Monday, August 25, 2014

The Jane Clifton continuum


With his beatific, martyred air, Saint Nicholas of the Perpetual NeoLiberal Sorrows is the perfect foil for the charmless, foul-mouthed Whale Oil, butt of a thousand blubber and blowhole jokes and oh my God what is with this metaphor? But I must set the scene. A struggle between a good that isn’t so good and an evil that isn’t so evil. My greatly extended column space so I can make you believe, as I do, that it’s all grey. A continuum.

So far the revelations from, and subsequent to, the publication of Hager’s Dirty Politics book of purloined Slater email traffic have divided people along predictable lines if, like me, you’re good at predicting things after they’ve already happened. Those immersed in politics profess no great surprise at the sleaze-grubbing that goes on behind the scenes at the extremely popular Whale Oil blog, while those not immersed in politics accuse the immersed of being complicit by negligence in not decrying such grubbiness long ago.

Look, we were busy, okay?

Then there’s the division of right and left. Polling shows a small minority of National supporters will be deterred by the dirty politics this outed cabal of National supporters I knew about all along but didn’t see fit to report on because it would have been too easy, plus it’s not the kind of stuff that wins you awards, are shown to have played.

What this will probably boil down to is that the people most vigorously exercised by the skulduggery were already anti-National and will just not vote for National with even greater relish. Those already voting for National, are unlikely to be swayed by the rogue actions of the Whale Oil cabal, even though in a few of its aspects the rackety behaviour strayed uncomfortably close to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

(Skullduggery and Rackety, coincidentally, are also what I named my cats. Funny story: once Rackety really did stray uncomfortably close to the Prime Minister and had to be removed by his security detail.)

But the most fascinating division is between the proponents of both the major party factions’ extreme wings, which in reality unites them. In essence, Slater and cohorts are what’s traditionally called a rump, a gnarly minority in a party that sometimes peels away.

Labour and the other leftist parties, too, have a rump. My task therefore is to attempt to persuade you that the Right’s rump – whose actions, if not the background conversations that led to them, have been documented since well before Dirty Politics – is no worse than the Left’s rump, which consists in a marginal to non-existent group of petulant cranks.

THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES

The issues Hager’s book, and the mere existence of operators like Slater, raises will never be resolved while I’m in charge around here – sorry, I mean because they boil down to a partisan view of means and ends. Each side believes its end justifies its means, but the other side’s does not.

Hager, in accepting illicitly obtained emails, and publishing his book without providing those tarred in it with a right of reply, is declaring that it’s acceptable for him to break rules because his is a worthy cause. There is a public good defence. I hope I’ve janesplained sufficiently how investigative journalism works – I’ve seen it done in a movie once, I think Robert Redford was in it – while at the same time making it sound seedy and wrong.

What Hager says at the same time, however, is that Slater and his team’s use of exactly the same means to further their ends, of keeping the left out of power, is not acceptable. Having obtained information someone doesn’t want him or her to have, any activist is going to spin it and frame it to fit their desired world view.

Hager might be a respected peace researcher, but what he does is on a continuum with what Whale Oil seeks to do.

Fig. 1: The continuum

There is a continuum between planning political hits with one of the Prime Minister’s senior advisers; publishing the address details of a journalist in the hope that the Chinese mafia will murder him; colluding with various Ministers and agencies to obtain in advance requests for information by media organizations, so you can lodge the same requests and get ahead of the story with a favourable government spin; colluding with a Cabinet Minister to publish the details of a public servant you suspect of having leaked embarrassing details of an accommodation rort perpetrated by another Cabinet Minister, in the hope – or rather, with the certainty – that he will receive threats to his life, which you will also publish; discussing how to blackmail the leader of a party in government to force him to step down; attempting to force the disclosure of a sexual affair to subvert the result of a Mayoral election; manipulating party candidate selections by means of protracted and vicious personal smear campaigns; colluding with a ruthless PR operative to vilify various public health campaigners, academics and civil servants, running attacks written by others under your own name for money as part of so-called ‘below the line’ operations; there is a continuum, I say, between all of these activities – did I forget anything? – and reporting on them based on illegally obtained private conversations.

It’s roughly the same continuum as between parking in a towaway area and slaughtering all the first-borns, but it’s a continuum. You can’t deny it.

What I’m charging here is that both Hager and Slater have the same ends – keeping the opposite political side out of power – therefore the means are also, as I said above, ‘exactly the same’. Me, I have no ends. I have only means, in the form of my weekly column, which today is taking extra space.

The rest of this section is 600 words long, so I’m going to just give you the abstract. In it, I will:

1. Portray Nicky Hager as a pawn of the persons or persons who are now releasing the illegally obtained conversations, as if having presented the information sensitively makes him somehow responsible.

2. Praise Cunliffe for running a clean campaign, but only in order to castigate him for not demoting Steve Gibson, so I can segue into equating that failure of leadership with the Prime Minister’s decision not to sack Judith Collins, who – unlike Gibson – has not apologised, and never will.

3. Claim that the Left is just as bad but without adducing any evidence, as if it were some sort of axiomatic cosmological constant (‘although it’s lazy and complacent to say that politics is always dirty and that one side is invariably as bad as the other, it’s also true’) and that anyway the bad isn’t all that bad (‘to take a reality check on dirty politics, it’s very much a minority sport’).

NIMPY – NOT IN MY PARTY!

I’m becoming acutely aware that, if you’ve read this far, you’re going to expect me to say something about the Left’s rump and how it’s so very bad. Frankly, I was hoping you’d have moved on to some of the excellent material in this week’s issue by now, like Diana’s interview with Peter Capaldi. Come on, it’s Peter Fucking Capaldi! And he’s playing Doctor Who!

Okay, look, I’m going to give it a go. But I can’t promise we’ll get there. The south face of this thing is pretty steep.

One of the most dazzling features of this debate is the lack of self-awareness party activists have about grubby politics, even while they’re engaged in it. The climate in which Slater operates is greatly fostered by the normalisation of hate-filled commentary online.

(You have a horrible feeling you know where this is going. A chill.)

The most common form of dirty politics is much less elaborate than what’s described in Hager’s book. It’s the hourly drip-drip-drip of invective engaged in by party supporters, very often against their own side. It’s disloyal and damaging, but when you’re in the rump, you can’t seem to help yourself, and the internet gives you every opportunity to vent. Systematic vilification is there to see every day on all manner of blogs. The Standard, the blog most closely aligned to Labour, has an unending stream of it, even while claiming the moral high ground over Whale Oil because it no longer tries to break news stories but restricts itself to commentary.

Here we are. We’ve reached the summit. Left-wingers who use social media to criticise other left-wingers. They create the climate in which Slater’s dirty politics thrives. They are to blame, and not the politicians, advisers, public relations men, editors and journalists who have been complicit in perverting the way information is circulated and used in this country. They are the ones who used Cameron Slater’s tipline, allowed themselves to be manipulated by him, had him invited to our corporate parties at Eden Park and finally, most heinously, forced the newspaper industry to give him an award and treat him as one of their own. It was Lynn Prentice and the Standard who made us do all those things.

Look, they even criticised Josie Pagani. They said mean things to her. They said she was “A Fox liberal,” “incoherent, disjointed and illogical”. Someone even said “I bet she misrepresents this criticism of her behaviour and statements as a personal attack.” This is exactly like that time a commenter on Whale Oil said Simon Pleasants should be summarily executed, and his wife and kid should also be killed if they refused to pay for the bullet.

And Josie. Will the rump stop at nothing? We must tackle the national crisis of politicised people using public forums to openly criticise the spokespersons that the media have selected for them.

TITLE OF NEXT SECTION GOES HERE

Why are you doing this? Quit punishing yourself. This a 94-page magazine and it’s packed with superb writing. The arts pages. The film reviews. The thrill of finding out which letter by child poverty expert Susan St John we didn’t publish this week. A Tory editorial. Bill Ralston.

Or you could read something else altogether. You know as well as I do that 800 words from now I’m going to put an end to this by claiming that I warned everyone about blogs. I will actually use the words ‘maybe I was just right too early’. Trust me, you don’t want to be here when that happens.

***

The above started as a series of tweets late last week as a result of which a senior writer for the New Zealand Listener opined in a blog post that I am a disturbed individual who shouldn’t be allowed to leave the home unless heavily sedated. Cameron Slater, whom I've publicly defended in the past whenever his mental illness was used to attack him, quickly republished the post on Whale Oil. I’m used by now to that kind of attention, as well as to dealing with assorted trolls and my very own online stalker. I know of the time and energy it sometimes takes to sort those people from the legitimate and honest critics. But it bothered me more, this time. There is a climate. I feel differently vulnerable, as I’m sure many others do.

What we have come to call dirty politics, and which Jane Clifton paints in her column as a product of minority grassroots extremes of our political environment, is in fact an institutional practice. It doesn’t start at the bottom, but at the top – in this particular instance, with the son of a National Party President colluding with a freelance political advisor, a powerful PR company, a Cabinet Minister, National’s pollster and the very office of the Prime Minister. It uses intimidation and coercion to protect and consolidate vested powers, and in this of course it’s hardly unique. We know of the advocacy groups that have been silenced, of the police raids on Māori communities, of the Ministers who have disclosed the private details of citizens without needing to resort to Mr Slater or his associates. We’re just not always sufficiently aware of how this other power operates at any one time. And so, whenever its story gets told, it produces a loss of innocence among those who have not yet witnessed that particular incarnation of the state. It’s like the first time a cop swings a baton at someone in front of your eyes during a demonstration, unprovoked, gratuitously, just because he can. You didn’t feel the blow but you feel the shock. Nothing prepares you for it.

There is a climate. It has made me apprehensive about what I can and cannot write, and embarrassed to feel that way. But fuck it, we can’t let this go.

Read this thing that David Fisher wrote.



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