Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: A year of (neverending) Dirty Politics

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Author Nicky Hager with copies of his book, Dirty Politics, at the launch in Wellington in August. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Author Nicky Hager with copies of his book, Dirty Politics, at the launch in Wellington in August. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Dirty Politics debates won't go away. A resurgence of heated disagreement about Dirty Politics has come about, not only in response to John Key's renewed texting controversy with Cameron Slater, but also the many end of year politics summaries that pick at the various Dirty Politics scabs and the reemergence of Judith Collins as a newspaper columnist.

The controversies over Nicky Hager's book haven't ended with John Key's election victory, and there will continue to questions raised about the way in which politics and the media operate in New Zealand.

The Dirty Politics end-of-year awards

A number of reviews of the year have emphasised the impact of Dirty Politics. Most summaries put considerable weight on Hager's book and the most emphatic assertion of this is Russell Brown's blog post, Word of the Year 2014: #dirtypolitics

Should Nicky Hager be considered the New Zealander of the Year? The New Zealand Herald named him as a finalist, and David Fisher put forward the case - see: New Zealander of the Year: Hager's election bombshell book led to three inquiries

A number of journalists and pundits have declared John Key to be the Politician of the Year.

This was viewed as a slap in the face for those who believed the Dirty Politics controversy should have excluded the PM from consideration. Martyn Bradbury blogged to make the case for Why proclaiming Key as the Politician of the Year is ethically bankrupt.

Bradbury takes aim not just at the PM, but at the media for supposedly being part of Dirty Politics: 'I think such evaluations by so many corporate media pundits are crass, disingenuous and ethically bankrupt. The first thing to consider is that many of these media outlets also worked hand in glove with National's black ops team. To celebrate Key's win by ignoring their own complicity in dirty politics critically ignores their own role in how National won. That's convenient while being duplicitous'.

Colin James decided against awarding John Key his politician of the year prize, noting that 'his Slater chumminess was a serious misjudgement which poses wider questions' - see: The year of a man who's been around a while

First off the blocks to give Key Politician of the Year was TV3's Patrick Gower. The responding wrath was instant and intense, despite Gower being very critical of the PM in his analysis: 'Key's end of the year was a disaster zone. He handled the Whaleoil issue appallingly, he looked arrogant and it looked like he was lying. He looked like an ordinary politician'. What's more, Gower emphasised the importance of the Hager scandal: 'Dirty Politics without doubt had a huge impact, and will continue to do so. The fallout is still going and so is the police case against the hacker'.

What probably annoyed Gower's critics the most was his declaration of a 'three-way tie' runner-up award to Hager, Slater and Kim Dotcom. But again in his analysis, Gower emphasised the negativity of Dirty Politics: 'Perverse outcomes for Whaleoil as well as his boomerang came back and took out his hero Judith Collins. Whaleoil also inflicted one of the biggest "hits" (to use his terminology) on John Key, another perverse outcome'.

The heat on Gower clearly hasn't inhibited him, and he has responded on Twitter by 'trolling' in advance with provocative tongue-in-cheek tweets such as 'Might go read Whaleoil' and ' Dirty Politics was a Storm in a teacup. Twitterati please discuss'.

Jane Clifton also managed to offend with a similar attempt to put Hager and Slater in the same category by awarding them joint-Politicians of the year in her column, Crushed at the post (paywalled) . She explains why: 'Both consolidated devout followings this year, commanding at least as much attention - positive and negative - as any leading elected politician. Indeed, they dominated the campaign agenda, including by engendering endless debate about the extent to which they were crowding out other debates. Widely portrayed as a God vs Devil Old-Testament showdown, theirs was in reality a joint project, Dirty Politics'.

Clifton also recognised the silent achievements of Jason Ede: 'the hitherto lowly comms flack on Key's staff who became one of the most talked-about news figures of the year, without giving a single interview or even yielding a single sighting. The only comment ever from the Ede camp was issued by the black labrador guarding his front fence, and is best not translated'.

Duncan Garner also names Cameron Slater as one of the year's 'winners': 'Yes he's a dirt-bag, muck-raking, scum-bag attack blogger, but he likes it that way. He doesn't play by any rule book yet he's been judged a journalist by the courts. Despite having his dirty laundry aired for the world to see he remains talked about, his blog gets more hits than ever, he breaks stories and the PM returns his texts. Oh and he wins mainstream media awards' - see: The Political winners and losers of 2014 .

In another column, Garner pronounces Key my politician of the year, but now for the third-term blues. Such an award is not without serious critique: 'Key must take some responsibility for the underhand tactics and "black ops" shenanigans exposed by Nicky Hager. The fact Key is no longer engaging on this subject is a tacit admission he and his office got it horribly wrong'.

For other examples of John Key winning the end-of-year awards, see Tracy Watkins' One clear winner, plenty of dashed hopes , and TV3's John Key 'political winner' of 2014 - Hooton. And for another Dirty Politics-themed award, see Toby Manhire's 'Tis the season for some folly....

Most amusingly, Nicky Hager wins the award for '2014 Villain of the year' in Scott Yorke's 2014 Imperator Fish Awards . Not only that, Cameron Slater wins '2014 Journalist of the year' and '2014 blogger of the year'. This is a must-read satirical take, but makes some serious points.

Should the 'Dirty Politics cast' be allowed in the media again?

There is a growing call for the so-called 'Dirty Politics cast' of politicians and activists to be shunned by the media. This peaked with the decision of the Sunday Star Times to run a regular column by Judith Collins - see her first (rather boring) column: New 'wood' worries , and an accompanying interview with Adam Dudding: A new crush-free Judith Collins.

Unsurprisingly the outrage and debate has mostly taken place on Twitter - see my aggregation of tweets before Collins' first column was published, Top tweets in reaction to Judith Collins' newspaper column , and after it was published: Top tweets about Judith Collins as a newspaper columnist. There were particularly strong arguments between Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) and newspaper journalist Philip Matthews (@secondzeit) about issues of consumer boycotts, censorship, and the problems of the media and Dirty Politics.

Responding to the debate, Matthew Hooton argued that the censorious attempt to exclude certain political players is itself a form of Dirty Politics: 'Most ironically, the way leftist activists are now using the phrase "dirty politics" to smear and attempt to silence views they deem against their interests is exactly the type of behaviour Mr Hager purported to be concerned about. Anyone mentioned in Dirty Politics, myself included, should never again be allowed to write for a newspaper or speak on TV or radio, they say' - see: Left reveals fascist tendencies over Judith Collins' column (paywalled) .

In his column, Hooton also explains his own role in suggesting alternative potential rightwing column writers to the newspaper editor over coffee recently (including 'Jenny Shipley, Ruth Richardson, Katherine Rich or my friend Tina Nixon'). He says that 'Collins is to be commended for bringing to the fore the fascist tendencies of the self-appointed left-wing twitterati in this country'.

In reply, Giovanni Tiso takes issue with Hooton's terminology, and also explains his general problem with the media: 'There is no role of the media establishment to re-examine, no collective conscience to interrogate: just old prerogatives to re-establish and a fragile status quo to defend' - see: Tending fascist .

Tiso also explains his problem with journalists such as Gower and Clifton, and the Sunday Star Times: 'theirs is also part of the continuing and increasingly brazen attempt to normalise dirty politics, which is also the overt significance of the hiring of Collins'.

Meanwhile, Tiso railed against Slater being considered for the NetGuide 'best blog' award: 'It is a blog he has used to intimidate. It is a blog he has used to vilify. It's down to NetGuide to say "we're not having this guy because there are limits to acceptable behaviour". We know enough about Cameron Slater to know he should not be winning awards for blogging' - see David Fisher's Cameron Slater's 'best blog' nomination criticised.

Danyl Mclauchlan bolsters the case for consumer boycotts against media using the 'Dirty Politics cast' in his blog post, Liberal media watch, Sunday edition. He argues that 'Collins was disgraced partly because of her alleged role in manipulating the media, so giving her a national newspaper column seems ethically perverse'.

See also, Andrew Geddis' blog post, Suckerpunched by the actor formerly known as "Crusher" , in which he argues that the Sunday Star Times has essentially chosen money over 'ethical concerns'.

The problem is one of balance, according to Martyn Bradbury, who says that Judith Collins joins the Sunday Star Times and cements the Rights dominance of all media. He argues that 'voices representing the Left have been slowly killed off', and that the Sunday Star Times 'just don't give a damn about any pretence towards balance'.

And for more on problems with the media, see Mandy Hager's This is not business as usual. This is not some hippy over-reaction. This is serious shit!.

Few have defended the Sunday Star Times but it's worth pointing to Brian Edwards and Janet Wilson's 5-minute TV3 interview on the matter: Judith Collins' column defended . And blogger Pete George has entered the fray to sarcastically propose a solution: 'Every MP disgraced by Tiso should be banned from trying to rebuild their credibility. We can't have them repairing any damage and trying to do their jobs. Perhaps newspapers could set up a social media system where very article and column was vetted and approved or rejected by Giovanni, Danyl and the rest of the self appointed media police. Or they could ignore them' - see: Giovanni Tiso et al versus Judith Collins.

SST editor Jonathan Milne set out his response and explanation in New columnist Phil Goff goes toe-to-toe with Judith Collins. He says that 'We think it's time to respect our readers' intelligence and let them make up their own minds on what she has to say for herself'. And adds, 'This is not new and shocking. Indeed, there is plenty of healthy precedent for senior MPs writing columns for the country's big papers - among them, David Lange, Simon Upton, Deborah Coddington, John Tamihere, Jim Anderton and George Hawkins'.

It's not just the role of the Dirty Politics in the media being questioned. The NBR's media watcher David Cohen has written a column defending John Key and suggested that this columnist also appear less in the debates: 'As we've seen this past week, some of the toughest criticism to be aired since Mr Key's "controversial" exchange of texts with Mr Slater, has come by way of the ubiquitous Bryce Edwards. The Otago politics lecturer has at least twice offered borderline-defamatory explanations on why Mr Key would chose to communicate with a non-journalistic right-winger. Mr Edwards is an impressively energetic fellow and no doubt his contributions are well intended. But isn't he also an academic rather a journalist? Shouldn't he be following his own advice and spending a bit more time away from the fray prepping for the next PBRF funding round?' - see: Texting Slater: Non-story of the year? (paywalled).

Is this another form of Dirty Politics-style attempts to silence a critic? Increasingly, it seems that there is a mood of attempting to reduce the number of voices in the public debate, whether it's politicians, journalists or academics.

Why Dirty Politics didn't bring Key down

Many of the end-of-year political summaries focus on the question of why Dirty Politics didn't have more impact on the election and the National Government.

Winston Peters has argued that Hager essentially stuffed up in the delivery of Dirty Politics, lacking any political strategy: 'Everybody knows you drip feed it and as you do that your opponents are constantly having to react, re-react, re-re-react and you keep the pressure on them' - see Adam Bennett's 'Unloseable' election blown - Peters .

Agreeing with Peters, Rodney Hide fleshes out an alternative scenario: 'Now imagine Mr Peters with the same material. He could weave a far better story. He would make it sound truly shocking, terrible and totally corrupt.... More than that, Mr Peters had the protection and platform of Parliament. He could have said anything. He would have been the news every night. And he would have sustained the attacks day in, day out. He would have done so for months. With that material, and that story, no matter that it wasn't true, Mr Peters would have brought the government down' - see: Imagine Winston's Dirty Politics scenario .

Hide also ponders what might have also happened 'if Kim Dotcom had thrown his millions at Mr Peters' and therefore aided in this version of the Dirty Politics revelations: 'Mr Cunliffe would be prime minister, Mr Peters would be his deputy and treasurer. There would be a royal commission. John Minto would head it. Former prime minister John Key and National's campaign manager Steven Joyce would be jailed for the new crime of "being Tory scum." Mr Dotcom would be governor-general'.

For an explanation of why it was necessary and correct that Rawshark passed on the Dirty Politics material to Hager and not political parties, see John Palethorpe's blog post, Unloseable.

In fact, wasn't the problem with the delivery of Dirty Politics that it became too enmeshed in partisan politics? This is the argument put forward by Rob Hosking: 'The country's opposition partisans - and I include Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager himself in that group - have screwed this up royally. A mix of arrogance, self righteousness and incompetence have allowed important questions to go largely unanswered. So convinced of their own righteousness and so convinced of the self-evident evil of Prime Minister John Key, they have, throughout this entire saga, opted to shout and sneer rather than seek to convince' - see: Dirty Politics: the aftermath (paywalled).

Hosking says that the revelations in Dirty Politics were too important to become partisan fodder: 'You will never get any point of principle across if you drench your point in partisan bile and personal attacks. All you will do is make it look like politics - dirty politics - as usual'. He calls for a more principled approach on the issues: 'It is time they were treated as matters of principle, and not just ways of achieving partisan advantage'.

But one of the best accounts of the impact - or lack of impact - of Dirty Politics comes in the latest Metro magazine out today. Simon Wilson has a feature on John Key, which argues that the PM 'rode the wave of discontent brilliantly. His consistent message was that New Zealanders would far rather discuss "the issues that really matter": jobs, growth, economic and social wellbeing'.

What's more, according to Wilson, 'when the book came out, National quickly refocused on Hager. Their claim that he's a conspiracy theorist not only belittled him and distracted attention from the accusations in the book, it served to smear anyone else who asked about dirty politics: were they part of the conspiracy too? By the time the last week arrived, even Hager had been sidelined'.

Wilson shows how after the election, National has actually managed to turn the tables, and 'invoke the "dirty politics" smear'. And in contrast, a strong line is being pushed about Key being the most honest and transparent politician around.

Alternatively, see my own explanation for the impotency of Dirty Politics: The Year of controversies that didn't matter.

Is Dirty Politics in decline or is there more to come?

John Key and National will be hoping that the shift into 2015 will help draw a line under this year's controversies and we can all move on. So will the debates and discussions about Dirty Politics diminish with time?

Rather belatedly, Key has finally put much more distance between himself and Cameron Slater, and this might help put the story to bed. On TV last week, 'the Prime Minister said he no longer responded to texts from blogger Cameron Slater. "I don't have a terribly great relationship with the guy now. I don't text him if he texts me," Mr Key said - see: John Key: Bloggers 'not big part of my day' .

However, according to Radio New Zealand's Brent Edwards we shouldn't necessarily expect to see Key operating differently in 2015 - see: PM unlikely to change formula.

The self-inflicted scandal over the texting has deeply damaged the PM's credibility to the extent that numerous rightwing commentators have now spoken out. For example, Karl du Fresne has written about the affair saying that Key may have finally lost his integrity: 'I now seriously wonder whether the prime minister has any, given his pathetic dissembling over whether he'd been in touch with Slater. That came on top of his preposterous claim recently that when he spoke to Slater, it wasn't in his capacity as prime minister. For heaven's sake, give us a break. This is altogether too cute and too cocky. People have given Key the benefit of the doubt before, but there must come a time when his credibility runs out' - see: Stop bullshitting us, prime minister.

And since then, it emerged that Cameron Slater is unique in being the only person to receive any sort of apology from the PM this year - see Hamish Rutheford's Key's single 'sorry' was to blogger.

Part of the reason that the Dirty Politics story will continue to plague the Government in 2015 are the ongoing official and judicial investigations. For example, today it has been announced that Hager will get his day in court in March to challenge the legality of the police search of his house - see: Nicky Hager gets Dirty Politics court date over search.

And on a separate, yet related, matter Adam Bennett reports on the upcoming legal action involving a journalist and the PM - see: Taxpayer set to foot Key's defence bills over 'teapot tape' .

Other investigations could still involve the Serious Fraud Office - see: Labour demands SFO probe. And police are still investigating some elements of the Hager revelations - see Andrea Vance' Greens irate as police drop their Dirty Politics complaints.

Political parties themselves continue to worry about their own links to Slater, as evidenced by Andrea Vance's story, Greens' audit shows little contact with Slater. Cameron Slater has responded with the blog post, Someone isn't telling the truth Russel...here's a clue, it's you.

Slater has also responded to Labour leader Andrew Little labeling the blogger a 'sociopath' (TVNZ: Andrew Little: Cameron Slater's a sociopath who knows John Key's secrets;, with the blog post, What would you do if the Leader of the Opposition called you a sociopath on television? .

And there are plenty other ongoing questions being raised about other Dirty Politics-style elements of our democracy - see Simon Day's Scientists are 'undermined by attack campaigns' - expert.

The media might also change in 2015 with the launch of the Slater-related new media project, Freed, reported on by John Drinnan: When will website be Freed?. From this report, the new media site looks to be another vehicle for possible influence peddling (commercial or political) that will soon have cries of 'Dirty Politics' being made. In fact, one blogger is already condemning the media for even reporting on the new venture - see Anthony Robins' Rushing in to Freed? .

For an updated view of how the Dirty Politics controversies are being portrayed by cartoonists etc, see my blog post, More Dirty Politics cartoons and images. And if you're interested in finding out more about how the book's author felt about many questions raised in response to his publication, you watch a public interview/discussion I had with Hager in September, now on YouTube: Nicky Hagar, Dirty Politics discussion in Dunedin .

Finally, for a very interesting video involving a key player in the Dirty Politics scandal, see Torben Akel's 5-minute item: In search of Jason Ede.

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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