Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 4
DAY FOUR: IN WHICH NICKY HAGER ORDERS THE SPAGHETTI WITH CHILLI, GARLIC, PARSLEY, OLIVE OIL AND ITALIAN PARMESAN – AND FRONTS UP TO THE MOST EXCITING JOURNALISM SCHOOL IN NEW ZEALAND
Election 2014! No, that won’t do; it’s not enough; history will know it as the Hager Election. Nicky Hager, investigative journalist, provocateur, John Key’s fantasy of a left-wing conspiracy theorist and bullshit smear campaigner mofo, he who has brought the election out of its slumber into filthy, gasping life, as the author of Dirty Politics, the little book that cost the Minister of Justice her job and has led to Inquiries at the Very Top Level – and yesterday led Hager to Hamilton airport, whence he was escorted to the glittering ivory towers of the journalism school at Wintec.
He was invited. He was asked to speak of his work. It was thought that his appearance might provide an educational and possibly even interesting experience for the students. And so Hager, 56, arrived in a blue shirt tucked into black pants, a cheerful, bright-eyed, rather beatific individual, slim as a pencil – “Thin men write gaunt poems,” Devonport bard Kevin Ireland famously wrote, “and each word/sticks out like a rib.”
Each word of Dirty Politics pointed like a bone waved by a fuming and most grave witch-doctor. Hager’s book, with its cargo of stolen emails, has acted like a curse. It struck Collins dead, and the Prime Minister’s chatty advisor Jason Ede mute. It struck Cameron Slater as a gross invasion of his privacy, and no one can dispute that.
But it has barely touched the intended target, and Hager cannot dispute that he wanted Key’s head on a stick. If a tree doesn’t fall, does the axe make a sound? With Key still riding high in the polls, is Dirty Politics a fizzer? And what’s up Radio Live announcer Sean Plunket’s ass, that he’s got such a fucking problem with Hager? So many questions! So many. Let the man eat. It was lunchtime on a breezy spring day in what used to be so lyrically known as Fountain City.
Hager walked up Collingwood St – a girl walking towards him tripped over the heels of her blue shoes, and fell over – and turned into the main drag, Victoria St, which runs parallel with the wide, watery Waikato. He took a table at Scott’s. He ordered the spaghetti with chilli, garlic, parsley, olive oil and Italian parmesan.
Diners stared at him. Look who’s coming to lunch. Hager! Celebrity, the most dangerous man in New Zealand. In person, in Hamilton. The looks were various. Burghers regarded him with scorn. The Youth of Today smiled. But who was that with Hager? None other than Joshua Drummond – yes, Hamilton “artist” Joshua Drummond, whose evil painting of John Key smoking a spliff has been auctioned on TradeMe, and is right now bidding for $915.
Hager and Drummond, together! O proof of tentacular left-wing conspiracy. Alarming, cause for concern. Spooky, too, for was not Drummond likewise filling the slot between his beard with spaghetti, chilli, garlic, parsley, olive oil and Italian parmesan? He was. How much did it cost? $9.50. Was it good? Yes. So many answers. Time would tell if the pattern was repeated when Hager fronted up to students from the most exciting school of journalism in New Zealand.
There is a lovely dark pond with goldfish in it on the Wintec campus; it used to be a swimming pool. Hager stepped around it and into a boring lecture hall. The students ranged from intensely engaged to already dazed, from sharp of intellect to dim of wit; to a student who was solely engaged in eating an entire jar of Mister Potato Crisps without making a sound. The best information on how he achieved this is that he put half a crisp on his tongue and allowed up to five minutes for it to dissolve into a mush that he could then swallow.
Hager was introduced as quite simply the best journalist in New Zealand. Saint Nick! But did the children in the lecture hall believe in this gently mannered Santa?
He faced difficult, challenging questions, from Oliver Dunn (smart fellow, very direct), Rich Garratt (interesting mind), Nancy El-Gamel (good nose for a story), Don Rowe (brilliant writer), and the first student of the class of 2014 to score a job, Dave Nicoll, who starts work soon at the Southland Times. Invercargill Dave!
Hager said many things. He said, “I have long experience in the dynamics of secrets. Secrets are unstable… If you want to keep something secret, there’s an art to it.”
He said of Rawshark, the anonymous source who hacked Cameron Slater’s emails, “New Zealand has had anti-hacking laws in place for about 10 years now, and they’ve never been used. My geek friends – I make a habit of mixing in the geek world – say that the first person to get caught will go down big-time.”
He said of protecting Rawshark’s identity, “I said to him, ‘We are putting a fence around this and there are only two people within it.’ I hope it remains a marvellous secret of New Zealand political history and no one will ever know.”
He said of reading Slater’s emails, “A big part of my job are the endless moral issues. I do my own moral checks. People have a right to their bubble of self. And so I have tests that I run on myself about whether what I’m doing is right or wrong. I make ethical judgements… If I saw an email from Cameron began, ‘Hi, dad,’ then I wouldn’t read any further.”
He said of his book, “I wrote it in eight weeks, and spent five days rewriting it.”
He said of journalists in the press gallery, “A lot of them had done things that were dodgy and wrong. They were being used by Slater and the National Party, and running stories that destabilised National’s enemies. But I decided not to name any of them in my book.”
He said of his decision to name Rachel Glucina, the New Zealand Herald gossip columnist who ran stories fed to her by Slater, “I named her because… well, because I think she’s despicable, basically.”
He said of turning down an offer from a national newspaper to work on staff, in favour of working as a poorly paid, independent journalist, “I’ve only got one life. If I was on an investigative unit, and I was asked to report on a murder or whatever… I just think I’d rather do stuff that I really care about.”
He said of the perception that Dirty Politics is a bit of a fizzer, “I’m optimistic. I think it will make dirty tricks harder to do. I think they would have continued right through the election. I think it’s made Cameron Slater’s smear machine much less effective. I think Cameron Slater as such a powerful voice has probably ended. He was empowered by Judith Collins, and John Key; he’s now going to have to be a lone blogger.”
He said of the book’s failure to pin anything on Key, “Well, Jason Ede worked two doors down from him for eight years. How likely is it that he wouldn’t know intimately about what Ede was doing? I’m certain that he did.”
He said of sources trusting him with confidential information, “I find it gets easier and easier. People trust me more as time goes on.”
He said that his tools of the trade for tracking down people included electoral rolls (“It takes less than an hour to look at every roll in New Zealand – I’ve done it often enough”), Linkedin, and archive.org
And he said of Julian Assange, “He’s a mate of mine. He got in touch with me in 2006, long before Wikileaks. His genius was that he saw there would be leaks in the technological age. What we’re seeing now is the retaliation and punishment phase; every picture we have of him is a smear. Personality attacks. He is unusual! But I like him. He’s an Australian guy who had a good idea, and changed the world.”
Hamilton illustration by Tane Williams.