Michele Hewitson interview: Nicky Hager

By Michele Hewitson

Serious, practical and polite to the point of painfulness, the journalist behind Dirty Politics considers it important to be thought of as a good person

Nicky Hager usually doesn't have a cellphone. He would prefer to have the time to think. Photo / Christine Cornege
Nicky Hager usually doesn't have a cellphone. He would prefer to have the time to think. Photo / Christine Cornege

Nicky Hager, the investigative journalist, was in Auckland on Wednesday to give three talks and promote his latest book, Dirty Politics. He hardly requires promoting and he never gives personal interviews, so I was fairly amazed when he said he'd talk to me. I'm still not entirely sure why he did beyond that he really didn't want to but thought it would be chickening out not to. I think he also thought it would be bad manners. Of course he is also manipulative and devious and the best PR practitioner in the country, or so the right-wing blogger and lobbyist Matthew Hooton once told me. But you can take that with a grain of salt. I do and he, obviously, does too.

Anyway, here he was and he was, he said, "cheerful and tired". He was tired because he had finished his book. He was cheerful because he had finished his book. "Because, as you will know, we're our main critics and ... I wouldn't do something if I didn't think it was good enough and I wasn't certain I could do this well enough to be happy with it. So I feel it's a great relief that I decided it was good enough." He does have the look of a man who has spent the past five months locked in a small room, secret-squirrelling and worry-warting away - but then he always does.

He leads what I assumed to be a funny sort of life, telling nobody what he's up to, trusting nobody. He is probably by nature secretive. He said: "I'm reasonably happily self-contained."

I thought that he led a sort of monk-like existence, with brief, exciting spy-like moments. But he says he has a "very rich life" and lots of friends and his daughter, Julia, who is 22 and has lived with him since she was 3. Her mother and her partner and their child live next door. He and his daughter's mother were in a relationship for nine years and then broke up and "then we found we were having a child together". And "we actually love each other and have a very nice relationship. It didn't happen automatically, of course." Trust him to have a peculiar home life. "I know! I'm sorry!" He has "gone out with" people since but because he is devoted to his daughter and his work (in that order) he mostly doesn't.

Also, how much fun would he be on a date? He is supposed to be a paranoid left-wing conspiracy theorist. Is he? He arrived with another vaguely familiar-looking chap, who was his driver for the day. The other chap said I wasn't to put this in because it would look like a left-wing conspiracy. The joke was rather wasted on me. I only found out later (by asking Hager) that the driver was Jon Stephenson, another secretive investigative journalist. They are good friends and not in competition because, Hager said - he is very stern about this - there is no reason for New Zealand journalists to be in competition. Still, I was trying to imagine what on earth they would talk about in the car given that they are both so secretive. I asked Stephenson what he was up to and he said he couldn't tell me. I asked Hager if he ever told Stephenson what he was up to and he said: "Shit no." Then, "I don't mean that," meaning he didn't intend it in a mean way. "But, no. Well, you know."

I don't, not being an investigative journalist, but I did want to know what he did with all of that stuff that he knows but doesn't print. Most journalists are terrible gossips and while he is not most journalists, the human impulse is to tell somebody - if just to get it out of your own head. He does sometimes tell his daughter what he's working on "because she lives in the middle of it and I don't want her to live in a bank vault". She, in turn, doesn't tell anyone. "Oh God no! She's been living this her whole life." A clam begets a clam then, you might say.

Other than that, he has arrived at a weird sort of detachment from the nasty stuff which might be "people being blown up by bombs or doing rotten things and ... so it's not usually an emotional experience ... I have to look. I am looking. But I switch it off. It's interesting. I just kind of put it in a different place".

I don't know how left-wing he is because he (obviously) refused to tell me how he votes. He said that nobody in his position would say because it would be used against him. He has voted for three different parties in the last four elections. We can all guess that none of them were National. He once stood for the Values Party. "Do you know how long ago that was?" It was when he was 20. Was he embarrassed about it? "I'm not embarrassed about it but if it was being cited as a defining part of my character ... "

I didn't want to rehash the rights and wrongs of a book based on pinched emails. I wanted to have a go at finding the defining parts of his character. Here are some things he has a horror of: effusiveness, which includes praise; being thought egotistical; Mike Hosking. (I made that last one up; he's actually rather, if not effusively, proud that he stood up to him in that recent interview.) He said he doesn't have a strong opinion about Judith Collins. Cameron Slater? "He's not the point, of course." (Of course the most withering thing you could say about Slater is that he's beside the point.)

It might be revealing that he usually doesn't have a cellphone. He has one at the moment - although he doesn't seem to answer it - because so many people are trying to get in touch with him. This not usually having a cellphone might have been evidence of paranoia. He said: "I don't think the NSA is spying on me ... The reason I don't have a cellphone ... is that I think people have their lives taken over with clutter. And the main thing I want in my life is time to think. If I'm walking down the street, I don't want to be checking my emails. There's going to be a backlash one day ... of people who think: 'This hasn't actually freed me up; this has enslaved me.' That's what I reckon." He is, he said - and he agreed that it was odd - an eternal optimist.

He is better at looking tired than he is at looking cheerful. He mostly looks harried and worried, but that is mostly to do with the set of his face. And, as he pointed out, the situations he is pictured in. He is a serious person writing about serious things, so he's hardly going to be photographed grinning like a loon, now is he?

We met for lunch at the cafe at the Auckland Art Gallery. I had bet myself that he was a vegetarian, and he is - but not for any grand moral or environmental reason. His daughter doesn't eat meat and he eventually decided it was easier for both of them to be vegetarians. He is a pragmatist. For lunch he had a vegetarian toasted sandwich. How about a cake? He said: "I'm not against cakes." He's not for them either. Well, they're a bit frivolous, cakes, aren't they? He did give the cakes a thorough and fair, even forensic, investigation before rejecting the idea of having one. He might think all of this going on about cakes is frivolous, and so it is. But it is also quite telling. He regards things, even the question of cakes, in a serious, considered way. I said I'd pay and he made me absolutely promise that it would be the Herald who paid, and not me, before he'd let me buy him a vegetarian sandwich. He is polite almost to the point of painfulness. He said, after almost an hour: "Am I allowed to disagree with you by this stage?" It matters to him to be thought to be a good person. "Yes. It does matter. I have to tell the truth. I don't need it trumpeted but, yes, it's just true. I do."

I asked him to define a good person, which is the bit most people baulk at, but he said: "Well, actually, I will happily do it. I think that people should be generous and I think they should be decent to other people and they should treat people with respect, even their opponents. I do feel those things very strongly. I do."

He chooses hard things to do. He doesn't know why. He hasn't much examined it other than that he is "quite a driven person who feels the need to do some good in the world which absolutely comes from my family". His father, who was Austrian, and who fled the Nazis with his parents - "it was just a bloody cosmic fluke that they got out" - had a successful clothing factory in Levin. He said that people have forgotten, but Hager shirts and blouses were top of the range. "You occasionally find some outrageous retro-looking piece of clothing with frills around the neck, which John Rowles might have worn. I used to get my clothes from the warehouse and all I wanted in life was to be allowed to wear a normal checked shirt like the other boys. It's actually affected my clothing for the rest of my life. Ha, ha."

He is, now, resolutely a no-frills dresser. The shirt he was wearing didn't owe him anything. He doesn't own a suit. "No!"

His father was, and remained, an outsider. "He would say 'there but for the grace of God go I', about anyone in need. He had a German accent in World War II. He was lucky to be alive, but guilty to be alive. He couldn't get any brown bread. His children grew up as Kiwis [Hager and three girls; he is the second child.] He would never concrete a drive." His son is perhaps unexpectedly practical. He built his own house, a cottage on a hill in Wellington, nail by nail, plank by plank. I wondered whether he was like his father in other ways (I was thinking about being an outsider) but he said he didn't really know because his father got sick, with Parkinson's, when he was still at school. His mother, who was born in Zanzibar where her father was a doctor in the British Colonial Service, was "fiercely engaged in trying to help other people".

There is an idea about him that he is holier than thou. "But hang on a minute. What do I do that is holier than thou?" Takes the higher moral ground, probably, is the accusation. "Well, poor us if that's an accusation."

He doesn't drink much and hates dope. He sings in a community choir. A left-wing choir, I said. "It is not." He lives on very little and said that last year he probably made "zero". He squirrels money away and lives frugally. He might be a puritan. "No!" He said: "Nobody's perfect. We can all be careless. I've done things that I'm ashamed of in my life that I would not want to tell anyone, just like everyone else." Of course I tried to get him to tell me what things, and of course he wouldn't. Oh, he probably once stood on an ant. I am just being frivolous. He is, thankfully, not a bit saintly. If he is devious and manipulative, then he is too good for me. I thought he was rather sweet and - at the risk of being embarrassingly effusive - I liked him.

- NZ Herald

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