Hard News by Russell Brown


The Hager saga continues

Nicky Hager joins us on Media Take this week, to discuss the recent extraordinary police search of his home and the position he's now in. I will also ask him for his response to the Givealittle fund launched to help with his legal expenses in seeking to recover the material seized, which has now passed $50,000.

The news of the police raid came through as we were preparing to record last week's programme, and the week since has, if nothing else, demonstrated what a polarising figure Hager is. While more than a thousand New Zealanders have contributed to his legal fund, others have to taken to the internet to declare him guilty of "receiving stolen property" (actually, he isn't a suspect and such an offence does not even apply to this case).

Most of those convinced of Hager's guilt were curiously silent upon publication of David Fisher's story about the way Cameron Slater used the thousands of private communications and other documents on an allegedly stolen hard drive as part of an insane vendetta against former Hell Pizza marketing manager Matt Blomfield. On the other hand, few of those people seemed to be demanding that Fisher himself receive a visit from the police, even though he was relying on the same source as Hager had for Dirty Politics.

Blomfield actually laid a complaint two years ago with police, alleging the hard drive had been stolen from him. The police failed to act on Blomfield's complaint but are now "reviewing" it.

Fisher's report notes the comments of Justice Raynor Asher in a recent decision requiring Slater to reveal his sources as part of Blomfield's defamation action against him:

"In the ordinary course of events persons do not legitimately come by the personal hard-drive and filing cabinets of other persons. Even if Mr Slater was not party to any illegality, it seems likely that the information was obtained illegally by the sources, and this diminishes the importance of protecting the source."

Justice Asher said there was an even lower public interest "in encouraging persons who are in a private dispute with others from going to the media with unlawfully obtained confidential material to hurt them".

"This material prima facie is in that category."

On Twitter this afternoon, Slater pointed to a letter from the Independent Police Conduct Authority which reported police saying the hard drive was found to have never been stolen.

The letter, sent to Slater, made no reference to whether police had investigated the accessing of the information, which is the subject of the current review.

Update: Cameron Slater has sent me a copy of his letter from the Independent Police Conduct Authority, which addresses several complaints from Slater, including that that the constable on the case is acting as an "intermediary" for Blomfield, and says in conclusion that Blomfield's statements to police:

... outlined a number of possible offences. These were all investigated by Police. 

The Authority accepts the explanations provided and is unable to identify any clear situation where there has been a neglect of duty or misconduct by the Police. The Authority will therefore take no further action in the matter and in the absence of any new and compelling evidence; your file will remain closed.

Strikingly, Fisher's main story quotes a series of Facebook messages in which Slater appears to be trying to procure a prison hit against Blomfield's brother. There is no evidence that this went any further than talk. Indeed, part of the problem of working out exactly what Slater and his associates did do is that they were such bullshitters in their communications with each other.

New Zealand Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan was furious when John Key released an email from Slater to his associates linking her to what looked like a conspiracy to undermine financial regulators on behalf of Mark Hotchin. The next day, Matt Nippert's story on the whole ugly business was published.

In her Weekend Herald column yesterday, O'Sullivan quoted subsequent emails to her from Cathy Odgers which seem to confirm that O'Sullivan was no part of the so-called "sting" on Serious Fraud Office head Adam Feeley -- and revealed that the email that prompted John Key to sack Judith Collins during the election campaign was given to him by National Party power-broker Tina Symmans, who got it from Odgers.

Slater responded by alleging that O'Sullivan had committed a crime under the Inquiries Act by threatening witnesses (ie: Slater, Odgers and Carrick Graham) to the inquiry into Collins' conduct when she wrote this:

This week, I gave evidence to the Chisholm Inquiry as a "witness", not as a "participant" - a distinction that will not be lost on sensible readers.

This week also brought with it the disturbing news of an extensive raid on investigative journalist Nicky Hager's house by police seeking information that would lead to the identification of the hacker whose theft of Slater's emails and messages provided the basis for his Dirty Politics book.

But while the police have been busy poking about in Hager's affairs - hacking is, after all, a crime - they do not appear to have actively followed up on Acting Opposition Leader David Parker's pre-election complaint over various actions disclosed in the Dirty Politics affair, including the alleged "SFO/Hanover Sting".

This suggests to me a failure of prioritisation on the part of police chief Mike Bush and his team.

I believe he could start by requiring Odgers, Graham and Slater to say just who paid them for apparently trying to fit up Feeley.

And why they obliged.

The issue is too big to be swept under the carpet by mere politics and a focus on chasing whistleblowers instead of the real issues.

Not everyone agrees with O'Sullivan on the significance of the matter or the targeting of Hager. Rodney Hide's Herald on Sunday column is basically a stacatto recitation of Twitter talking points in which Slater and his friends are the poor victims. It's what you'd expect from Hide, who is a partisan rather than a journalist. But John Roughan's Weekend Herald column is more surprising -- and not in a good way.

Roughan was responding to a column by Hager published on the Guardian website several days after the election, in which he said, among other things, that John Key's government "has worked systematically to close down critical voices: academics, scientists, media and more. Leaked documents in Dirty Politics show that a key tool was using National party-aligned blogs to launch personal attacks."

Stuff and nonsense, said Roughan:

Hager made this claim about academics, scientists and so forth when he launched his book. News media did not follow up the claim, probably because it did not ring true. Whale Oil was nasty but not quite that terrifying.

That Roughan hasn't read the Dirty Politics book seems obvious, but it's tempting to wonder if he reads his own newspaper. Certainly, people can differ on how much of what Slater did and said can actually be linked to the government, but he said environmental scientist Mike Joy, a persistent critic of the government, should be "taken out and shot". There was a pattern of attacks on school principals who opposed government policy, noted here and here, where it appeared Slater was working with Anne Tolley's office. And of course the commercial "hits", often aimed at scientists and health advocates, are, according to the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, ongoing.

Roughan continues:

It is one thing to over-egg your story in a book aimed at a domestic audience who are in a position to assess your evidence in the knowledge that John Key's reign of terror is not exactly evident around here. It is another thing to put this impression in the minds of readers who are a long way from this country and probably know next to nothing about it.

Guardian readers worldwide give great credence to its name and this may be the only account of the New Zealand election they see.

The website labelled the piece "comment is free", which its regular readers might know to be code for, "we don't necessarily believe this", but Hager does not write in a style of comment on recognised facts. He asserts facts newly discovered.

As regular readers of The Guardian's website will actually know, "Comment is free" was not in fact the headline bestowed on Hager's column. It's the name of the Guardian's online opinion section, named for C.P.Scott's memorable quote "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

Roughan then goes on to declare that "just about all of Julian Assange's Wikileaks disclosures were ... candid internal comments of diplomats that were no more than tittle-tattle." Even a cursory glance at the Wikipedia article on information disclosed by Wikileaks renders that statement farcically untrue. Roughan was presumably referring to the 2010 diplomatic cable release, aka Cablegate, but even then it seems worth noting that this "tittle-tattle" moved the people of Tunisia to overthrow their government, sparking the Arab Spring. His is the commentary of someone who hasn't followed the story at all.

It's true that those more ready to think ill of the protagonists of Dirty Politics are more likely to read it and to cite its contents. But where the criticism of the book isn't simply in bad faith, it's often hapless, as Roughan's column is. Nicky Hager should not be beyond criticism. But it seems fair to say he really does deserve better critics.


If you'd like to come to the Media Take recording tomorrow (ie: Monday), come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ by 5.45pm.

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