New Zealand politics is 'a dirty, disgusting, despicable game. And it involves dirty, disgusting despicable people at all levels'. That's the view of National Party-aligned blogger Cameron Slater. Is he right? Some areas are obviously cleaner and more principled than others. The blogosphere - although a particularly valuable part of the 'public sphere' - is often also one of the dirtiest and more deceptive. This reputation will be further cemented by revelations yesterday that one of John Key's spin-doctors, Jason Ede, has supplied content to Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog. For the best coverage of this, see Michael Fox's Senior Key staffer's rubbish pic duty.
This story may seem frivolous or 'beltway', but it actually raises important questions about how political parties and politicians operate in New Zealand. For example, there are often allegations swirling around the blogosphere about who really funds the various partisan blogs, and whether they're essentially written from within the taxpayer-funded parliamentary offices of the political parties. There are constant rumours that the various blogs are closely connected to parliamentary offices - Whaleoil to National, The Standard to Labour, Daily Blog to Mana - but no evidence to prove the allegations. The Greens are fairly upfront that Frogblog is produced by their spin-doctors in Parliament.
It appears that parliamentary press gallery journalists have been investigating John Key's senior spin-doctor, Jason Ede, for some time.
Michael Fox says that his office made requests back in October to the Prime Minister to explain the role of Ede and his relationship to Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog: 'When asked by Fairfax Media in October about Ede's relationship with Whale Oil, the spokeswoman said Ede was a senior adviser in the National leader's office. He provided communication advice and support to the prime minister and to National Party MPs, including in the area of social media and other media. "Jason works a lot in the area of social media and that includes getting out National's message to a range of bloggers and other social media sites," she said' - see: Senior Key staffer's rubbish pic duty.
The article also quotes the Herald's Claire Trevett in her capacity as press gallery chairperson: 'it's odd that someone who does work in the prime minister's office would refer information on anonymously to a blogger, especially that kind of information'. Trevett says, 'It does make me wonder what other contributions Mr Ede might have made, as well as whether this is sanctioned by the prime minister in any way'.
Isaac Davison reports the reaction of Labour leaders to the revelation in PM's office distances itself from party photographer. Davison says: 'Labour Party deputy leader David Parker said the publication of Mr Ede's pictures showed the link between the website, run by blogger Cameron Slater, and the National Party. "Today's unsavoury events prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the links between Cameron Slater and the ninth floor of the Beehive. "This raises serious questions about the source of many of Cameron Slater's stories. "We can now safely assume future leaks regarding confidential government information and political attacks National wants to distance itself from, come from John Key's office.'' Also, Phil Goff is quoted as saying, 'It shows that there is underlying network of people who get Whaleoil to do their dirty work for them... And that network goes as high as the Prime Minister's office'.
The twittersphere responded quickly to the story about Jason Ede, and you can read some of the more interesting tweets in my blogpost, Top tweets about Whaleoil's connection to the Prime Minister's Office. As you will see, unsubstantiated rumours about Whaleoil being financed and run out of the John Key's taxpayer-funded parliamentary Leader's Budget have been around for ages. Ede even had a starring role in Nicky Hager's Hollow Men, with David Slack (@DavidSlack) tweeting, 'Those wishing to know more of blog paparazzo Jason Ede may turn to The Hollow Men, pp 33, 76-77, 91,92,105,106 108, 143, 144, 184, 195, 260'. The NBR's Rob Hosking (@robhosking) says, 'There's long been a "black ops" rumour regarding Ede: my personal suspicion involves more a dirty yellow colour'. Satirist Steve Braunias (@SteveBraunias) was happy to be handed some material for his weekly column: 'Jason Ede! "Secret Diary" has been waiting, patiently, for many years for someone as pathetic & lowly as Jason Ede. Bless you, Jason Ede!" And Patrick Gower (@patrickgowernz) writes a number of tweets in about Ede, apparently relishing Ede's current plight.
The Standard blog has had Jason Ede in its sights for a long time, alleging that he's part of some sort of 'National Party smear unit', and the manager of The Standard, Lyn Prentice, was quick respond to the revelations with the post, Cameron Slater: So who pays who?. Of course at the same time this post also drew attention to his own blog and who exactly is behind it, with one commenter asking: 'Will Lprent confirm that no-one who writes for the Standard is in a comms team for a political party funded by the taxpayer?' Prentice's rather heavy-handed response to this was: 'Provide me some proof of your allegation. Banned until you do, ie probably permanently'. This has had Pete George delving further into the issue in his blogpost, The Double Standard's Stalin. George has also blogged at length on the main issue in Jason Ede and comms cowboys. He says the Jason Ede story 'raises bigger questions. How much freedom do staffers have to operate in social media. How aware is Key, how aware are Ministers, of what is going on. How much say and how much control do they have. Do they simply trust these comms cowboys? Political subterfuge and black ops are easy to carry out in social media, but it's also easy to be caught out. All it takes is once spur of the moment mistake.
When will politicians realise that openness and transparency is far safer and far more popular amongst voters? Generally the public hates dirty politics and they hate politics because of the dirtiness'.
Questions about deception and integrity in the PR and blogging world have arisen in other recent items. Last week's Listener editorial complains that both corporate and government public relations is now all about deceiving and obscuring information and not helping improve accountability and transparency - see: The truth is out. Blogger and journalist Peter Aranyi asks questions about the role of the institutions he is part of - see: Part of the news media? or a "PR blog" dedicated to "destroying" reputations?. And media academic Merja Myllylahti says the New Zealand's blogosphere is thriving, but will the party last?.
Whistleblowers for public integrity?
The Rebstock report on the public service leaks from MFAT has raised some important questions about integrity in public life. The best coverage of the report's release is Adam Bennett's MFAT leak: 'Person Z' hits back. But of particular interest are two excellent newspaper editorials with very different conclusions about the integrity of the 'whistleblowers' who leaked the MFAT report to Phil Goff. The Dominion Post says that the Leak was inspired by greater. It proclaims that 'there was a wider public duty and therefore the leak was justified. No government has the right to demand silence from the victims of a misbegotten purge'. It argues that public servants cannot rely on using 'proper channels' to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.
In sharp contrast, The Press editorial today says that the leakers actually 'undermined the honourable cause of whistleblowing' - see: Undermining the system. The editorial argues in favour of whistleblower in theory: "Whistleblowers have a honourable, and legally recognised, role in a free and open society. When decision-making or some other function within officialdom has gone wrong, when there is a strong public interest in the matter and when there is no other way of bringing it to public notice, providing information to someone outside the official channels in order to get the matter put right is not only acceptable, it is also protected in law'. But, the editorial says, in this case, the leaks appeared to be about helping the Opposition score points against the Government.
Integrity in elections
The Labour Party will be embarrassed about the conviction of one of its Auckland Super City candidates for forging election documents - see the Herald's Labour candidate guilty of using forged documents. David Farrar says that parties can't always be held responsible for what their candidates do, but in this case Labour continued to associate itself with the candidate after he had been arrested - see: Labour candidate Singh found guilty.
So does the conviction of the three candidates mean that we have a electoral integrity problem in New Zealand? The No Right Turn blogger has a simple response to the convictions: 'Good. The integrity of our electoral system is important, and its good to know that Singh will be held to account for attempting to subvert it' - see: Guilty.
Integrity in the judiciary and beyond
The integrity of New Zealand's judicial system might come under challenge following the unusual joint announcement that there will be no prosecution of Pike River Coal Ltd's former chief executive and there will be a $3.41 million payment to the families of the 29 men who died. Helen Kelly has written a scathing blogpost on the so-called deal - see: On Pike. She says, 'The Judge should have had nothing to do with this part of the agreement nor used the Court to collect the cash, and she seemed in her comments to support the deal saying it was "a good outcome". This is my view is highly inappropriate. The precedent is huge'. But note, that one legal professor disagrees - see Vaughan Elder's Pike River: Crown's choice 'difficult'.
Finally, for a very sophisticated and in-depth investigation into issues of integrity in New Zealand politics and public life, it's well worth reading Transparency International New Zealand's major report published this week - download: New Zealand's National Integrity System assessment. It features a critical evaluation of the role played by numerous pillars of society in helping to prevent corruption and promote integrity. I have contributed three of the chapters to the report (on Media, Political Parties, and the Electoral Commission). Much of the report is positive, but there's also plenty of criticism and recommendations for improving the integrity of New Zealand politics and society.