by Daphne Lawless
As we go to press, the election campaign has been turned upside down by a new book by investigative journalist Nicky Hager. Dirty Politics is based mainly on a leak of 2 gigabytes of emails and Facebook messages from “Whale Oil”, the vicious right-wing scandal-mongering blog edited by Cameron Slater.
The book lays out convincing evidence that leading figures in the National Government – including Justice Minister Judith Collins and staff in the office of Prime Minister John Key – have actively worked with Whale Oil and other right-wing blogs to conduct personal smear campaigns on Labour and other opposition parties, including Internet Party founder Kim Dotcom. Nicky Hager is himself presented as one of the targets – another right-wing blogger, according to the book, tried to pass on Hager’s personal details to angry Chinese billionaires.
But it’s crucial to identify the real problem. Hager is not saying there is anything wrong about the National Party feeding information to friendly blogs. Certainly, this is something “they all do”. The “dirt” in Dirty Politics is the reliance on personal attack, vilification and smear. When Cameron Slater declares that he wants evidence of “[opposition MPs] Andrew Williams or Winston Peters drunk… [Auckland mayor] Len Brown rooting in brothels”, he is in fact practising a kind of “anti-politics from above”.
“They’re all the same…” – really?
“Anti-politics” is a term which has been used for an attitude which has arisen in many protest movements. It’s summed up in the slogan from Argentina, ¡que se vayán todos! (Get rid of them all!) It’s cynicism that electoral politics can do any good; it’s the idea that all politicians lie, that all movements are corrupt, that the whole system of media and democracy is a fraud. Unfortunately, it often slides into “conspiracy theory” about aliens, Jews, or some other bogey being the “real enemy”.
But what we have in Dirty Politics is different from the justified disgust of a repeatedly disillusioned mass. Slater’s anti-politics is a deliberate strategy used by the Right to demobilise and demoralize opponents and potential opponents. Simon Lusk, a National Party strategist and a close collaborator of Slater, argues in a strategy document previously leaked but reprinted in the book that left-wing activists can be best “demoralised”, and their voters demotivated, by personal attacks on their leaders rather than dealing with their politics.
So the strategy is: get some mud to stick to an activist or politician in the news, get people believing “they’re all the same, politics is too dirty, best not to get involved”. And of course that’s what John Key is doing right now, repeating that Hager is a “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, whether those words make any sense or not. And National have been doing this since before Whale Oil became a household name – for example, when cabinet Minister Paula Bennett released personal information to try to discredit protesting welfare beneficiaries.
Dirty Politics recounts Slater’s role in whipping up manufactured political controversies – like how many times various politicians visited Kim Dotcom’s mansion – which effectively distracted attention from policy debate or scrutiny on the Government. More recently, Slater has smeared Dotcom as a “Nazi” who hates John Key for being Jewish and Hollywood corporates for being “run by Jews”. If the purpose of attack-blog anti-politics is to make people quit and disengage from activism, then it makes sense that the German millionaire, who is attempting to rally a new constituency to electoral politics via the Internet Party, should be a major target.
Another target of attack blogging is to personally smear the leaders of opposition parties. Dirty Politics tells one farcical story of Slater desperately trying to get video footage of Winston Peters “drunk” in a Wellington bar. Meanwhile, Labour leader David Cunliffe has apparently been followed around by operatives who record his every word and action, and put anything vaguely embarrassing online for use against him. The book even describes associates of Whale Oil putting embarrassing information on Wikipedia about Labour MPs’ sex lives.
Slater’s buddies apparently gave him the admiring nickname of “The Rush Limbaugh of New Zealand politics”. But Limbaugh – an nasty right-wing radio host in the US – is perhaps a less appropriate parallel than Andrew Breitbart, the recently deceased founder of the Big Government blog and its associated websites.
Breitbart’s websites have become notorious for exactly the kind of personalised attacks based on misleading evidence which Slater is bringing into play in New Zealand. For example, in 2011 they forced the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American agriculture civil servant, after publishing a video of her deceptively edited to make it look like she was biased against whites. Sherrod is currently suing the Breitbart websites. But probably the people at fault in that case were the Obama Administration themselves, who dumped Sherrod without a proper investigation for fear of this Right-wing attack blogging.
The book also discusses how Slater turns his filth-cannon against enemies in the National Party – such as people who get in the way of Simon Lusk’s grand plan to get hard-right candidates selected for safe rural seats. Once this is done, Whale Oil publishes an “utu post” – more or less an explanation of how the victory was carried out, and advertising for political hopefuls to become “clients” of himself or Lusk.
Smears for sale
But Slater isn’t just a political activist – he makes his living by doing the same job for corporate PR merchants. Corporate lobbyists, including the son of a former National cabinet minister, have paid Slater thousands to publish, under his own name, personal attacks on their targets. So, activists for plain packaging tobacco are targeted by cigarette companies. An association of cleaning services who had signed a union contract were mercilessly attacked to break them up. Maritime Union leaders had their details leaked to Slater by Ports of Auckland; and anti-obesity campaigners are smeared and belittled by the Food and Grocery Council. By a staggering coincidence, the latter is also headed by a former National cabinet Minister.
The process of public vilification of those targeted by paying customers is helped by Whale Oil’s regular blog commentators. If Whale Oil is the National Party’s attack dog, then the comments section is Whale Oil’s private school of piranhas. Slater’s personal attacks do not usually extend to death threats and stalking – these come out of the comments boxes instead. Some of the blog’s regular denizens are revealed in the book to be corporate lobbyists under pseudonyms, commenting on the articles they themselves planted.
The last part of the formula is the aggressive and misogynist language used by Whale Oil and his fan club. This atmosphere of continuous rage has the effect of whipping up a lynch-mob atmosphere among readers and commentators, and repressing any tendencies towards reflection or nuance. Hateful language against health advocates as “troughers” sucking at the public teat, or environmentalists as “the green Taliban”, boils over into fanciful macho tough-talk about someone with “a big set… slapping Helen Kelly around the face [with them]”, or – worse – “a bullet in the head” of an MFAT public servant who was (wrongly) identified by Judith Collins as the source of some embarrassing leak.
Thus, Hager’s book lays out a well-thought-out scheme by Slater and other Right-wing bloggers to actually prevent substantive political debate; to drive voters away from all politics and activists away from fighting corporate malfeasance. Personalised attacks demoralise their targets (especially when the commenters add death threats) and evoke uncertainty among their supporters. No-one wants to deal with the “mad dogs” who inhabit the comments of Whale Oil or Kiwiblog on a daily basis. Slater and his mates want you to think that all politics and activism is dirty and everyone trying to change things is a venal scumbag. Then you won’t bother their mates and paymasters any more.
Pollies, journos and bloggers – you scratch my back…
The mainstream media have taken diametrically opposing attitudes so far. Some, like John Armstrong or Fran O’Sullivan – usually reliable National supporters – have declared themselves shocked by the information and firmly stated that John Key has questions to answer. Others, like Sean Plunket or Mike Hoskings, have sneeringly dismissed the idea that there’s “anything in” Hager’s book, and suggested that Hager himself is a “criminal” for using leaked information.
The latter attitude is very similar to the hypocrisy shown by Whale Oil itself. Cameron Slater is quoted in the book as making nastily sexualised comments about women to his National Party mates, but suddenly turns into a morals crusader when trying to force Len Brown out of office for adultery. The attitude, then, is: whatever crime it is, it’s okay when our side do it. This is the politics of total warfare.
But there’s also the problem of what Americans call “the Beltway”. Many of the commentators who are now saying “but we knew all this already” probably did know it already, although only now is the evidence in the public domain. But the general public does not know this. It has not been publicised or printed. It’s only been swapped as gossip among “political insiders”, press, PR flacks and party hacks, who think it’s normal because they make a good living from it.
Cameron Slater is successful because he has realised a simple truth, which is quoted elsewhere in the book as coming from the US Young Republicans: “Reporters are lazy and ill-informed.” Or – to put it kindly – reporters are under-resourced and under intense pressure from their employers to provide copy quickly and cheaply.
It’s much easier to chase up a “hint” from Whale Oil – or Kiwiblog – than it is to do investigative reporting. It’s fair to suggest that those journos who are dismissing Hager’s book enjoy having someone like Slater around to do the dirty work. They can then say they’re “just asking questions” – those questions having been fed to them by political or corporate bigwigs, via the attack blogs – as they make a good living cosying up to the powerful in the Beehive or in the boardrooms.
The media runs on Whale Oil
So what makes Whale Oil tick? Slater is – as anyone who has paid him attention in the past knows – a deeply unpleasant fellow. He is sexist, racist and openly contemptuous to those less fortunate. He has been open in the past about his clinical depression, which often expresses itself in rage. And his rage is directed not just at the Left or at the less fortunate, but at other insufficiently right-wing Nats, or the people who cost his father his job as National Party president (or who failed to get him a knighthood!)
But perhaps most importantly, Cameron Slater loves power. He describes himself in the third person as “the whale”, glories in his influence over MPs and journalists, and is never happier than when he “destroys someone”. When his campaigns succeed, he makes grandiose pronouncements like “I own the news!” or “I’m a one-man union wrecking machine!”
It’s not just about the personal issues of one man, though – David Farrar’s less abusive but cleverer Kiwiblog plays a similar role, as did the now defunct “Cactus Kate”. But it’s also about class. Cameron Slater is the son of a former National Party president, born into privilege, and his distinction is that he says openly what is usually muttered over a brandy in quiet rooms. The people he talks to in these communications – Simon Lusk, Jordan Williams, Aaron Bhatnagar, Judith Collins – never once challenge his assumptions about how the world works, or which human beings are of value.
Power without responsibility, said the British politician Stanley Baldwin, was a perogative misused by the press. But that’s even more so in the age of blogging. One weakness in Nicky Hager’s excellent book is his argument that bloggers – who openly mix “opinion and fact” – are unaccountable for what they do in a way that the mainstream media are not. But it’s the mainstream media, as we’ve argued above, who have lifted Slater from being “a jerk with a laptop” to someone who is relied on by the powerful and feared by their enemies.
The mainstream media do not abide by traditional standards of fact-checking and objectivity, to the extent that they ever have in commercialised journalism. They are under intense pressure to deliver clicks and advertising revenue with stories that grab the attention and are easy to tell. Cameron Slater only has power to the extent that he is used as the middle-man between, on one hand, political and corporate bosses with a story to feed to the public and the ability to pay (in money or prestige); and a news media who have gotten used to stories handed to them on a plate, who have found that telling the stories that the élite like to hear is the best way to make a living.
Learn 2 Internet
Slater is is a symptom, not a cause, of the sick culture of neoliberal ideology reproducing itself in the news media. But in the same way that Slater has run wings around the “old media” and old-fashioned ways of doing politics, so too has he been tripped up by even newer forces. When “anonymous” Internet forces crashed his website in January this year in revenge for his mocking a young man’s death in a car crash, the hard evidence of who asks him or pays him to do what job fell into the hands of those forces and was passed on to Nicky Hager.
Radical forces desperately need our own citizen journalism, supported by institutions who don’t have a vested interest in keeping the public demoralised, apathetic and angry. But to an extent, we already have a surfeit of engaged writers. What we need now is to extend the population of engaged readers. The book reveals that Slater’s attacks often begin as “concern trolling” – posing as a supporter of something who is “concerned” about some manufactured problem, in order to put doubts in the minds of real supporters.
Attack blogging tactics require secrecy and surprise – as Hager says, the victim often doesn’t even know there’s an orchestrated campaign against him until it’s too late. One problem of contemporary internet use is the tendency to believe any information which comes down the pipeline – this author herself has fallen prey to passing on misinformation because it “sounded real”. The Left must support skeptical reading and thinking, even about stories which we would like to be true. The day when we allow ourselves to tell lies because it promotes our cause, we become the equivalents of Whale Oil.
Slater’s supporters yell that “the Left does it too”. This is of course just anti-politics in itself. But if the Labour Party or any other party have also engaged in smears, personalized abuse and other “anti-politics” against their opponents as detailed in Dirty Politics, we should look forward to hearing all about it, as we should the dirt which Slater purportedly has on Dotcom. Progressive and radical forces have no interest in attack blogging, destroying activists or discouraging political participation. The systematic deceit practiced by Whale Oil, his clients and his pet journalists, benefits only the powerful and rich. Only a principled Left, standing with the majority and guided by a skeptical quest for truth, can undermine this strategy.
The Anonymous forces who gave Hager his material are owed our thanks – as is Nicky Hager himself, for putting it in a way that the mainstream media can dismiss, but cannot ignore. Hacktivists and left journalists, in exposing the abusive and deceitful way power maintains itself, are a necessary part of achieving true justice and democracy.