about the impact on third parties, even if they are in the public domain. What recourse do they have? At the present time virtually nothing, other than the good sense of the publisher and the author. And maybe in defence of free speech that is enough.

Comments (16)

by Kat on August 20, 2014

The Prime Minister could have taken the lead, answered questions clearly and at least make an effort to investigate the allegations at the time when 'Dirty Politics' came out. He failed to do that and is still failing to do that. Why is that Mr Mapp?


by Steve F on August 21, 2014
Steve F

"........Pretty much everyone who visits this site will have a comprehensive political perspective. And that must also be true of virtually all those who visit the other well-known new media political blogs such as Kiwiblog, etc.,

One you didn't mention linked to this site is Public Address and this is what Dr Nicole Moreham, Associate Professor of Law at VUW had to say last Friday. I'v posted it earlier in the week on one of Tim's blogs and in light of your post above I think it would be helpful to reiterate;

“ the question is: was Hager entitled to publish the emails he published?

The answer is yes, as long as the public interest in the emails outweighs the competing rights of those who wrote them. So how do we work that out? There is a pretty good argument that material in Dirty Politics is in the public interest. The public interest is particularly strong where information relates to the behaviour of elected politicians. Dirty Politics is making some serious allegations about that behaviour and it’s arguable that the public should hear them.

People also have no right to keep secret communications which reveal wrongdoing. This “iniquity” defence could justify many of Hager’s disclosures including, for example, the alleged exchange in which Slater and political commentator, Matthew Hooton, provide details of Hager’s address to lawyer, Cathy Ogders, who wants it made available to “vicious” individuals whom she appears to believe will have it in for him.

On the other side, though, are the emailers’ rights to privacy and confidentiality. There can be little question that the emails were confidential and that anyone reading them would have known that. Slater, Collins etc would probably also have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in respect of the emails’ contents.

But how heavily does that weigh in the balance? The breach of privacy/confidentiality here is significant – the need to protect correspondence is widely recognised – but it is not at the worst end of the scale. Hager has not published information about the emailers’ health, sex lives, family lives, or financial position. And the emails disclosed were written by the parties in their professional capacity. This is not as serious as disclosing emails between, say, John Key and his wife or between David Cunliffe and his kids. In light of that, my money would be on the public interest prevailing......”

by william blake on August 21, 2014
william blake

Hagers book has used up one week of election time.


if the contents of the book weren't so serious it would have blown over in a day or two but the exposure of the two tier attack politics and lack lustre journalism cuts right to the heart of the public perception of policy. Are you suggesting Hager's thesis is wrong or that the election needs to be postponed until the National rebrands itself?

by stuart munro on August 21, 2014
stuart munro

DPF is in the book because he is a part of the machinery of wrongdoing. Decency is a pretty flimsy veneer if he repesents a systematic subversion of political accountability.

Hager's book, far from wasting a week has done more for good governance in New Zealand than MSM journalism had achieved for several years. The quality of the PM's actions are proving to be a cause for genuine public concern. He still has many questions to answer, and evidently little intention of doing so.

Under the circumstances an extended exploration of secrecy and privacy limits is premature - the costs and benefits of Hager's and 'Whalemeat's' revelations can hardly be judged until the situation has stabilised. So what we have here Wayne, is merely a better class of squirrel.


by Andin on August 21, 2014

"So is this going to be the first policy-free election?"

That is ridiculous rhetoric. Policy just doesnt pop into existence out of the void. It is thought out and written up by ' yes, people and all that that entails. As other posters have said character is judged best by actions, words and deeds. And if some of our politicians are presenting one face  to the wider public, yet behind closed doors are doing something else. Their policy becomes immediately suspect.

by Alan Johnstone on August 21, 2014
Alan Johnstone

A policy free election would make sense, but we are now in "post policy" politics.

The activists on both side would disagree but the broad truth is that there are virtually no meaningful policy differences between our two largest parties. They are both liberal in social terms and have both adopted the same economic and welfare orthodoxies. They disagree on tiny details, less than 5%

The arguements of the 70s and 80s are over, the public mood is fixed, 85% of people are happy with it, there are a few fringe holdouts on left and right who find homes in Mana and ACT, but their polling shows you how popular their views are.

The very fact that things like cycleways are being discussed as policy shows how far we've come. So, what does politics come down to now, management ability and communication skills. The ability to show you understand the public.

by Wayne Mapp on August 21, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Stuart, How can you possibly say that DPF is "part of the machinery of wrong doing". He operates in an altogether different space to Whaleoil. The comparator to DPF would be The Standard, albeit that there are multople authors on that site. Both KiwiBlog and The Standard essentially debate the issues, from well understood perspectives. Although many of their commenters do not!

Alan, there is fair bit of truth in what you say. I did comment on The Standard that if the end of the neo-liberal experiment depended on a 3% difference in the top tax rate, perhaps the neo-liberal experiment is not quite the catastrophe that many on the left argue that it is.

And maybe the election won't be about policy, and basically just about the gerneral feeling that people have about the parties - isn't that what the Nats first advertisement essentially portrays? 

by Katharine Moody on August 21, 2014
Katharine Moody

@Alan and Wayne. I've long felt the old left (socialism) vs right (conservativism) ideological categories are no longer a significant differentiator with respect to policy direction. In other words, both major political parties in most Western democracies seem to be using the same rulebook. Your point about cycleways being heralded as policy is a very valid one, Alan. The below article by Steger (2005) is the best I've come across in terms of defining a new ideological typology based around globalization. His six core claims of globalism are a fascinating read (it fits with the point you make Wayne about neoliberalism being imbedded in both sides of the old left/right typology) and particular to his proposed reclassification of political ideologies are his final few paragraphs - what he calls a 'thought exercise'.


by stuart munro on August 21, 2014
stuart munro

Last I checked Wayne, the Standard was not a major conduit for improperly obtained information. Nor for false flag commercial disinformation. DPF is not tainted by contagion from Slater but by feeding material sourced from Ede et al that came into their hands in the kind of less than honest fashion that seems to typify the 9th floor at present.

by Katharine Moody on August 21, 2014
Katharine Moody

@Alan and Wayne - here are perhaps some NZ examples of oppositional positions to globalism;

A potential new localism ideological position? Steger's oppositional 'Right':

And an article/analysis on a global social justice ideological position? Steger's oppositional 'Left'.


To me, these two articles point to the real differentiators in respect of ideological positions that have the potential to make the most difference to our country's future.



by Alan Johnstone on August 21, 2014
Alan Johnstone

You make my point for me very well Katherine, it's only the activist fringe on both sides that haven't accepted the post 80s consensus.

Going slightly off topic, what we are seeing this week with Key very strongly reminds me of the moment that Tony Blair lost the trust of the British people.

Pre-Iraq he could say "I'm a pretty straight kinda guy" and people would accept it, post iraq, his every word and statement was went over with a fine toothcomb and people assumed he was lying about everything.

He writes about it in his book; the moment when you lose the benefit of the doubt, it's a sudden tipping point, and when it's gone it can never come back. The same thing happened to Helen Clark in some point around 2006 or 2007. You can't put it down to one thing, but suddenly people no longer gave her the benefit of the doubt.  

I think Key is at this point now. He'll probably get over the line next month, but the next 3 years are going to be torture for him

by Lesley Ford on August 21, 2014
Lesley Ford

Debate of policy is what we would all like to see. Unfortunately before Hager's book there was little debate because of the concerted "gotcha" journalism that sidetracked the public into trivial issues and drowned out some good policy releases that would have been worthy of attention.

However since Hager's book, the public have been forced to confront a credibility crisis, which must be resolved before the major party policies can be discussed. Because of the strategy of National's media advisors to make their campaign focus on Key (his face on every billboard for example), his credibility must therefore be put under the spotlight in the fall out of the allegations that have emerged.

Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent wrote: "It may be natural for elected officeholders - who owe so much, or believe they owe so much, to their campaign managers - to think that manipulation is the ruler of the people’s minds and hence the true ruler of the world (Cf Nixon-Agnew campaign  to destroy the credibility of the press) is quite in line with this public-relations mentality."

Key continues to try to manipulate the publc by his endless insinuations of left wing smear campaigns, and his constant avoidance of direct answers to serious questions. Until he confronts the very serious moral and ethical issues that he and his team have allowed to fester, the debate on policy will continue to be sidelined (to use a sporting analogy, which he seems so keen to draw on).

by Eliza on August 21, 2014

I relish a juicy policy debate. But I have to disagree with Wayne Mapp in decrying the crowding out of the policy discussion. Policies will be the basis for governance: but politicians are the ones who do the governing. Their vision, integrity and competence are as relevant as their ideologies and their policy plans. If New Zealand voters, with their "naturally limited bandwidth", wish to focus on integrity rather than policy, that's fair enough. The next three years cannot be determined solely by the manifestos currently published; as Wayne Mapp knows, politicians are called upon to respond to the unexpected - earthquakes, mining disasters, international acts of terrorism, and economic collapse, to name some recent examples. In these instances, I would rather the country were governed by statesmen and women of integrity and competence with whom I disagree ideologically, than a bunch whose policy wishlist matches my own but who fail in other respects (not a trade-off I actually face in the present election). Many New Zealanders with less interest in following politics have the same impulse. Perhaps they studied To Kill a Mockingbird in 5th form English, and have always remembered that Atticus Finch is elected to the state legislature by people who disagree with him, because despite of this, they "trust him to do right." Civil servants, required to do our jobs under whichever Minister is in power, understand this particularly well. Policies are part of the picture, but if elections are won and lost on the basis of who we trust to make the right decisions, that's as it should be. 

by Andrew Osborn on August 22, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Good article Wayne. Thanks.

I think you should've included a reference to mainstream (old) media too.

As well as the Wild West of the blogosphere we also have print and TV media which are drowning in red ink from their balance sheets and thus desperate for ratings at any price. Much of their political commentary is nothing more than drivel.

As part of a growing trend, I don't buy a newspaper and don't bother to watch the TV news or the 7pm current affairs shows.


by Katharine Moody on August 22, 2014
Katharine Moody

Today's whaledumps are instructive regards who the Lusk clients are within National and who they are targeting smear campaigns against within National.

by Katharine Moody on August 23, 2014
Katharine Moody

How could it be that Parliamentary Services (and I would assume all other government departments) have not implemented internet security restrictions that prevent computer users from logging in and posting to blog sites?

In other words, you can read the blog sites but not post to them? Same as for restrictions to TradeMe access etc. Or does Parliamentary Services consider this behaviour as legitimate public service "work"? 


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