Which participants in the Dirty Politics furore have emerged covered in glory? Short answer: virtually none.
Certainly not Cameron Slater, whose hacked Whale Oil blog site provided most of the material for Nicky Hager’s incendiary book. Even Slater’s supporters must have recoiled reading his exchanges with a former prostitute whom he urged to dig up dirt.
Slater’s blog is the best-read in the country for a reason: he breaks scandalous stories – among them the award-winning posts on Len Brown’s affair – and occasionally makes valid observations that others dare not. His readership has clearly been prepared to excuse his inflammatory shock-jock excesses, such as when he applauded the death of a “feral” West Coaster – the post that supposedly incited Hager’s source to hack the Whale Oil site. Slater’s disregard for the Coaster’s grieving family, who, it transpired, had suffered a series of tragedies, including the loss of a son at Pike River, displayed an ugly callousness. Now the hacked emails reveal something approaching megalomania.
However much Slater is entitled to invoke the right to free speech, he must realise that in a civilised democracy, people have limited tolerance for sleaze and a dislike of bullies. It remains to be seen whether he has the will or ability to modify his style.
Nicky Hager’s halo is also tarnished. Hager is an accomplished claimer of the moral high ground, à la Julian Assange. The irony is that a campaigner who has railed against clandestine state surveillance of people’s communications – the subject of his 1996 book Secret Power – apparently sees no contradiction in basing his latest work on information obtained by illegal hacking.
Ah, that’s different, Hager’s defenders will say; Dirty Politics was justified in the interests of the righteous battle against shadowy political manipulation. But the democratic governments that share information acquired by electronic surveillance (including governments of the left) can just as persuasively argue justification because of the need for collective defence arrangements, and even more urgently the need to thwart acts of terrorism. It all depends on one’s ideological perspective.
Hager, of course, is no less guilty than Slater of trying to exert influence on the political process. Why else would publication of his book be timed to coincide with the election campaign, just as his Seeds of Distrust – which exposed the release of genetically modified corn – was in 2002? Slater and Hager both stand accused of seeking to manipulate public opinion.
Moreover, Hager’s supporters are no more entitled to claim the Whale Oil hacking was justified by Slater’s “feral” comments than those on the right could claim a Labour candidate’s recent despicable “Shylock” comments about Prime Minister John Key could ever justify such an action on their side of the ledger.
Nor does Judith Collins come out of it well. Her collusion with Slater is odious. She is, after all, the Minister of Justice, an office incompatible with the feeding of information so that supposed political enemies can be vilified. Comparisons with the machinations of the disgraced President Nixon are entirely appropriate. Collins’ reputation, already severely tarnished by her questionable association with Oravida, the dairy company of which her husband is a director, now looks almost unsalvageable.
Key is also tainted by the affair. His apparent confidence that he could brush off Hager’s allegations, his customary first line of defence, was misplaced. Both morally and pragmatically, he would have been justified in cutting Collins loose. Was it loyalty that stopped him, or a hubristic conviction that he could bluff his way out of the crisis? Either way, Key may come to regret not having acted more decisively.
So which of the Dirty Politics protagonists, then, can claim to have emerged with honour intact?
Perhaps only National-aligned blogger David Farrar, whose hacked emails also provided material for Hager’s book. Although Farrar’s Kiwiblog has never been as scurrilous as Whale Oil, he plainly sees the need for bloggers to clean up their act. He has applied to join the Online Media Standards Authority, which will provide more accountability, and he has promised greater transparency of his blog.
The rest of the blogosphere should accept his challenge to dial back the toxic rhetoric and uphold ethical standards. If our political leaders, especially Key, now draw a new, clear line and explicitly denounce the activities of the vandals of democracy, then some good could yet come of this unedifying imbroglio.