The Journalist As Hero: “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?” Ika Seafood Restaurant & Bar’s Table Talk No. 6 featured Dirty Politics’ author, Nicky Hager; left-leaning columnist, Dita Di Boni; veteran business writer, Fran O’Sullivan; along with the evening’s emcee, the martyred and marvellous, John Campbell.
BOBBY KENNEDY often joked that democracy is like a good sausage: tastes great – but you really don’t want to know what goes into it. Otto von Bismarck said something very similar about the making of laws. Regardless of its provenance, the point being made is an important one. The stuff of which politics is made: self-interest, class prejudice, religious bigotry, economic and social necessity; is often ugly and disreputable. That the final product so often turns out to be publicly palatable, is proof of our politicians’ over-riding need to preserve the system’s legitimacy in the eyes of those who elect them.
The distinguishing characteristic of left-wing investigative journalism, however, is that its practitioners are never satisfied with just the taste of Democracy’s sausage. They will not rest until a full list of ingredients, how they were combined, and for how long they’ve been cooked, is prepared and presented to the public. As often as not this is done without the slightest public encouragement, and the results are frequently received with considerable animosity. That’s because Democratic Sausage is generally consumed by the voters in blissful (and often wilful) ignorance of its contents.
They really don’t want to know what goes into it.
The people attending the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill's Table Talk No. 6, “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”, disagreed. That’s because the journalists on stage: Dirty Politics’ author, Nicky Hager; left-leaning columnist, Dita Di Boni; veteran business writer, Fran O’Sullivan; and the evening’s emcee, the martyred and marvellous, John Campbell – along with the people packing out the restaurant to hear them – all fervently believe that the voting public not only has the right, but also the duty, to understand how Democratic Sausage is made.
There’s no disputing that Hager’s Dirty Politics reveals an unprecedented amount of information about what was going on behind the scenes of New Zealand politics in 2014. The wealth of material contained in Hager’s book could not, however, have been acquired outside of the thoroughly digitalised society we’ve become. Thousands of hacked e-mail communications to and from Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil blogsite had been passed on to Hager, revealing a host of startling connections between Slater, the Prime Minister’s Office, Justice Minister Judith Collins, numerous journalists, and a strange coterie of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers calling themselves “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”.
That similar exercises in political character assassination, media manipulation, and influence-peddling went on in the past is equally indisputable. It was only very rarely, however, that evidence of such dirty deeds ever came to light. The shrewd operators of the pre-digital era took care to leave no paper trails for pesky journalists to follow. Granted, telephone landlines could be tapped, but not, in the usual course of events, by the Left. Nor was there an Official Information Act to trouble wayward civil servants and Cabinet Ministers. Dirty politics was easier to get away with in those days – and investigative journalism much harder!
The result, paradoxically, was that public trust and confidence in our political institutions was much higher in the past than it is today. What the journalistic eye could not see, the electorate didn’t grieve over.
Everything changed in the 1970s, however, when the whistle-blowing of Daniel Ellsberg, and the investigative efforts of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, forced the American people to confront the realities of Democratic Sausage-making in an unprecedented way. The Pentagon Papers exposed decades of dishonesty about the Vietnam War on the part of the US Government. And the Watergate Scandal revealed to the people of the United States that their President, Richard Nixon, was a crook. Overnight, investigative reporters became heroes, and the fearless Fourth Estate was hailed as a more effective guardian of the citizen’s rights and freedoms than any politician.
Heroic Journalism: The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting brought down all the President's men - and, in August 1974, the President himself.
Many Baby-Boomers convinced themselves that this was how it would be from now on – but they were wrong. The blossoming of media freedom in the 1970s was actually an aberration – not a new and beautiful thing. The owners of the news media, frightened by the effective deposition of a President by the news media, tightened-up their control of newsrooms and reined-in the efforts of investigative journalism worldwide. There would be no more Watergates.
Partly this was in defence of the beleaguered capitalist system, but it was also about giving the news media’s consumers what they wanted. And what the readers, listeners and viewers of the late 1970s wanted most was to get the hell out of the sausage factory. They had seen enough. The truth made them uncomfortable. They wanted to believe that all was well with their democracy. That Richard Nixon was an exception, not the rule. Accordingly, just six years after the villain of Watergate had been driven from the White House, a much more dangerous President, Ronald Reagan, was moving in.
Nicky Hager, Dita Di Boni and Fran O’Sullivan all spoke eloquently about the difficulties facing conscientious journalists in the digital era; about the proliferation of media platforms and the constant shrinkage of newsrooms everywhere. And John Campbell, just by being there, reminded the Ika audience of what can happen to a television current affairs show that strives too earnestly to reveal the composition of Democratic Sausage.
What they didn’t discuss, however, was the one, incontrovertible, fact about the publication of Dirty Politics. Namely, that as a political purgative, it didn’t work. Unlike Richard Nixon, John Key was not forced to resign, and his political party was not voted out of office. In fact, a year (and a bit) after the book’s release, Key’s National Government remains as popular as it ever was. The bitter truth is that an electorally decisive number of New Zealanders reacted to Dirty Politics by moving towards – not away from – the National incumbent. Outside the relatively small circle of New Zealanders who celebrated Nicky Hager’s investigative efforts on their behalf, a great many Kiwis responded to his attempt to show them what was happening behind the façade of their democratic institutions with anger and resentment.
They liked the Democratic Sausages sizzling on John Key’s barbecue. They did not want to know how they were made. And they definitely didn’t want to be told what – or who – went into them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 30 September 2015.