Wednesday 30 September 2015

Investigating The Democratic Sausage: Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s Table Talk No. 6 “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”

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.


Anonymous said...

there may be an increased interest in sausage preparation when the diners start going down with food poisoning...

Anonymous said...

Chris, in my opinion Table talk #6 left out the fact that the book by N Hager did not bring down John Key and the National government because the book was cobblers. I purchased and read the book, some parts twice over. The book was for most parts was pure conjecture with a left wing spin, nothing more. It was a cheap and vindictive attempt to rort the election. People saw through the book and dismissed it. D Cuniliffe ran with the book and in doing so ruined his political career. N Hager has a lot to answer for the rout of Labour, but he won't because folk at Table talk 6 and others accept N Hagers hard-line but untruthful sell.

Anonymous said...

Chris agree with all that bar the "most NZers". At least, "most" doesn't work if you are going by the voting statistics. Plausibly, the stats support a statement more like "perhaps 5% of the electorate reacted by changing their vote to National, which had a crucial outcome on the election, given the finely balanced mathematics going into it".
I accept a fair % of NZers emotionally reacted by taking Key's side, perhaps a quarter or a third, but in terms of absolute 'revealed preference', very very few acted on that in the ballot box. But only a few had to, to change the election result. That is not "most". But swap out the most for a more correct phrase, and the rest of the article is bang on - the key thing (no pun intended) being that a crucial 5% or so didn't instead vote with repulsion against Key, and see him out of government.

greywarbler said...

"That’s because Democratic Sausage is generally consumed by the voters in blissful (and often wilful) ignorance of its contents."

Is that because it might contain cats. There is just so much talk about Dead Cat Bounce that this must be some strange code dissimulating about this possible ingredient.

A O said...

The 'Dirty Politics' era exposed me to Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden and as a one-time actual sausage maker, I am very, very grateful for that.

Jigsaw said...

I could suggest at least half a dozen more interesting and decidedly less left-leaning people to discuss this or any topic really. The fact that they are all inside the media tent makes it hard if not impossible to have any sort of objective view of anything political. In most cases they are the problem.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It would be nice if all those people who claim Hager's book was untruthful what either come up with some examples, or better, actually sue him. The libel laws in New Zealand are quite strict but I notice no one has successfully done this. You'd think that if he was writing untruths, he'd be bankrupt by now.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
Nicky Hager's book came out too close to the election, so that in combination with Kim Dot Com"s antics it looked more like a concerted effort to defame a very popular politician than a serious revelation . If both things had been presented at a different time, and at times separate to each other, the significant content of both would have been better digested by the public .

When people are presented with a heavy criticism of a figure they have championed , internally and to their associates, they are being asked to diss not only the figure in question but their own ,often expressed judgement. This makes the attack on the figure personal to themselves and the initial reaction is predictably defensive. But the question of shonky johnkey's integrity has been aired and it's working away. He will be watched more critically all the time and the teflon will wear off.

When people are eventually forced to admit their judgement was wrong that is personal too, and the reaction is again predictable.
Robert David Muldoon was an extremely popular politician once.

Cheers David J S

Wayne Mapp said...


Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden might have appealed to you. But the Moment of Truth in which both appeared was an unmitigated disaster for the Left.

If the election was in the balance before that event, it was not afterwards. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders saw that event on their TV screens and as a direct result a significant number who were sitting on the fence decided to vote National.

It seemed to confirm the old adage, "Not all publicity is good publicity."

Bushbaptist said...

It wasn't a disaster for the Left Wayne. Because there was no 'Left' only right and rightish.

The main reason why the Gnats got the election was because Labour was not really any different from them. Why change a Govt. and get more of the same?

The Labour Party did what erstwhile left-wing parties were doing all over the industrial world: it ditched the egalitarian commitments that had guided it in prior decades, and instead embraced a set of policies that were indistinguishable from those of its conservative opponents. As a result, voters going to the polls found that their supposed right to shape the destiny of their nations at the voting booth had been reduced to irrelevance, since every party with a shot at power embraced the same set of political and economic policies. Which explains why Labour lost the last election. Tweedledum/Tweedledee.

That might have been bearable if the policies in question worked, but they didn’t, they don’t, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they never will. Most sensible people have begun to notice by now, though, that the policies in question have had precisely the opposite effect, not just once but wherever and whenever they’ve been tried. Logically speaking, if the policies you propose don’t yield the results you expect, you change the policies. That’s not what’s happened so far in this case, though. Quite the contrary, the accelerating failures of conservatism have been met across the board by an increasingly angry insistence from the corridors of power that conservative policies are the only options there are. Something that we see in the posts by Rightwingers here.

A O said...


There's far more to Greenwald and Snowden than the 'Moment of Truth', but I certainly credit that gathering along with the whole Dirty Politics saga for opening my eyes to the real world.

Hundreds of thousands of Kiwis were influenced by the media's take on that event and not because of the event itself. And the same is true for the Dirty Politics saga. The old "publicity" adage does not apply when mainstream media is so blinkered.

pat said...

Like your misquoted publicity adage Wayne your assertion that Hager 's book and Greenwalds appearance are equally misguided....but then I expect you knew that.

For the record after these events National dropped in the polls and "theleft" increased.....unfortunately neither action was of sufficient magnitude to change the election result.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I see Wayne "Afghanistan is stable." Mapp is back again. How do you feel about it now Wayne? Personally I think my thesis has just trumped yours.

greywarbler said...

David Stone
I think you have hit the nail in straight and true.

Grant said...

@ Wayne

I think your "old adage" is newly minted. The original "old" (about 100 yrs) adage about publicity has long been paraphrased as "There is no such thing as bad publicity." or, alternatively "All publicity is good publicity." Whether or not there is any truth in adages, it is best to actually know them before using them to reinforce the point of your argument.

Charles E said...

Interesting topic Chris and worthy of serious discussion which is not above I suggest.
In my opinion the two key reasons the electorate rejected Dirty Politics are:
1. The revelations were not nearly on the scale of Watergate or any other decent gate at all. Sort of 'ho-hum-gate', so they disappointed. The electorate lost its innocence long ago so they require really new and shocking stuff to outrage them;
You see these days, to give just one example, after watching the original British House of Cards years ago and the impressive more recent copy from the US of A the public laughed at the dullness and petty nature of the Hager so called revelations and thought them selective, as they were in my view. And worse, they were tied up in their minds with the Dotty-Commie bandwagon which your host the other night is guilty of taking part in. She really did damage herself with that escapade but then again, good on her for talking the risk.
2. The other reason the dirt failed to stick was those throwing it were seen as no better, and perhaps dirtier than their targets. The electorate thought them part of the dirty media, merely ratting on each other and so discounted anything they said as just ‘in house’ cat fighting. Don’t forget to claim to be a journalist as Hager does these days is not to rise in the public’s perception. Quite the opposite. Why do you think that very popular pundit Hosking is a pains to claim not to be one.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

3. People are quite cynical about politicians and feel that there's nothing they can do about corruption.
4. Right wingers are comfortable with corruption as long as it's them as is doing it? :)After all it can't be PROPER corruption if it's them, just 'giving a mate a hand up'.

Nick J said...

@ Wayne Mapp

Wayne it is a true pleasure that you come over to this site to blog: please keep doing so, it gives we of different persuasions a chance to reflect upon the pathology of a current member of the Right wing establishment. And perversely you often confirm some of Chris' contentions about the state of the Left that maybe a lot of our side don't really want to acknowledge.

Nick J said...

Maybe the "dirt" did not stick because after 30 years of neoliberalism words like "democratic principles" and "ethics" are so devalued that they have no meaning. Perhaps Friedmans narrow "greed is good" has taken such a strong hold that so long as you get what you want the means and morals no longer matter.

Anonymous said...

So much of the public these days do not want to bother thinking about things. Further, they are not encouraged to by anybody much. It must also be remembered that so much of the population these days has had nearly 30 years of neoliberal speak. Many of those who bother to vote believe the rhetoric. The Labour Party largely embraces it.

So many people are turned off politics. But the rot is deeper than that. That rot was identified by the late Neil Postman in his book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death". A great title but also it had a subtitle "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business". Also of significance was that it was published in 1985 and so it reflected what had occurred before that date. It largely examines the American scene but is of equal importance for New Zealanders now. Our culture now is full of trivia, whether it be cooking shows, sportfests or talkfests. The latter pretend to be analytical but are full of guffaws on the part of the presenters.

Rather too many people these days do not want to flex their their brains, neither are they are encouraged to do so. But we have to hope. The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

Where has the thinking public gone? Even some of the people above, responding to the comments about Nicky Hager's "Dirty Politics" display a lack of thoughtfulness. No, the book was not the end of John Key but in the meantime it has been the end of Judith Collins.

Kim Dot Com contributed to a rather silly diversion in New Zealand in electoral politics. It was more about show business than it was about a better New Zealand for New Zealanders.

Sadly, participation in voting has declined over a number of years. There are many reasons for that. Those who continue to vote either "know what side their bread is buttered on" or those "who hope that things can change". The former are a more dependable base than the latter for their respective Parties. The Labour Party, having had 9 years in office, did not have much to show for its time in power. It has not inspired the vote from those who should be amongst its natural supporters. The Labour Party is still uninspiring. It still wants to appeal to the "middle ground" as if this will deliver the goods for them. The National Party will continue to maintain a significant level of support from its natural supporters, who will definitely vote.

Bushbaptist said...

NZ is not the only western democracy to have a voting turn-out problem. The last Election in the UK only drew 67% of the voters, in the US the voters are even lower still at about 60%. We are doing well to get 70% out to vote. So one has to ask why that is. Anon @ 20.10 hit it on the head at least in part anyway. Our society is being dumbed down and people are often too busy trying to survive to bother with politics in general. When I have spoken to some I know who didn't vote and asked them why, almost to a one they all said that why should they vote when nothing changes! Good point!

Contrary to the comments by righties here, Helen Clark's Govt. WAS NOT LEFT!! It was (is?) right of centre and only a little softer than the Gnats. The centre is still in the same place it always was.

For a two party (with some hangers-on) democracy to work then the two parties must have diametrically opposite policies to give people a genuine choice. As it is now we have two main parties that are so similar in policies that they may even be the same just wearing different coats. Siamese Twins! Some righties claim that her WFF was 'Left' -- no it wasn't, it was targeted tax cuts. Just the same with the "Benefit increase" by this Govt. They have not increased them at all. Just increased it for those who have two children or more. Hardly a benefit increase when all the rest remained the same. The Breakfast in schools was another. Key implied that the Gnats instigated and set it up. Wrong again! It is run by Sanitarium and other companies including Fonterra. The Govt. has put nothing into the process at all. Politishit all the way! Privatised Food Stamps anyone?

Cunliffe had a wishy-washy CGT but nothing else that was different to the others so they didn't get anywhere in the election which is not surprising. Now we have Andy Little but will he shape up? I for one, am not holding my breath.