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‘A kick back against government intolerance’ – an interview with Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager tells The Spinoff about his case in the High Court, Dirty Politics a year on, and his next book – “one of the most important projects that I could imagine”.

Nicky Hager has been back in headlines lately after court documents revealed, among other things, that Westpac had provided his transaction statements to police without requiring any production order or other court authorisation. The bank has since said it will change its policy.

The court documents relate to action taken by Hager challenging the legality of a police raid on his home in October last year – which is understood to be coming any day now. The raid formed part of an investigation into the hacking of blogger Cameron Slater’s emails and other internet correspondence by an individual known simply as Rawshark, who provided the materials to Hager.

The documents formed the basis of Hager’s Dirty Politics, published in August 2014, shortly before that most extraordinary election.

After a packed session on Sunday morning at the excellent Tauranga Arts Festival discussing Dirty Politics and all that with Bryan Gould, I collared Hager for a quick chat in the sun outside the Pacific Crystal Palace tent.

Nicky Hager and Mandy Hager with Toby Manhire in Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nicky Hager and Mandy Hager with Toby Manhire in Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Spinoff: How have you felt watching the response to the police/Westpac story, a lineup of supporters ranging from Seymour Hersh and Edward Snowden through to Matthew Hooton and Rodney Hide?

Nicky Hager: I was obviously heartened to have people on my side. I think it was such an outrageous part of the police actions against me that there were some unlikely supporters. It could be some were imagining what would happen if their bank records were able to be in the police hands.

And it’s an outlier. The most important issues, much more important issues, were about the police raiding my house and going after sources, not just seeing my bank data. And I’m not sure all those people would support me on protecting my sources and that’s the one that really matters.

What will happen next with the judicial review?

In the very near future, I think, there will be a decision coming out which is about my case but is really about journalism in New Zealand. Like all countries, we are experiencing a new intolerance to whistleblowers and people who provide leaked information. So this court case is happening at a really critical time for whether or not people who collect that information feel safe and whether or not people who provide that information feel safe.

I’m hopeful we’re going to have a decision which is a sort of kick back against the current intolerance from the government.

It’s over a year now since Dirty Politics, and to some degree at least it feels as though things have gone back to business as usual. Do you accept that, and if so is it because people didn’t grasp the detail or because they grasped the detail but don’t care?

I’ve had a bigger reaction nationwide from people who care about this, more than anything I have ever written, so I have no doubt about that.

The Minister of Justice who had to resign because of the book has not come back, the main dirty tricks person in the prime minister’s office [Jason Ede], who had to leave the job because of this, has not come back. When people say everything has gone back to normal, they’re possibly not realising how much did change, and what they’re perhaps really meaning is the Prime Minister, who was in many ways at the centre of the distasteful politics, has so far survived it.

None of us knows really how politics works. He’s survived at the moment by not answering the question and then not answering the question again and then refusing to answer the question again – relying on the lack of attention span of the media. He may get away with that, but I actually think that one is still playing itself out.

I think that when people say John Key got away with the book, and never had to answer the question – and of course he has got away with not having to answer the question so far – I think they’re not being optimistic enough. I think we may still see in the long run it will be seen to have bitten him badly and he hasn’t got away with it.

Do you think then that the way people do politics has changed as a result of the book?

I wrote a book about one area of politics, and there is absolutely no doubt that things have changed quite a lot. For example, at the time I wrote that book, quite a considerable number of journalists and news organisations were in extremely unhealthy relationships with this rightwing attack blogger, who was acting as a tool of various commercial interests and also of the prime minister’s office, for covert attacks on their opponents.

Most of those journalists have stopped doing that. Many of those media organisations have more or less apologised publicly for getting caught up in it. If one book can do that, I’m really happy with it, and that’s not the only change at all.

Do you read the Whaleoil blog?

No. I’ve spent a year and a half recommending to people that they don’t dignify it by looking at it, because it is not a genuine source of news and analysis. It’s a political tactic: to smear and discourage and hurt people, and so I don’t believe that I want to go there.

But there’s also a personal side to it. A strange side of politics is that if you do critical work, your opponents, people who don’t like what you write, often deal with it by personal attacks. In the anonymous world of social media, people feel unrestrained in their personal attacks. So I believe, I advocate this: I think in anyone who is in a position like me needs to look after their own peace of mind and mental health and not read those anonymous comments.

I will take anybody’s legitimate, public, owned criticism and I’ll think about it, but anonymous comments are the worst of people, and I don’t need to let them into my head. So I don’t go to the Whaleoil site, and I don’t go to many of those places where I’m just going to hear, you know, anonymous tigers behind their keyboards saying ridiculous things about me.

The Dirty Politics fallout must have soaked up a lot of your time. Have you been able to start work on anything else?

Yes I have. When I write a book or do a big project I always hope I can kind of weed the garden and get started on the next thing straight away. That’s not the way it works. In fact, part of writing books is you have the responsibility to go out and talk and talk and talk and talk, because talking is part of the way the book is disseminated. So I’ve done that. And I’ve had what I always call the “retaliation phase”, which in this case was the raid on my house and different things, which took some time.

But because I’ve been through this before I was determined that it would not take over my life. So I’ve had one of the most important projects that I could imagine in my life ticking away and going through the early processes of working towards eventually getting it together.

So I’ve had a very satisfying sense of progress right through all the other things so far.

Is that project thematically linked to The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics or something altogether different?

It’s always much better for me not to pre-publicise my work, particularly because until I’ve actually got it together, and cracked it, and feel confident enough to put it before the public, I never want to say, you know –

How far through the process are you?

I’ve got quite a long way and I’ve got quite a long way to go.

What’s the title?

Of course I’m not going to say what the title is.

I’ve actually got a draft title. To give you an answer on something which wasn’t intended to get an answer: I believe that when you write a book is half the job of the effectiveness of the book, and the power of the book. If you look around the world at which books work and which don’t, the title is far more influential than people give it credit for.

Really, even when I am in the research phase, and meeting confidential contacts, all that phase of the project – which may not even become a book yet – I’m already regularly wondering what the title of that book might be.