Slater, the Government and Hager: a false equivalence

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Various media commentators have suggested that there's little difference between the actions of Slater and National, and that of Nicky Hager. The comparison is as lazy as it is false.

In the furor surrounding Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, one of the most prevalent criticisms against the author and his book is that they are no better than Cameron Slater and his Whale Oil blog. For all his outrage about those on the right violating people’s privacy for political purposes, goes the argument, Hager’s use of illegally hacked emails to write a book that was damaging of National was just as dirty.

This line of reasoning was first put forward by Slater, who called Hager a “sanctimonious hypocrite” for writing a book based on his private emails. It was then quickly picked up by various media commentators who, perhaps in an attempt at journalistic balance, began criticising Hager in the same breath that they condemned the actions of Slater and his collaborators. If newspapers and commentators were going to continually run negative stories about National, then it was only fair that the ‘other side’ also heard some criticism.

Mike Hosking inaugurated this the morning after Dirty Politics hit the shelves, attacking Hager for the “irony” of basing his book on “leaked emails” while criticising others for doing the same. Then Rosemary McLeod, in an op-ed piece for the Dominion Post which was almost exclusively about Hager instead of the misdeeds he revealed, complained that “it’s OK when [Hager] uses hijacked emails as the basis for a book intended to sway an election, but it’s not OK for National to help itself to the emails of the main Opposition party when they’re accessible online.” She went on to reassure readers that “I’m no fan of Slater’s Right-wing blog, just as I have a cautious approach to Hager’s work,” who she called “slick.”

The latest example of this false equivalence was Jane Clifton’s article in the latest Listener, where she argued that “what [Hager] does is on a continuum with what Whale Oil seeks to do.” According to Clifton, the issue raised by Hager’s book were un-resolvable because “they boil down to a partisan view of means and beliefs” where each side thinks their actions are justified in the name of their respective causes. Hager was okay with violating people’s privacy and tarnishing their reputations to expose “disgraceful conduct traceable all the way to the Beehive,” says Clifton, but disapproved of Slater and co.’s “use of exactly the same means to further their ends.”

This ‘both sides are equally bad’ rhetoric is as lazy as it is wrong. The media seem to have forgotten what exactly it was that Hager’s book exposed. It wasn’t, as Hosking thought, the use of “leaked emails” by a blogger. One of the most explosive revelations in Hager’s book is that Slater and John Key’s press secretary exploited a security flaw to dig around in the Labour party’s donor records and other information in order to use it against them and distract their campaign. Other highlights included Judith Collins leaking the personal details of a public servant in order to expose him to attack, and the potential political abuse of the Official Information Act. If these revelations ruin anyone's reputations, they would do so based on extremely unethical actions by them, not because of irrelevant personal flaws.

Moreover, while Hager’s book might be based on private emails, it’s not in the service of a sleazy partisan agenda. Rather, it’s to reveal some extensive and pretty concerning wrongdoing by those in power. Commentators like Clifton like to point out that Hager revealed the book weeks before the election as evidence of a supposed left-wing axe he has to grind, making him little better than the nakedly partisan Whale Oil (for his part, Hager says that he was only leaked the emails in March and felt, given its pertinence to the election, he had to get it to the public before they cast their vote). They also complain that he took the accused parties by surprise by releasing the book shortly before the 6 p.m news and not seeking out comment from National.

Whatever the arguments about the ethics of the latter, these same commentators ignore the fact that practically this same exact set of circumstances took place 12 years ago, when Hager’s Seeds of Distrust rocked the left-wing Labour government shortly before the 2002 election. In fact, that instance could be argued to have been worse than present circumstances, as John Campbell used Hager's book to blindside Helen Clark before it had even been released. Of course, since back then Labour was in power, Hager faced attacks from the centre-left while National pounced on his revelations to their advantage.

Compare this to what Slater and his friends were doing. In what way are the tawdry details of politicians’ sex lives, or whether Winston Peters got drunk after clocking off work, or other salacious details about political personalities, in the public interest? The answer is they’re not. Hager revealed wrongdoing with the side-effect of it being politically damaging; the revelation of misdeeds by those in power has a habit of doing that. For Slater and co. this wasn’t a side-effect of their work – it was the sole aim.

Clifton and McLeod question why it’s okay for Hager to violate someone’s privacy to reveal “disgraceful conduct traceable all the way to the Beehive” while Slater and National helping themselves to the Opposition’s emails to bring down the government isn’t. The answer should be self-evident. One is a piece of journalism meant to inform the public. The other is an attempt by a government to harass and weaken its political opponents. It’s breathtaking that one could even compare the two.

Finally, it’s worth noting who the two ‘sides’ are in this debate: an anonymous hacker and a so-called “activist” on one, and an elected government on the other. Even if one were to accept that Hager was engaging in something as unethical and nefarious as what National and Slater were up to – and as the preceding nine paragraphs should indicate, that shouldn't be the case – the two are hardly equal. The use of the apparatus of government by public representatives on the taxpayer dime to carry out a smear campaign on their opponents is justifiably much more scandalous than anything similar conducted by a private citizen. If the government arranged the burning of an effigy of David Cunliffe tomorrow, for example, people would be rightly disgusted; it wouldn't matter that a group of students did the same to John Key a few weeks ago.

Hager’s book is neither in a similar vein nor on the scale of the kinds of things he exposed. As long as the Dirty Politics scandal continues, however, in the interests of ‘balance’, commentators will no doubt continue to pump out this same message. Don’t be fooled.

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