Monday, October 27, 2014

Dirty journalism

Always there is the temptation to take sides, especially if it’s the side that Cameron Slater isn’t on. But what we have come to know as dirty politics is a tangle. There are no ‘sides’. Just threads. Pull on the wrong one, and the knot only gets tighter.

From: [Redacted]
hello mate,
feel free to use any of this stuff…best to refer to as something from the tipline

Cameron Slater posted this last week on Whaleoil, a strategic piece of leaking from his own communications. The redaction is his. The intent, less than noble: to remind John Armstrong – author of the latest opinion piece on dirty politics – that at any moment he could release the rest of the email, or other emails like it, and cause embarrassment to a colleague and to his newspaper. ‘Stay away,’ he warns him. And then, sotto voce, to the rest of us: I’m not the only bad guy, you see, and besides everyone is a bad guy. We are all dirty. (These aren’t quite his words.)

The redacted email is yet another thread for us to pull. It’s always tempting when you come across a new one.


The week after Dirty Politics came out, I wrote of the struggle that might ensue within media organizations and of our likely role as spectators unable to influence its immediate outcome. I also suggested that if it was ever going to become a question of the media versus the public, the public would lose. It hasn’t quite come to that yet, but there are signs of entrenching within the profession. Complaints that the critics are becoming too loud and the criticisms too harsh, especially on social media, with no apparent awareness that mounting frustration might be the source of the outbursts and attacks. And so it was that Patrick Gower – who some weeks ago lamented how Twitter had stopped being fun – finally lost his patience, along with what was left of his self-awareness.

I understand wishing to be left alone, sometimes, and I’m sure that not all of Gower’s botherers have issues of public interest foremost in their minds. But there are too many questions there aren’t being answered, too much carrying on as if nothing had happened, for journalists who built their careers on playing the game the hard way to cry ‘leave me alone’.

Then there are the ex-journalists. Like Colin Espiner, former political editor for The Press, long-time columnist at the Sunday Star Times, now external relations manager for SkyCity; or Bill Ralston, former head of news at TVNZ, still weekly columnist at The Listener, still regular commentator on radio and television, celebrity speaker and principal – along with the missus – of a communication company specialising in ‘media training, political strategies and crisis management’. Upon learning that an investigative journalist had his house raided by the police and personal as well as work documents seized, what these stalwarts of the profession chose to be angered by was the fact ordinary citizens were paying money into his legal fund.

Jealousy and resentment are perplexing feelings to harbour towards somebody like Nicky Hager, except perhaps by the people mentioned in his books. And sure, these two are no longer practising journalists, but I would put forward that the former political editor of a major newspaper and the former head of news of our state broadcaster are still representative of the culture, most especially at the managerial level.

However the greater issue is the sheer weight of what hasn’t changed: on the wake of a scandal which engulfed the media, there have been no resignations among executives or reporters, nor to my knowledge has any print, radio or television editor signalled a change in the way things will be done and who will be asked for comment on politics and policy.

In no particular order: Rachel Glucina is still employed by the newspaper she was using as a mouthpiece for the Minister of Justice. Cathy Odgers was approached by the New Zealand Herald to comment on the political campaign, and the column might well have gone ahead if she hadn’t pulled out herself. Matthew Hooton admitted to Kathryn Ryan his role in the ‘chop chop for Nicky’ affair, and has kept his half-dozen jobs as a political commentator and columnist, including on the public airwaves. Jim Mora continues to invite representatives of a Tory front organisation and the likes of Stephen Franks – whose legal firm made use of Whaleoil – on his popular show at Radio New Zealand. Cameron Slater remains a commentator for Newstalk ZB (which led Wendyl Nissen to resign her job at the station), as is Jordan Williams (which led Helen Kelly to resign), as is David Farrar.

They’re all still there.

So maybe reporters working for those same organisations – and the list is hardly exhaustive – may wish to reflect on why their calls for the resignation of politicians or appointees are not always as forceful and effective as they seem to think they should be.

There has been some excellent reporting done on dirty politics, but it counts for little so long as some of the main players in the story – all of whom have been variously shown to be in the business of manipulating as opposed to informing the public – are going to continue to occupy their privileged, unchallenged platforms. It does not serve either balance or plurality for us to continue to hear from them.


And so, if I decided to pull on the thread and follow up on the redacted email, it was not to do Cameron Slater’s bidding in his campaign to get the New Zealand Herald to shut up about dirty politics, but because I don’t think we’re asking enough questions about dirty politics. The Herald, remember, is still not disclosing the documents that formed the basis of the Donghua Liu reports filed by Jared Savage in June of this year. Savage, in turn, has admitted to passing information on to Cameron Slater in the Feeley affair, three years earlier. The link isn’t casual, and the possibility that the Liu stories were part of an orchestrated attack on Labour at the outset of the election campaign is very concrete. So where’s the reporting on this relationship? Who is questioning the reporters?

(And no, in case you’re wondering, bloggers don’t count. Not if their lines of enquiry aren’t followed up on.)

To be fair, Morning Report did interview Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy on Donghua Liu. But when the Feeley email was released to the press, raising significant concerns about the conduct not just of a cabinet minister but also of two senior reporters, the latter got to respond on the Herald’s website and that was that. So far as I can tell, no further explanation was sought or given.

In his response, Savage explained that he forwarded some emails on to Slater as part of an information sharing or ‘horse trading’ arrangement.
This sometimes happens with journalistic sources and it's naive to think otherwise. […] I didn't know that our conversations about Feeley were being shared with others, like PR man Carrick Graham - and that was naive of me to think otherwise.
This struck me as chilling at the time, but also indicative of a surprisingly common attitude from within the industry, a perplexing combination of hard-nosed pragmatism (you should know how things work, son) and bewilderment at how information could get into the wrong hands once it’s passed through the hands of a journalist. Savage says it well: you people are naïve; I was naïve. This naivety serves a double function: to explain and to absolve.

I asked Russell Brown, who knows a lot more than I do about these things, about the extent in which sharing information in this way might be standard practice. He replied:
You could say that there’s an element of exchange in many interactions between journalists and sources, but I don’t think it’s particularly common for journalists to trade information with their sources in that way. But Slater was a strange fish — he was both wholesaling and retailing scuttlebutt on behalf of others. Wholesaling it to journalists, retailing it in his blog.
Inside of that relationship, the wholesaling and the retailing, a number of people had their lives dragged. And while Nicky Hager is constantly questioned about the ethics of his working with stolen correspondence, none of the reporters who have collaborated with Slater have had to defend the public interest value of their stories against the danger of exposing others to Whaleoil. Yet that is also where the naivety defence falls apart: for nobody can claim not to have known what that blog was about. There is no excuse.


I asked Jared Savage if he’s the author of the redacted email which may not even be real. He responded courteously that he would not comment pending Justice Chisolm’s inquiry. I asked David Fisher, who said that he wasn’t, and that he never traded information with Slater back when he had dealings with him. I asked Shayne Currie and Tim Murphy separately for comment. None has been forthcoming.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Luke Harding and the spy as editor

Originally published at Overland

I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish. 
Luke Harding

It’s a wonderful image, that of a paragraph deleting itself in the act of being written. That it belonged to a book about spies and surveillance only adds to the frisson, like when Amazon deleted copies of a book from thousands of its customers’ Kindles without so much as a warning or an explanation, and the book in question turned out to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I believe that’s where the phrase ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’ originally comes from.

It’s ironic. Of course it is. The problem is what to do with all this irony. Luke Harding did his best to appear unfazed by it, and started leaving messages in the text which made him sound like a passive-aggressive flatmate whose food keeps disappearing.
Good morning. I don’t mind you reading my manuscript – you’re doing so already – but I’d be grateful if you don’t delete it. Thank you.
What is so disarming about this story and others like it is the absurdly quotidian nature of these encounters. The spy nowadays sits at a desk, petulantly deleting paragraphs in which you talk about them directly (such was the case with Harding’s book). The spied-upon in turn has nowhere to run – there is nowhere to run – and starts leaving his own bitter little messages, like post-it notes on a fridge. Yet I confess that conversation interests me more than the urgent and topical content of Harding’s book. The spy who deletes. The writer who writes back.

What is also tritely, exhaustingly ironic, in the context of the NSA revelations and every political thriller since Enemy of the State, is that users of social media effectively write their own surveillance reports. ‘Subject got up and consumed hearty organic breakfast.’ ‘Subject expressed unsavoury political views after reading article in the morning’s paper.’ Tweet-length entries in a drab chronicle of life beyond the cyber-curtain. And on top of that, we secret-police one another. ‘I remember that thing you said two years ago, in fact, I have kept a record of it.’ It’s all filed in a myriad archives, and yours and mine can be just as sinister as those that belong to the NSA, Google or Facebook.

You’ll recall what happened with Facebook. For years we all posted on it as it if weren’t an archive, because it wasn’t: there was no timeline nor search function. Then came Timeline, which made it possible to browse your life as you spent it on Facebook, unless you bothered to go back and delete large chunks of it in a brief time window after the introduction of the new future. This put users in front of two equally unpleasant options: revise and self-censor, or have your own barely authorised biography suddenly published under the imprint of Mark Zuckerberg. With a casual insult added to the injury: the implication by a host of commentators and Zuckerberg himself that you should have known all along that it would come to this.

When the time came, I didn’t revise, I didn’t self-censor. I told myself that it was a personal choice, that it had nothing to do with digital technology abhorring a vacuum. The question asked by the computer is always Are you sure you want to delete this?, never Are you sure you want to save this?, or even Are you sure you want to write this?

That’s what makes the image of the self-deleting paragraph so haunting. It’s a perverse inversion of how things are supposed to work. Deleting information should always and only be something that happens by accident, never on purpose, not even the purpose of an adversary. Even our enemies should want us to keep writing more and more things, the better to surveil us with.

It happened to me once, on my first personal computer, an Atari ST, in the days before networking and the internet. I remember the mild sense of panic, as the line I was writing started vanishing at the other end. I also remember opening files on corrupted floppy disks – the machine didn’t have a hard drive – and finding that entire paragraphs had been replaced by Xs. It felt like I was being redacted by an unseen censor.

The most secure way of backing up information at the time was to print it. This is how I migrated the few pieces of writing of mine that warranted it when I bought my first DOS-based machine. I waited and waited for my dot-matrix printer to churn through the pages (that noise!), then manually copied what I was working on onto new files and stashed the rest on a bookshelf. Which is to say that there still was work involved, back then, into keeping digital information alive and current. Almost a scribe’s worth. Now it takes comparable effort to get rid of it. And if you spend as little as a week without writing something, Twitter will start sending you emails, as if to say: ‘Are you okay?’

I wonder about the motivation of Luke Harding’s NSA monitor, assuming it was really a spy and not a glitch that ate into his paragraph. What if there was no malice in that gesture? What if he just wanted to communicate with him, offer some free editing advice? Perhaps the best, the kindest thing we can do for one another is to delete the things that don’t need to be said.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Hollow Men / 1260

Across the hall, they’re showing Ralph Hotere’s The flight of the godwit, a vast varnished painted board that use to greet international travellers at Auckland Airport. Standing alone in the enormous oblong room, it is stern and impressive yet you can see it has lost its original purpose. It was designed for a different space, and for differently flowing people.

Facing it, but in a different room, is another repurposed artwork: Chris Marker’s The Hollow Men.

The prelude in a series – which the aging Marker never completed – entitled Owls at Noon, this video essay plays in a loop out of eight contiguous LCD screens, like a much smaller, black and white, animated version of Godwit. The gallery bills it as a ‘powerfully emotional tribute to World War One’, and in so doing gives it a much narrower meaning than Marker intended, or the work has. But it will do, as our city prepares to host a new memorial park and all manner of re-evocations of the year Gallipoli happened.

A month ago and ahead of schedule they opened the ‘memorial underpass’, which is lined with poppies, and the people of Wellington walked through it, which they will never get to do again. Elsewhere in the city, figures of soldiers have started to pop up. Like this one, which I photographed badly today outside the southern fence of the Basin Reserve.

The young man in the picture is Norman Cummins, one of 10 Wellingtonians chosen – as part of a council-sponsored project called ‘Lest We Forget’ – to represent the roughly 100,000 New Zealanders who fought in the First World War. Cummins volunteered five days after New Zealand declared war against Germany and served twice: first he took part in the successful invasion of German Samoa, in 1914; then in October 1915 he left for Egypt, and from there to France. He died on the Somme in September 1915.

If poppies along a motorway underpass and posters of soldiers dotted around the city – plus whatever is in store for the memorial park to be unveiled next year – are the literal, pedestrian, face of the commemorations, Chris Marker’s Hollow Men stands in radical contrast. Hardly a tribute, the essay takes the form of a commentary of TS Eliot’s famous poem, interspersed with images that aren’t exclusively of soldiers, nor of war, nor of the war. Nonetheless death, destruction and ruin are its major themes, their flow running against that of memory, and Marker even attempts to make explicit the connections between Eliot’s lines and the Great War. Surely the ‘cactus land’ has to mean barbed wire strewn in between the trenches, he opines. Surely ‘the twinkle of a fading star’ must be a reference to a falling plane.

The Hollow Men plays on eight small LCD screens and in a continuous, 19-minute loop which makes it difficult to tell where it begins and ends. There are two channels, so that each second screen plays the same picture. There are words and images, and some of the images are digitally retouched so that they appear to be painted on wood or etched into stone. And there are not just men but also a gallery of women, as if to signify that the whole of society is a veteran of the great war and of the wars that followed. (Marker sees in Eliot’s premonitions of World War II, merely ‘eighty seasons’ after the first.)

The result is a mournful, uneasy meditation on the ruins of a culture that is only good at this, now: producing more ruins. It is not my intention to discount in advance the coming commemorations – much as the ‘WW100’ branding campaign makes me fear the worst – but Marker’s eschewing of exemplary individual lives in favour of the tortuous flow of social, collective time, is likely to provide a useful antithesis.


I wouldn’t ordinarily do this to the mother of my children – you try to be the segue from Chris Marker and Ralph Hotere – but this is also happening in Wellington, and it’s the last week, so I’ll say a couple of things about her latest.

‘1260’ follows on from the project that Justine did in the Wairarapa earlier this year, and is similarly structured as a collection of pieces symbolically connected to the local signatories of the suffrage petition of 1893 – all twelve hundred and sixty of them. The individual pieces –wich are moulded to reproduce or resemble common household objects found in contemporary homes – are arranged by suburb into hanging ‘chandeliers’. The chandeliers in turn are arranged in the exhibition space as a map of Wellington, therefore a visual representation of the distribution of those women. The names of the signatories are printed on wallpaper squares so that you could, ideally, connect each of them with each of the pieces, creating imaginary threads alongside the literal ones that keep the chandeliers and the pieces together.

It is a map on a scale that is social and political, an attempt to reimagine a campaign and its outcome in the same physical space it occurred. What does it mean for such an event to ‘take place’? What (and where) are the threads that tie us still to that idea, that universal suffrage would liberate us? But there is a common thread running through these exhibitions as well: in this age of memorials and commemorations we can use being reminded that nothing is yet to be written like the past.

Chris Marker’s Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men is on at the Wellington City Gallery until November 23, as is Ralph Hotere’s Godwit/Kuaka.

Justine Fletcher’s 1260, Sign for Change: Mapping the Suffrage Petition in Wellington is on at Toi Poneke, 61 Abel Smith Street, until October 18. Entry is free.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The big, bad German and New Zealand politics

Expensive cars and custom-made motorcycles. Pieces of futuristic contemporary sculpture. Giant flat-screen television sets. Stacks of computer servers. And, above all, bank accounts, dozens of them: at Citibank (Hong Kong) Ltd, The Development Bank of Singapore, Rabobank Nederland, Westpac, even Kiwibank, with funds totalling the astronomical, possibly apocryphal figure of $175 million. These are the seized personal effects of Kim Dotcom, as reproduced and assembled by artist Simon Denney, first in Vienna, then in Colchester and now at the Adam Art gallery in Wellington.

It is an unusual, caustic installation, punctuated hypnotically by the droning repetition of the Megaupload song featuring Macy Gray, Kanye West, It would have been provocative enough for its audiences in Austria and England – what did they make of all these virtual and material riches spilling like guts on the exhibition floor? – but to us it’s likely to mean something quite different and altogether more dense.

Kim Dotcom has been, was, one of us. Perhaps it’s already in the past and he’s a prisoner of circumstance, destined to leave either to face trial in the United States or before the ink has had time to dry on the court order that sets him free. Or perhaps he will stay, although that’s harder to envisage after years of intense, quasi-political persecution. Then there is the other side of him, which Denney clinically captured in his survey of his forfeited property: obscene levels of self-perpetuating wealth that New Zealand can scarcely accommodate.

David Fisher’s excellent book on Dotcom includes the following, candid account of the plight of the super-rich:
If you are used to money and you are used to a good lifestyle, New Zealand doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of lifestyle, accommodation, or the top restaurants. If you go into the centre of Auckland, there are exactly two top fashion brand stores, which is Louis Vuitton and Prada, and that is it. That is all you have in the whole country. There is not one good nightclub here where you go out and have a nice disco night. It is all kind of mediocre.
To get away from it all, the Dotcoms travelled to Europe taking ‘12 cars, golf buggies and jet skis, the furniture and 18 staff to manage the logistics’, for a trip that would include shooting a short vanity feature at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in which he and associate Finn Batato outraced Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen.

This was life for Dotcom before the 2012 raid, and his determination to not only prove his innocence but also restore that fortune and recapture the lifestyle that went with it is always in the foreground of his conversation with Fisher. This is the central paradox of his eventual alliance with Mana, that marriage of the dispossessed with the extravagantly possessed: the ‘movement of the people’ on one side and, on the other, a stateless entrepreneur living in the country’s most expensive mansion and shouting a fireworks display costing half a million dollars to the entire city of Auckland as a way of making his own fun.

It was a bad idea. I mean, of course it was, but for reasons that are more complicated than those that are being peddled to us.

David Cunliffe started attacking Dotcom as soon as the results were in, fulminating against his ‘reprehensible’ foray into national politics and the damage it inflicted upon the Left. This, from the party that at the last election, long before Dotcom, declared that it wouldn’t work with Hone Harawira, the dangerous radical who wants to feed your kids.

 Less predictable and far more dispiriting was Russel Norman’s tirade last week on Radio Waatea, in which the Green co-leader blamed it all on Internet Mana in terms that bear quoting at length:
The main problem was Intermana, I mean in terms of a change of government… They basically spent $3 million to try to convince potential Green Party voters to vote for Intermana… They were unsuccessful at that, but in the process they tainted Labour because a lot people went 'God, I’m not going to vote for Labour because I’m going to get Harré and Dotcom'… and then for us it was a problem because they occupied so much airtime with their nonsense… It just made it incredibly difficult to change the government.

Intermana was a guided missile attacking the Left… We had enough trouble with John Key standing up there telling all his nonsense about us, and then on the other hand we had to deal with these crazies… Having them on the radio and TV all the time talking their nonsense was like ‘Oh, God…’ It made it incredibly difficult to change the government at that point.

Imagine selling list place number two for $3 million…
It was a stupid idea… As I said from the beginning, when I went and met Dotcom, whatever you do, don’t go ahead with this stupid idea. I’m on the public record, right from the get-go I said ‘Don’t go and do this stupid thing’. Anyway, they went ahead and did it, and then they made it stupider by doing the Intermana thing, and so poor old Hone got dragged into the mess as well. How do you think this thing is going to end when you go down this kind of path?

And so on, for upwards of 13 minutes and including the use of the noxious phrase ‘middle New Zealand’ to describe the throngs of voters supposedly terrorised by the 'fuck John Key' chant at an Internet Mana event.

What jumps out from Norman’s deeply unpleasant speech is that it reproduces rhetorically the attacks and post-election recriminations aimed by Labour members at the Greens back when they were the ‘crazies’ tainting the rest of the Left, they the ones making things difficult, they the party striving to get votes they weren’t entitled to. It’s a bitterly ironic path for Norman to tread.

Last time I wrote about the Internet Party, when it still looked like it might run by itself, I suggested – based on overseas precursors and on Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement in particular – that its result would be a test of the strength of our political institutions. Without a swelling protest vote, without a robust enough anti-political sentiment and, crucially, without a charismatic leader able to exploit them, it’s hard for parties of this kind to gain traction. Dotcom, by his own forthright admission, turned out to be the opposite of that charismatic leader, for reasons that were partly sound – yes, outrageous wealth is a problem and yes, so were some of his consumer choices – and partly troubling, in terms of our ability to deal with outsiders and what is strange and foreign. There is also the matter of his continuing persecution, investing issues which in the end were too big for the narrow parameters of a national political campaign, and remain to be dealt with in the coming months.

This past election was nothing if not an affirmation that most voters buy into the existing political contract. It was almost vote for vote the same result as three years ago, leaving no room for Dotcom’s party or his ideas. Yet to blame him for the failure of the Left – not just to win the election, but also to make crucial issues concerning the exercise of state power matter – is absurd and inexcusable. This is on the rest of us.

Simon Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom is showing at the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University until 19 December. Free entry.
David Fisher’s The Secret Life of Kim Dotcom is available here.

My column for the Spring Issue of Overland, 'On the right of Oblivion' is now up on the site.

On 3 December I’ll take part in a symposium entitled Placing the Personal Essay at Massey University. Registration is free but places are running out.
Also: my partner’s latest exhibition – 1260, Mapping the suffrage petition in Wellington – is on at Toi Poneke, 61 Abel Smith Street until October 18. More free entry goodness.