Monday, August 18, 2014

Of journalism and monsters


Being picked out for casual accusations and vigilante justice is of course a shocking experience for the people concerned. A few hours after Slater published the first Pleasants post a commenter called Sinner left a message on the blog. Responding to another commenter who had said ‘If this Simon Pleasants is guilty…’, he wrote, ‘he is clearly guilty, he should be fired, he should be bankrupted, his family thrown in the gutter, he should [be imprisoned] for at least 6 years, then he should be banned from any civil service position…’ Then he said, ‘Ah fuck it. Shoot him, and shoot his wife and kids if they can’t be bothered to pay for the bullet.’
(Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics)


It’s been a good week for some of us. A week of feeling vindicated, of feeling galvanised. Where it goes from here will depend on several factors, some of which are largely outside our control. What’s playing out is a quiet struggle within our media, and within single media organizations. A battle between people who want to continue or, in some cases, go back to doing their jobs, and those who are trying to cauterise the wound, so that in time – not long: a week, a month – they can go back to presiding over the status quo.

If the characters were arranged on a plastic board, you could flip them up or down accordingly. ‘As predicted by most of those that have been around a while and seen it all before, the Hager book has amounted to basically nothing,’ declared Mike Hosking this morning on Newstalk ZB, just as his colleague Guyon Espiner, over on National Radio, subjected the Prime Minister to the most devastating interview of his political career to date. New Zealand Herald chief political commentator John Armstrong suddenly remembered where he had been for the last six to ten years, while reformed liberal Bill Ralston went within days from calmly announcing that Dirty Politics wouldn’t shift anyone’s tribal allegiances to flouncing off Twitter because of‘left trolls’. Some, like Duncan Garner, engaged in soul-searching. Others, like Paddy Gower, initially tried to make the story go away through sheer willpower (‘the book would have hurt John Key more if it had been about Snowden’), but then remembered their training.

I doubt our collective ability to greatly influence this struggle, at least in the short term, other than by continuing to pay attention to the story and grasp its ramifications. The work of reforming our media, while urgent, operates in a different time frame. But the struggle is now, and not because of the impending election. The struggle is now because, if the story told in Hager’s book were truly allowed to ‘amount to basically nothing’, we’d lose a unique opportunity to freeze-frame, comprehend and – if we can – disrupt the mechanisms that govern the corporate, commercial and political manipulation of our media.

***

It was like a stream of courtiers seeking an audience with a powerful aristocrat, but they were journalists waiting for their turn to congratulate Cameron Slater. As a fellow Canon Media Award nominee in his category, I was asked by a couple of people if I would join the queue. No, thank you. But I enjoyed observing the spectacle sporadically, from the wings, as I talked with others.

Once the crowd had dispersed somewhat, he talked the longest and seemingly most cordially with Jane Clifton, then with New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie. Currie, whom he had recently declared his new best friend and whose corporate hospitality he enjoyed at the Nines tournament at Eden Park, in February; and Clifton, who as fresh winner of the best editorial writer category at the awards may or may not be behind a string of extraordinary unsigned pieces for the New Zealand Listener attempting to defuse the impact of inequality and child poverty on the coming election (one, two and three). Regarding her audience with the Whale, someone explained to me that, to her, he was a source, and that therefore she needed to cultivate him, ‘work’ him. I wasn’t quite so sure just who was working whom.

Throughout the night, as well as being commiserated with by people who shared my opinion of Cameron Slater and having a generally good time talking about other, more pleasant matters, I had to field a number of strangers who came up to me – as if under some sort of compulsion – with the sole apparent aim of informing me that the award had gone to the right man. I listened politely at first, then changed tack. ‘Walk me through it, then.’ I insisted on knowing what it was that made his breaking of the Len Brown affair and the way in which he went about it worthy of a media award, if we even could somehow divorce that material from the rest of his output, including the excerpts at the top of this post. I asked the question last to Rick Neville, editorial director of the Newspapers Publishers’ Association, organisers of the award. He seemed unwilling or unable to process my objections. He disagreed, anyhow.

In his book, Hager describes Slater’s victory at the Canons as a ‘sad joke’, and goes on to observe how he used his acceptance speech to make further accusations of sexual impropriety against the Auckland Mayor. Neither Currie nor Clifton nor any other of his smiling petitioners seemed to mind.

In my own account of the evening for the Pantograph Punch, I wrote this:
With the benefit of hindsight – but also of foresight – I was never going to win. The purpose of the exercise was always to induct Cameron Slater into official journalism, to give him the legitimacy that he at once craves and abhors. In turn, this allowed official journalism to eat a piece of his still-beating heart – in a sort of black-tie Satanic ritual – and hopefully acquire some of his powers. That was the transaction, to the point of my wondering if the category had been created for the express purpose of celebrating the man who broke the big story that other outlets were too decent to run. As if to say: ‘To you, who do our job, but without ethics.’ If not, it was almost certainly to his celebrity status – itself the product of journalism’s obsession with its monstrous double – that the prize owed its otherwise inexplicable prominence in the evening’s proceedings.
I went to the awards in part to observe that relationship, to see if it would be amicable or strained. But it was quite clear to me from the outset that Slater used the media as much as the media used him.

This is the part of the story that we didn’t need Nicky Hager to document for us: the extent in which having someone who obeys none of the laws or codes of behaviour governing journalism, and is therefore ideally positioned to break or engineer stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light, is highly useful to our almost exclusively profit-driven media. In most stories, with the exception of some political ones, there is little harm in being scooped by Cameron Slater. Notwithstanding his pathetic delusions, he is no rival to organizations like the New Zealand Herald. But he can help them sell papers.


I heard from Rick Neville again the other day. He wrote to express his disappointment at my defacing of Canon’s logo in a polemical tweet after the publication of Hager’s book. As I had duly acknowledged, I wasn’t in fact the author of the image – I’m nowhere near that clever – but regardless: Neville was worried about the repercussions on the sponsor, and the risk to future events. He wrote:
If you have to criticize anyone, then criticize me – for choosing the judge – and the NPA. It was my decision to include an award for blogs for the first time in the Canon awards. We did not need to do this, but thought it time to recognize the growing significance of digital media. You and your colleagues are choosing a strange way to show your appreciation. We will certainly reconsider inclusion of this award in 2015.
I would ask you to reflect on your actions, and think about the effect on good people who do a lot to support journalism in this country.
At the same time as he was writing this email to me, Neville was reassuring the media that Slater would get to keep the award in spite of the sensational revelations about the extent of his machinations. 'The NPA has not considered this, and Canon has made no request for this to happen,' he is reported to have said.
In the 40-year history of the awards, none has ever been withdrawn and it would be an extreme, highly unusual step. The only justification for even considering this would be if concrete evidence came forward of illegal or highly unethical methods having been used to obtain the Len Brown story.
The moral: I and my colleagues – as opposed to Cameron Slater and his – are the ones who are hurting journalism in this country. There is evidence of our wrongdoing, but none of theirs. The real victims in all this are the sponsors (or that most kind and sensitive of souls, Bill Ralston, beset by left-wing trolls), as opposed to the public servants, political enemies, investigative journalists and ordinary citizens who have been vilified, threatened, blackmailed, ruined.

Yet this much I know: that if it’s ever allowed to become a question of the media versus the public, the media will win. There is a political goal that must emerge from this, if Hager's book and the broader story it tells are allowed to have that much of an impact: how to strengthen the institutions that are supposed to keep us informed, reinforce their relationship with the public and make them less vulnerable to manipulation and commercial pressures. It is a goal that the best of our independent media, including blogs, must help campaign for and achieve. 

ShareThis