Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Technology makes corruption possible

Prime Minister John Key, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and blogger Cameron Slater. Photos / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and blogger Cameron Slater. Photos / NZ Herald

Abuse of power, abuse of process, bullying, loss of privacy, hacking. What a tangled web Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics has placed before us - a confluence of corruption made possible by technology and the internet. Yet, if the subsequent polls are to be believed, the majority doesn't give a damn.

A recent Herald-DigiPoll found only 11 per cent believe Dirty Politics revelations "would cause a lot of damage".

The latest Stuff-Ipsos poll http://origin-interactives.stuff.co.nz/polling/ found just 7.9 per cent would change their vote in the upcoming elections as a result of what's in the book. And a One News-Colmar Brunton poll found just 9 per cent now have a negative view of National, while 82 per cent aren't influenced much at all.

I have long been perplexed by this widespread public apathy towards terrible wrongness in our democracy, as demonstrated during the debate about the GCSB spying bill and the revelations that our government is routinely spying on us all. It was difficult to reconcile because at public protest meetings many prominent New Zealanders were concerned. Dame Anne Salmond, for example, described what was happening as "a kind of electronic McCarthyism."

Asked what he thought New Zealanders felt about the GCSB Bill, the Prime Minister skilfully deflected with his memorable: "I think they are much more interested in the snapper quota." He was right. The bill passed with barely a whimper.

It's this owning of the news agenda by the government, witnessed during the GCSB Bill debate and now with the Dirty Politics revelations, that leads to an inescapable conclusion. We, the media, are not properly doing our job. If we were, the public faced with this massive Machiavellian network of lies and deceit, would give a damn. Instead, to paraphrase John Key's masterful direction to an emasculated 4th estate: At the end of the day the public will see this is nothing but a left wing conspiracy smear campaign.

Nothing to see here. No highly orchestrated, high-level, right-wing conspiracy. Move on.

In fact it's more like a character assassination blitzkrieg and I'm far from alone in the view that we, the media, have capitulated. Hager says it himself: "Our small, mostly foreign-owned media risks being a push over for well organised PR campaigns".

Russell Harding questions the general health of the media. "Any journalist asking difficult questions is easily ignored and shut out of the loop."

And Dr Bronwyn Hayward asks whether journalists are resourced to "adequately critique (rather than merely reinforce) the dominant narratives or stories that shape what we as citizens pay attention to."

Then there is the Horizon poll that shows more than half of adult New Zealanders (53.1 per cent) believe mainstream media have failed to act impartially in relation to material provided to them by bloggers.

Dame Anne Salmond argued last week that "unless executive power can be reined in" we can expect "a succession and perhaps an acceleration" of the sort of abuses outlined in Dirty Politics "no matter who is in power."

She was referring to revelations that our Prime Minister (shorthand for his office) may have worked with the SIS to attack the Leader of the Opposition, and colluded with a "muck-raking blogger" (Cameron Slater) "to vilify people who disagree with the ruling party." Dame Anne describes such behaviour as "reprehensible, and a constitutional disgrace" and calls for a truly independent and high-level inquiry to investigate the internal workings of government in New Zealand, and recommend a form of governance that has integrity, is truly democratic.

What's telling is that she doesn't call on the 4th estate to rein in executive power through journalists holding it to account, speaking truth to its presence. It's a sad indictment and further evidence journalists - whether actively kowtowing to executive power's might or crushed by its well financed forces - are no longer able to see the bigger picture. Or as Pam Corkery in her mad outburst would have it, are "glove puppets of Cameron Slater".

In the unlikely event that we get a royal commission into this murky business, its scope of enquiry would clearly have to investigate both the internal workings of government and the media's complicity. You have to ask whether such a royal commission might not be New Zealand's equivalent of the Britain's Leveson Inquiry.

There are however some signs in this tawdry affair that a sleepwalking media has been jolted awake. Journalist David Fisher, who admits to using Slater as a contact, writes how in 2012 he came to a realisation: "I felt I was being gamed, I decided to have nothing to do with the blogger."

Radio NZ's Guyon Espiner transformed himself into an attack dog interviewer repeatedly challenging the Prime Minister - "Is that OK?" - to account for his association with Slater.

Similarly, David Farrar wants to clean up his blogging act and has applied to join the Online Media Standards Authority and adhere to its code of standards.

If the media is to restore its integrity and 4th estate role, these are all leads worth following. Slater and his ilk only have power because we hand it them. By now his Canon Media Award for Best Blog in 2013 should have been withdrawn.

Newspaper Publishers' Association editorial director Rick Neville says in the 40 year history of the awards, "none has ever been withdrawn and it would be an extreme, highly unusual step." Yes it would, Rick, but it's also essential, because surely there now can be no doubt that whatever it is that Slater does, it's not journalism.

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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