The pressure of good journalism by many over a period of weeks was at the heart of the weekend's major developments, and it means the next 20 days will be unlike any we've seen

Isn't it curious how often major scandals end in farce and how often it really is cock-up rather than conspiracy? Judith Collins' fate was decided in the end by friendly fire, an accident of one of her own. And it just goes to show that you really are defined by the people you surround yourself with. And that pressure and persistence counts.

Let's be clear, it's not a matter of scalps and the resignation as such that matters. It's the promise of an inquiry and the fact some serious claims that tried to be spun away are now going to have to be addressed.

There are so many questions yet to be answered, but I'd hope that some of them arte around the handling of the Hanover investigation by the authorities. I know there were some good people doing their best in that, but it did take an incredibly long amount of time and the civil charges ultimately laid were a disappointment to a great many. The smear campaign attempted, allegedly, by Hotchins and his team of reputation assassins must prompt a re-look at that investigation.

It's interesting to see in the Whaledump today the observation by Cathy Odgers that Financial Markets' Authority boss Sean Hughes' appearance on Q+A in 2012 to announce the civil charges being filed against "directors and promoters of the Hanover group of companies, in particular Mr Watson, Mr Mark Hotchin, Mr Greg Muir, Sir Tipene ORegan, Mr Bruce Gordon and Mr Dennis Broit" was "pure PR".

I got that interview after months of checking in with the FMA about a promised interview on the topic, but when it came it was a surprise that we got an exclusive on such a major announcement. I know many other journalists following the story were furious the FMA gave it to one programme and didn't do a general release.

Now it's not unwise or unusual for someone to choose a single media outlet as a way to make an announcement. Indeed, much of the work of weekend current affairs programmes is convincing those in power to make announcement on your programme, so that you break news and are the first to be able to ask challenging questions about that announcement. But it is unusual for such a long-awaited announcement to be made that way. As delighted as I was to get the interview, I think it's important to say there was no collusion between the FMA and Q+A beyond my urging them to take the opportunity to make the announcement on a credible programme and in a venue where the issue could be explored for more than two minutes.

And while we're talking about journalism, I want to briefly praise the role good journalists have played in the past few weeks and stress why independent journalists are so vital to the political and institutional health of this country.

There has been an immense amount of spin since Nicky Hager's book was released, much of it trying to convince everyone there's nothing to see here. Some journalists have been taken up that catch cry. But it was clear within a few days of the book's release that while there was room for debate about some of Hager's judgments on some of the events he described, there were at least three specific allegations in the book that were very serious indeed, possibly criminal.

We can all think of journalists, broadcasters and columnists who have missed the importance of the issues raised in the past three weeks, but I'd like to praise those who have worked hard to get to the bottom of the story. (Not that we're there yet).

Matt Nippert and David Fisher were in the privileged position of being contacted by the hacker, but they took the material given thus far, have analysed it responsibly and written important reports on what they've found. Other journalists with less access have also pursued the story diligently and pushed for answers from those in power. Some questions have led up cul-de-sacs, some have led to another question and on and on.

The point is, like in a game of rugby, the pressure applied has shown cracks appearing in the defence.

There is all kind of talk about blogs and journalism and how people spin and are spun these days. But in truth it all goes back to decency and good choices by journalists. Of course we trade in information, but journalists are defined by their efforts to verify and check and question. Even with limited time and resources, journalists do their best to get it right in time for deadline, and if not by that deadline then by the next.

I've written in defence of New Zealand journalists many times on this blog, and many of you have jeered me for it. On occassion, that's been fair enough. As I've always written, we all have bad days at work and make mistakes. But I hope the good work on display in recent weeks makes those of you who are so endlessly critical of the journalism in this country and are so determined to see conspiracies and biases in every story or interview pause and re-think.

That terrible thing "the mainstream media" may be stretched, under-resourced, make mistakes, get torn this way and that by spin and information trading and complex agendas. But at the core of the business is that determination to check and ask and check again. And that's why, as I've often said, journalism is different from most blogging and something to be appreciated, even if you don't always like the conclusions.

But even some blogging, such as Andrew Geddis' posts here amongst others, has kept the pressure on and ensured questions keep being asked and the public are not allowed to turn away from something, frankly, they didn't really want to look at.

As for the politics, well, what's remarkable about where we are now is that no-one knows where are now. No-one knows where the bottom is or where this story ends.

The big question for me is in the mindset of the swing voter. At what point does that person make the mental shift from "they're all at it, they're all the bloody same" to thinking "this is different". At what point to they stop blaming politics and start blaming National and John Key in particular? That is now the tipping point of this election.

Key's job in these next 20 days is to stop people crossing that Rubicon, because if they do his Rome will fall. National's strategy has to be to build a wall around Key's own integrity and offer him to voters as a safe pair of hands, largely because that was the core of their election strategy anyway.

The problem is that he's undermined it himself since that Wednesday night when Hager's book was released. Key and his strategists went for all-out attack, for complete denial; they tried to brazen it out. That choice was been shown to be a very bad one indeed.

Whether or not you can use the word corruption yet – and I'm not sure you can – the word 'hubris' certainly comes to mind. Key and Joyce and co thought they could tough it out and shout others down even when they knew Hager was telling a story that was atits core fundamentally true; they were over-confident and they're now paying the price.

I've often written that it would be Key's looseness that did for him; that it's what we first love about a leader than we grow to dislike them for. This isn't the kind of looseness I was thinking of, but it does make my point for me. He was running a party that was playing too fast and loose with the truth and people's reputations and now it's biting him on his political bum.

Whether or not it costs Key this election is very uncertain, but I'd wager it's cost him the 2017 election even if he makes it through this month. His Holyoake dream seems beyond repair to me. The seed is planted and will be reaped in three years, if not in three weeks.

But it also gives Labour a chance. Thus far the polls have given them nothing because people have been so unimpressed by what they've seen. But I've also written previously that Cunliffe needed voters to take another look at him. Well, the Collins' resignation and the realisation in many voters' minds that this is a serious issue, not just a "left wing conspiracy" certainly give Cunliffe a chance to present him and his party in a new light. It's a very, very short period of time, but he has a rare (indeed probably unique) chance to recast himself as a Prime Minister-in-waiting.

It's going to be a fascinating 20 days.

Comments (21)

by Andin on September 01, 2014

"atits core "

Funny ))


by Katharine Moody on September 01, 2014
Katharine Moody

Seems to me that properly getting to the bottom of it might well take more than 20 days and I do worry that we are forced to go to the polls without the full story arising from a full and independent investigation. If I were Winston Peters and say holding the balance of power post-election night, I think that I'd want to know the truth of many of the more serious allegations before such time as I made such a decision. It really does put any party holding that balance of power in a difficult position.

by Kat on September 01, 2014

Another attempt at whitewashing by John Key today regarding the Claytons inquiry he is now attempting to orchestrate.

"We're not going on a witch hunt, we're going on a genuine attempt to find out if there was inappropriate behaviour by a minister," Key said.

So, here is the opportunity for 'journalists' to show that "determination to check and ask and check again".

Willing to hold your breath Tim?

by Flat Eric on September 01, 2014
Flat Eric

If I were Winston Peters and say holding the balance of power post-election night, I think I might quite like to be Prime Minister...

by Tim Watkin on September 01, 2014
Tim Watkin

SPM, it's a hell of a thought!

Except, Kat, journalists can only dig so much. We rely on interviews and leaks, it really will take official efforts to get to the bottom of this one, and as Katherine says, probably not in 20 days. That may save National, or it could kill it. Will floating voters give them the benefit of the doubt or will they dislike the stench regardless of an imcomplete investigation?

by Paul Williams on September 01, 2014
Paul Williams

I want to briefly praise the role good journalists have played in the past few weeks and stress why independent journalists are so vital to the political and institutional health of this country.

It's a much more mixed picture to me, a humble reader, Tim. I see the media in equal parts tenacious and forensic as I do see them as inept, easily led and shallow. I guess in this way, the profession is every bit as diverse as any other?

by Kat on September 01, 2014

Tim, apart from some very recent instances of Guyon Espiner and Paddy Gower there just hasn't been the similar ferocity applied by the media to Key as when Cunliffe came under fire over the Liu affair.

I am still waiting for a similar intensity accross the field scrutiny of Key(not just Collins). The allegations against Key and his 'office' are unheard of before in NZ politics.

Perhaps the mainstream media are just too stunned by it all.

by Lee Churchman on September 01, 2014
Lee Churchman

Thus far the polls have given them nothing because people have been so unimpressed by what they've seen.

Well, there's a reason for that, which has been outlined in Hager's book and which hasn't received as much attention as the SIS OIA and Collins' travails. 

Again and again Hager draws attention to the strategy of a constant stream of minor hit pieces funnelled through and amplified by co-opted blogs and co-opted media outlets as a strategy to smear a political opponent. Those of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear have been pointing out that this has been going on since Cunliffe became leader, and has resulted in him being unable to get a fair public hearing. Again, anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Karl Rove's campaigns knew what was happening. Yet the majority of the NZ media went along with the ridiculous hit pieces again and again, the Herald being a notable offender. 

And now people want credit for something they wouldn't have done if Nicky Hager hadn't already done all the hard work?

Not. Good. Enough.

by Anne on September 01, 2014

Those of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear have been pointing out that this has been going on since Cunliffe became leader, and has resulted in him being unable to get a fair public hearing.

The LIu affair was a good case in point. There was an avaricious MSM feasting, at Cunliffe's expense, in particular by the NZ Herald. One well known Herald columnist even demanded Cunliffe's resignation over some ancient pro-forma letter which was used to proclaim Cunliffe a liar. Dirty Politics?

The irony of that case is that the charges laid - the $15,000 book and the $100,000 donation (or was it more - not sure) were eventually shown to have never existed. But it was too late. Cunliffe had been found guilty by the court of public opinion based on what they were being told by John Key together with certain journalists.


by Kevin McCready on September 01, 2014
Kevin McCready

A question for journalists to follow. What role did Orakei Local Board members Desley Simpson and Cameron Brewer play in Hotchin whaleoil setup? Why were they mentioned in the documents released by @whaledump this morning?

by Tim Watkin on September 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Paul, you're right. There are failings in any profession/trade/workplace. And journalists have plenty to ponder from all this. My point is I guess is to stress that there's a difference between much of what's online and what the 'mainstream media' do and the latter's standards (flawed as they sometimes are) should garner some respect.

Lee, politicians trying to discredit their opponents is a game as old as democracy. And "co-opted" is too easy a word to throw around. It has always been thus that politicians have urged journalists to have a crack at opponents and have tried to offer into to help them do that. In the past there haven't been bloggers paid to run campaigns by private interests nor has the OIA been so frequently and blatantly mis-used nor have we heard of public servants allegedly (and only allegedly, Pleasants apart) so mis-treated. But there have certainly ben partisan columnists for example fed useful lines etc. So let's be careful not to over-state. And do you really think Muldoon didn't dump on public servants? Was King Dick not called King because of the power he wielded and threw around?

Media are looking for important and yes dramatic stories and sometimes choose to go with angles or stories they shouldn't. But that's typically about competition rather than corruption. Most stories run without being able to see the entire picture – that's why they're followed up and balanced over time. But let's also be honest that there were plenty of genuine issues to question Cunliffe about aside from any "hits" you're talking about.

So yes Nicky did great work which other journalists probably could have done more of. ...But I'd add that he was able to get material illegally obtained. Any journalist with that contact would have used it, but the deal was done with Nicky. So it's not as if other journalists were missing the story in their laziness and corruption. Others have written about Slater's actions before, but you can't go big on it without proof and only one guy had proof... And yes we can always do better.

But my point is that once there was substance to the story, rather than just having "eyes that can see" but no evidence, the media has pushed hard on it despite the fact viewers and readers have been suggesting that don't care. That is, they've followed the story rather than the ratings. Which is good.


by Lee Churchman on September 02, 2014
Lee Churchman

Lee, politicians trying to discredit their opponents is a game as old as democracy. And "co-opted" is too easy a word to throw around.

We shall see on the latter count. The Herald appears to have a few rats scurrying for cover.

However, the Rovian strategy has been perfectly obvious to me and others ever since Cunliffe became Labour leader. It got to the point where we would sit down to watch the news and wonder what the dumb hit piece for today would be. I should have kept a list of them all – most of them were quite trivial. 

Was this not obvious to the journalists reporting the "gaffes"? If it wasn't, then they aren't fit to be journalists, but if they were aware of it, then they were abetting it. Either way, it's not satisfactory. If it's competition, then competition corrupts.

by Katharine Moody on September 03, 2014
Katharine Moody

I think the profession just got worn right down by the tactics - note for example this article from a year ago about bullying of the media - and in particular the paragraph regarding Slater's role in it all - things were at the time going just swimmingly for the black ops model - MSM was being pushed to further toward the margin;

The black ops folks working to unseat/unsettle the mainstream.

by Lee Churchman on September 03, 2014
Lee Churchman

I think the profession just got worn right down by the tactics

Perhaps, but they also seem to lack the nous required to do effective political journalism. They're quite good at getting stories and in situating those stories in the context of the political horse race, but stops there and that's just not good enough. When I read NZ political journalism, I get the impression that there is at best a very meagre understanding of political economy. Back when Marxism was in vogue, this was less of a problem since people had to think about these things. In the absence of ideas, politics is just a contest of factions and egos (and I suspect many people prefer this, because evidence based policy is not in their interests). It's been a long struggle to drag ourselves out of Plato's cave, but some people seem hell bent on entombing us in it. 

Not to pick on Tim, but I had to explain to him on here once the distinction between orthodox and heterodox economic theories. That is something that anyone writing about modern politics should know, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis. Even if you think that's somewhat arcane, how many journalists do you think could provide an explanation of the economic rationale for welfare state capitalism? I'm not confident at all. 

by stuart munro on September 03, 2014
stuart munro

Journalism faces two challenges over and above the capture by political forces that always threatens it, the advent of new media and the problem of celebrity. New media increase the speed of information and provide new channels to compete with once privileged MSM platforms. Celebrity erodes journalistic ethics as wannabes substitute melodrama for veracity. An inferior journalist should not want to be famous - it won't be for anything creditable.

It is perhaps optimistic to expect journalists to keep politicians honest in the absence of robust constitutional sanctions - especially when the politicians were not honest to begin with. Nevertheless the current crisis reveals NZ politics to be plumbing new depths and the public expectation is that the media will be part of the solution.

by Paul Williams on September 03, 2014
Paul Williams

And journalists have plenty to ponder from all this. My point is I guess is to stress that there's a difference between much of what's online and what the 'mainstream media' do and the latter's standards (flawed as they sometimes are) should garner some respect.

I think the distinction is increasingly hard to maintain - is what you do here that different for what you do in other media? Farrar's now actively tidying up his blog and talking of joining the Press Council. Over this side of the ditch, there's a news site backed by a number of universities competing for market share alongside the ABC, Fairfax etc.

I'd like to think established media are more responsible and thorough, and in general I suspect they are, however I can't ignore how readily many were manipulated, particularly given it was by people as repugnant and Slater and Odgers.

by Paul Williams on September 03, 2014
Paul Williams

Incidentally, covered this story,, on Monday.

by Richard Aston on September 03, 2014
Richard Aston

I don't know why people hold main stream media up to such a high standard . The very word main stream media is an artificial construct. Its a bunch of journalists, editors, subeditors, producers and researchers employed by a variety of commercial organisations or freelancers. The standards of journalism seem so varied and wide amoungst them all. I think that its up to us the readers and watchers to figure out who we can trust. 

I guess it used to be you could trust what was written in the paper "its in black and white" , maybe that time has passed. Sad yes but time for the rest of us to wake up and make our own minds up. Fortunately we are more connected now, to each other and to other sources of information and news. 

Sorry to appear cynical but with so much spin washing over us all it seems our challenge as individuals is to filter it all as best we can, assess it as critically as we are able. I have been searching the net for spin doctor manuals just so I can recognise the techniques when they appear. 

The really great thing about the ongoing Dirty Politics ( and accompanying dirty media) story is we are seeing the wheat separated from the chaff as those up to their necks in dirt become visible. I could start a list of names but I won't. 





by Richard Aston on September 03, 2014
Richard Aston

Tim - I have never seen you as a "dirty journalist" by the way, your are not on my list. 

Tim, if rawshark ( or  Rorschach) had offered you the hacked material as an exclusive, what would you have done? 

by Lee Churchman on September 04, 2014
Lee Churchman

I don't know why people hold main stream media up to such a high standard.

Because they have special rights that the rest of us don't have. I can't refuse to divulge sources. They need to put up in order to keep those rights. 

There are still good journos around. Gwynne Dyer for example.

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