There’s plenty of interesting side-tracks to travel down in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics‘.
But the main track needs to be kept visible.
That track is actually two tracks. And those tracks amount to a highly networked web of relationships between a loose but coordinated group of actors.
These tracks and this network are new. This is not ‘politics as usual’. I’ll look at these tracks in two posts – this is Part I.
It seems that many New Zealanders are convinced there is nothing new to see here – just same-old, same-old dirty politics from dirty politicians.
It might be a harsh criticism to make, but any New Zealanders who believe this are asleep at the wheel.
In a democracy, of course, it is we – the people – who should be in the driver’s seat. We’re in danger, though, of completely surrendering that seat to people who want to take us down the ‘garden track’.
Are we up to the challenge of taming two track politics?
Hager describes one track of National’s approach to politics in terms of the smiling affability of John Key – relaxed, honest, above politics. Key is presented to the New Zealand public as one of them and someone who doesn’t get into the games politicians play:
John Key had constructed an easy-going and relaxed public image. He began the 2014 election year by appearing at university orientation weeks, not to give speeches or debate policy, but to pose in ‘selfies’ with a crowd of students, more celebrity than politician. In rural Te Kuiti, he smiled for a beautifully composed photograph ‘having a beer and a good yarn’ with locals in a country pub, a photograph that would feature that night on his Facebook page. To the public, he was a man who stayed above the name calling and personal attacks of politics. He had declared during the 2011 election campaign ‘there’s no room for negative campaigning in New Zealand’.[i] The reality was very different.
The second track is a stark contrast to the first. In Hager’s words, again:
Key had overseen a government involved in more personal attacks and negative politics than any in living memory. Robert Muldoon, National leader in the 1970s and 1980s, is remembered for his abrasive, attacking style, but the Key government had outstripped it in the frequency and breadth of attacks, while still managing to maintain the leader’s genial image. It had done this in part by using others – political allies, bloggers and the news media – to deliver the blows. The result was a new kind of attack politics that was rapidly changing the political environment in New Zealand.
“[A] new kind of attack politics“? Well, according to so many commentators and journalists, there’s nothing particularly new about any of the things detailed in Hager’s book.
As I see it, that reaction by ‘in the know’ commentators is partly – and unintentionally – right but largely – and quite negligently – wrong.
How is it ‘right’?
And, ‘How is it ‘wrong’?’
Let’s start with the first question.
How is it ‘right’?
The answer to that question is that it is ‘right’ to the extent that our entire modern culture is increasingly composed of ‘two tracks’. There is the formal, institutional processes – what things are meant to be about. This is the first track.
Then there is the ‘shadow’ reality of informal communications, networks and connections that operate ‘unofficially’ but that, in many ways, are the means by which the formal institutions and processes are operated. This is the second track.
Social scientists have long been aware of this fascinating, dual social structure that is particularly evident in large, modern societies and the organisations that make them up. I’ll return to this interesting body of work shortly, but first let’s have a close look at the arguments that emerged shortly after the book was released.
When Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics’ came out Steven Joyce was quick off the mark with a criticism that then was endlessly repeated by commentator (Michael Bassett being interviewed by Leighton Smith) after commentator (Mike Hosking on Seven Sharp – self-declared as a non-journalist) after journalist (Sean Plunket – see statement at about 4mins 25secs) after journalist (Leighton Smith while interviewing Michael Bassett).
That criticism – entangled with a random assortment of other criticisms – is that this so-called ‘dirty politics’ is just ‘politics as usual’.
But here’s some context from the first link above courtesy of Steven Joyce:
“It is exactly what it says on the cover. It is a dirty politics book. It’s got a bunch of stolen emails, a bunch of allegations and some of them are breathless about things that are already well known, such as David Farrar is the member of the National Party, and others that are completely sort of ‘1 + 1 = 49 and apparently the Prime Minister’s a devil beast,” Joyce told TVNZ’s Breakfast programme.”
“It’s a book about how people on both sides of the house brief bloggers, in the same way they brief journalists actually, and I don’t think that’s news either,” he said, adding there were rumours Labour Party staff wrote on left wing blogs.
Joyce said it was normal for press advisors to brief bloggers, just as they briefed journalists.
“The left are losing the battle of ideas at the moment, and they’re trying to tear the Prime Minister down, and this is just another day of the week,” he said.
Joyce’s rather odd argument can be summed up as (a) Nicky Hager’s book is a scurrilous and ridiculous act of ‘dirty politics’ and (b) ‘dirty politics’ is perfectly innocuous and not that bad – ergo, there’s nothing wrong with Hager’s book since it is just continuing a fine tradition of ‘politics as usual’?
Beyond this strange logic, Joyce’s – and others’ – argument is basically that the book amounts to ‘nothing to see here’ and the reason there’s nothing to see is that it’s apparently about “how people on both sides of the house brief bloggers, in the same way they brief journalists actually“.
We can forgive Steven Joyce – given that he hadn’t read the book – for mistakenly claiming that it was about “people on both sides of the house“. It wasn’t. It was about people exclusively on his side of the house.
But what about the idea that the political behaviour described in the book amounts to a perfectly “normal” practice – that, for example, it “was normal for press advisors to brief bloggers“.
Well, way back in 2008 it appears that John Key’s main Press Secretary Kevin Taylor – as confirmed in the first tranche of emails from the ‘Whaledump’ twitter account – did not think it was “normal” or desirable for National’s press advisors to engage with blogs:
The emails include one sent in 2008 – some months before John Key became Prime Minister – from his press secretary Kevin Taylor to Slater which Hager claims marked the beginning of a political dirty tricks campaign run by Mr Slater with the help of Mr Key’s former senior communications adviser Jason Ede.
Mr Taylor tells Slater: “Our intention is not to engage with any blogs“.
However he goes on to state “Jason Ede asked me to mention he will be giving you a call in the next few days“.
So, officially at least, Kevin Taylor – the Prime Minister’s press secretary at the time – had the view, in contrast to Joyce’s current view, that it was not National’s policy to engage with blogs. The reasons given (in the full email in the ‘dump’) were largely that he didn’t want to respond to left-wing blogs such as ‘The Standard’ so he wasn’t going to engage with WhaleOil and set a precedent.
I also deliberately emphasised ‘officially’ since, as mentioned in the above quote, there is a tantalising ‘FYI’ at the end of the email with regards to Jason Ede: “Jason Ede asked me to mention he will be giving you a call in the next few days.“
It’s almost as if, through that throw away comment, Kevin Taylor – wittingly or not – was laying the first piece of track on the second track of this particular ‘two track’ system of political management that is the subject of Hager’s book.
There is nothing else said in the email as to why Mr Ede would be in contact so it is hard to know what to conclude. All we do know is that the ‘FYI’ addendum comes at the end of an email dealing with Slater’s request to work in tandem with the Prime Minister’s Office and that Jason Ede was, indeed, someone from the Prime Minister’s Office.
JasonEde, in fact, is the ‘Ex-PM staffer’, now employed by the National Party presumably on the basis of his good work in the PM’s Office, who appears in a starring role in Hager’s book as Cameron Slater’s contact in the PM’s Office.
Apparently he has now gone into hiding since the book’s release:
Mr Ede – who now works as a National Party staff member – has gone to ground since publication of the book while Mr Key has attempted to explain his actions as normal political practice.
Once again, this time from the Prime Minister, the actions of one of the main players in the ‘Dirty Politics’ saga – Jason Ede – were apparently “normal political practice“.
There’s an obvious question or two that follows from these claims of ‘politics as usual’.
The first is ‘Why, if they are so usual, were these practices not previously reported in full detail and alongside each political story we have been told about over time?‘
Seems like a fair question to ask.
And there’s another: ‘Why, if they are so usual, is their detailed description in the book ‘Dirty Politics’ being so vociferously denied and the author so denigrated?‘
I think the answer to both questions is fairly simple – and it goes back to the central theme of the book. The modern nexus of politics and media is fundamentally based upon a ‘two track’ system. It is pervasive.
In this sense, then, the claim that it is politics (and media) as ‘usual’ has some truth. ‘Two tracks’ are part and parcel of modern political reporting.
On the first track is the ‘official’ version of political happenings that has been sanitised for public consumption (and sometimes to avert legal risk).
The second track is the fairly incestuous world of politico-media interaction, behind the journalistic ‘copy’. It’s a world that all participants are aware of. It’s also a world of the ‘in crowd’, the ‘ones who know’ and the ‘chosen ones’ with the insider knowledge.
It’s the world David Fisher has described so clearly once he extracted himself from it:
It’s not unusual for journalists to deal with people who have causes to push, or axes to grind.
But when you can’t see who, ultimately, is pushing the cause or grinding the axe, you risk failing yourself and your readership.
I had been in the tent. It was a place where stories and story tips came easily – too easily.
I stepped back and found myself outside the tent.
That, I think, is why Hager wrote: “They later fell out when Fisher wrote stories Slater did not like.”
If you’re in Slater’s tent, it’s warm and cosy. There is information which only those well connected would know. Almost exclusively, the tips are for stories are good for National and bad for anyone in its way.
If you’re outside the tent, which is where I fetched up, it is cold and hard. This is what journalism should be. You should work for your readers, and work hard.
But when I started writing stories on issues which went against Slater’s interests, I became someone he wanted to “smash”. At that point, I was away from the tent and out in the wilderness.
It must – for some at least – be quite tempting to be part of this world behind the veil or ‘inside the tent’, even if that world is a very narrow one full of one-sided ‘gossip’ (aka ‘stories’ and ‘tips’).
Humans like their access to special knowledge about other people as research on gossip confirms:
… gossiping also helped facilitate bonds by showing others we trust them enough to share information.
By nature, humans are chatterers, says psychologist Robin Dunbar, PhD, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and author of the book, “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language” (Harvard University Press, 1998). He suggests that gossip is the human version of social grooming – a behavior common among other social primates in which one ape or monkey strokes the fur and picks fleas and ticks from the coat of another ape or monkey to strengthen group ties. Like social grooming, which helps other primates form alliances based on codependence, gossip helps humans develop trusting relationships and foster social bonds.
In a follow-up study published in the same article, 83 17 to 22 year old undergraduates ranked their interest and their likelihood of spreading gossip about male and female professors, relatives, friends, acquaintances or strangers based on 12 different scenarios, such as an individual’s drug abuse, promiscuity or academic cheating. He [Professor Frank McAndrew, Knox College] found that the participants were most interested and most likely to pass on damaging, negative news about nonallies and positive news about allies, suggesting that gossip is an effective means of status enhancement.
As such, whether gossip is spread depends wholly on context, McAndrew suggests.
As with chimpanzees’ social grooming, McAndrew explains, spreading good news about our friends and damaging news about our enemies can make the group feel good, while also helping to buttress group goals.
“Gossip is an important bonder,” he says. “By sharing information we develop [a] sense of trust and intimacy.”
Or, as Fisher said, “it’s warm and cosy” in the tent.
Gossip, by definition, is done behind someone’s back. In that way it has links to a much older and fundamental ‘two track’ system made possible through language and person-to-person communication.
That’s probably why philosophers have long been interested in the supposed difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. How things appear, that is, may differ from how they are.
More simply, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
Science, for example, makes the claim that it can go beyond mere appearance to the underlying reality of the world: The world may appear to you as composed of solid objects but, in reality, all matter is principally empty space (as popular science books are fond of breathlessly informing us).
The assumed split between appearance and reality goes back, in the modern era, to philosopher René Descartes with his sceptical meditations on the foundations of knowledge. Almost everything you sense, perceive, know and experience may well be delusion, he argued. That is, the appearance may not be the reality – the world, ultimately, could be just a figment of your ‘imagination’.
But there was one tiny but significant point of certainty … ‘you’. Or, at least, your mind. The ‘thinking thing’ that, potentially, is deceived by its own representations of the world (what it thinks it knows about the way the world is).
This is the ‘kicker’ – everything is just represented to, or is ‘in’, your mind.
What’s this all got to do with ‘Dirty Politics’?
Our modern political systems are an outgrowth of Enlightenment thought. At the centre of that thought was the individual (specifically, the ‘thinking thing’ whose existence Descartes claimed it was impossible to doubt).
From the individual, according to John Locke (another Enlightenment philosopher), flows the notion of and justification for, private property. Our labour (work) on the world changes the world but, also, effectively encloses the commons. The field we till becomes, in effect, our property.
With the individual and property centre stage it’s a small step – taken by political economist and philosopher Adam Smith in ‘Wealth of Nations‘ – to assert the effectiveness, efficiency and moral justification for a market economy. Markets are places where individuals freely trade their respective ‘properties’.
It’s a fine and noble enough notion. In the context of the time – rule by monarchy in most European societies – it was certainly progressive, liberal and liberating (the Enlightenment was primarily a political project rather than an intellectual one – e.g., Locke justified revolution in cases where governments did not protect life, liberty and property).
It failed, however, to take account of one thing relevant to ‘Dirty Politics’: It ignored the extreme ability of people to operate ‘two tracks’.
Before exploring the modern consequences of that oversight, it’s worth thinking about how our world, increasingly, has involved ‘enclosure’ of the common, public world into a private world.
Private homes are the obvious example, In the privacy of our homes we re-create, on a daily basis, the ‘self’ who goes out into the public world to work, socialise and consume. In that private ‘enclosure’, hidden from others’ eyes, we do our maintenance activity: We wash ourselves and our clothes; some of us apply make-up to face the world; we organise our schedules; we plan our goals (some of which we keep from others).
Such an extensive private world (a kind of ‘social enclosure’) is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, the modern use of the term ‘society’ is linked to the aristocratic process of presenting oneself to – and ‘coming out’ into – ‘society’.
Society, that is, was, initially, the formal, public arena within which manners and reputation came to mean everything. As Norbert Elias argued in his book ‘The Civilising Process‘, courtly manners amongst aristocrats served as the precursor for a more widespread concern with ‘civil’ behaviour in public interactions. Social shaming and repugnance came to enforce ‘manners’ in wider and wider circles until, today – perhaps mostly through the middle classes – civil manners come to be seen as the bedrock of society.
Similarly, sociologist Erving Goffman in ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life‘ argued that all interpersonal interactions are like a theatrical production. We ‘stage’ our setting, our behaviour and our social interactions in order to achieve a particular ‘presentation’ of self. Social interaction thus becomes a ‘front stage’ performance. We prepare for it in the ‘back stage’ areas of our life (our home and other privatised settings).
The irony is that this split in the social world between the private and the public not only provides for the ‘civilising’ of people but also for an opposing dynamic – to appear civilised while, in reality, being anything but. [‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘ is perhaps the most obvious literary – and almost literal – ripping of the veil on this opposing dynamic.]
So our world is well-structured to allow for ‘two tracks’ to be established in just about any sphere of life.
In particular, the economic foundations of our society (based, supposedly, on markets, individuals with property rights and the free flow of relevant economic decision making information) provide at least short-term incentives to operate these ‘two tracks’ to personal advantage.
Finally, politics is increasingly enacted on the analogy of a market exchange – politicians and political parties have their ‘marketers’ (‘spin doctors’), their brands (party logos, ‘strap lines’, distinctive colour-coding), their niche ‘markets’ (especially under MMP), their ‘loyal customers’ (‘tribal’ voters), their ‘product range’ (policies), their advertising (billboards, party political broadcasts) and their ‘quarterly reports’ (opinion polls).
It’s that market model of modern politics that leaves it open to ‘two tracks’ being operated.
As I understand it, central to most theories of markets is the notion of ‘information’. For markets to ‘work’, that information needs to be honest, accessible to all market actors and relevant. A financial prospectus that misleads is, for example, officially seen as a serious breach of a market’s ‘rules of engagement’.
There are other examples from the commercial world (the ‘source analogy’).
Keeping two sets of books is an obvious, concrete commercial example. ‘Insider knowledge’ is another. Covert lobbying of politicians – and payments to candidates – is yet another.
In short, ‘information’ in a market system is the equivalent of the perceptual system in Descarte’s view of the how the individual makes contact with reality. In a market, actors ‘perceive’ on the basis of ‘information’.
Here’s something interesting.
In those (in)famous surveys of which occupations are deemed the most trustworthy it is often noted that three professions vie with each other for being the least trustworthy. First, there’s the stereotypical used car salespeople. Second are politicians. But there’s a third – journalists.
Here is a 2013 list of most trusted professions in New Zealand from Readers’ Digest:
New Zealand’s Most Trusted Professions 20131. Paramedics2. Firefighters3. Rescue volunteers4. Nurses5. Pilots6. Doctors7. Pharmacists8. Veterinarians9. Police10. Armed Forces personnel11. Scientists12. Teachers13. Childcare workers14. Dentists15. Farmers16. Bus/train/tram drivers17. Flight attendants18. Architects19. Chefs20. Electricians21. Miners22. Computer technicians23. Postal workers24. Hairdressers25. Builders26. Plumbers27. Mechanics28. Accountants29. Truck drivers30. Waiters31. Bankers32. Charity collectors33. Shop assistants34. Clergy (all religions)35. Cleaners36. Personal trainers37. Lawyers38. Taxi drivers39. Financial planners40. CEOs41. Call centre staff42. Airport baggage handlers43. Journalists44. Real estate agents45. Insurance salespeople46. Politicians47. Sex workers48. Car salespeople49. Door-to-door salespeople50. Telemarketers
First, it’s hard to miss the fact that those most clearly trying to sell us things and get our money in return are not highly trusted. ‘Car salespeople’, door-to-door salespeople and ‘Telemarketers’ are the least trusted.
Put bluntly, the more someone is interested in us primarily for the purposes of trading the less we trust them. The reason for this is simple: We all know that there is a huge incentive in such single-purpose interactions for the operation of a ‘two track’ approach by the person trying to sell us something.
They’ll give the appearance of friendliness, even try their best to sound as if they are acting primarily in our interests. Yet, when we are not under their spell, we are quite aware that they are only acting like that for one reason – to make the sale. In other words, they are acting not in our interests but in their interests, as Smith famously argued is ultimately true of the activity of the butcher, brewer, baker, etc. in market economies.
[For those interested, here’s a fascinating article by Vernon L. Smith on ‘The Two Faces of Adam Smith‘ – the ‘self-regarding’ versus ‘other -regarding’ aspects of human nature covered in his two most famous works.]
Put very simply, market systems have a built-in incentive to maximise deception in order to maximise the return from any and all exchanges.
Of course the pattern of such returns form a complicated set of scenarios that is well known to game theorists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists and, obviously, economists. The logic of this ‘informational arms race’ and such things as differences between short-term and long-term ‘pay-offs’ are fascinating.
But all we need to know for now is that whoever can control information and its flow between market actors can markedly influence outcomes from the ‘game’ – i.e., the exchange.
The second point of interest from the list of trustworthy professions is that politicians are only two steps above ‘car salespeople’ (with ‘sex workers’ in between – an enduring form of ‘exchange’).
That’s largely because we see their activity in the same way we see that of ‘car salespeople’. Specifically, we are cynical enough to believe that politicians in a representative democratic system are basically doing whatever it takes to ‘sell’ us a (potential) lemon by describing it as a Lambourghini. And the ‘currency’ of this exchange is our vote.
In fact, that cynical view isn’t far removed from John Locke’s account of politics and government (linked to above). Governments engage in a ‘social contract’ with their citizens – that is, governments are in an exchange relationship with citizens, in keeping with the Enlightenment view of individuals as autonomous actors in an exchange system.
But, like all exchanges (i.e., ‘markets’), representative democracy also depends on information for its functioning. That information can of course also be misinformation, selective information or irrelevant information.
Welcome, then, to the world of modern politics – a market in which information flows in very mysterious and complicated ways.
Does that mean, then, that Hager’s critics are right in their claim that so-called ‘Dirty Politics’ is just ‘politics as usual’?
In ‘Part II’ I’ll look at what is wrong with the criticism and what we can do about it.
How is it ‘wrong’?
As I said, there’s a kernel of truth in the insight that ‘two tracks’ are a significant potential in our modern world.
But those two tracks aren’t inevitable.
‘Two tracks’ are more likely the more that politics runs along lines analogous to market activity. But they are also more or less likely depending upon the nature of some other important features of modern politics that can be changed.
First, the emergence of ‘two tracks’ depends upon distortions and/or interruptions in the flow of information.
And that’s where journalists – the media – come into the picture. I’d also hazard a guess that that is why journalists have dropped down the ‘trustworthiness’ rankings.
Most people have no first-hand information about political events or politicians. The modern media is the medium through which that information flows.
The information is ‘mediated’ by the media in the same way that knowledge of the world is ‘mediated’ by the senses and perceptual systems in Descarte’s view of how minds come to know the world. Information is selected, represented and transformed to produce ‘inferences’ (media ‘narratives’) about how the (political) world is.
Just as Descartes sceptically speculated on ways that his sensations, perceptions and, ultimately, beliefs about the world could be ‘delusions’ so have we all become suspicious about how the media represents the world to us. Yet that is our only representation of so much of the world that affects us.
All of which means that how the media report politics will, in part, determine the extent to which ‘two tracks’ can viably be established. More investigative journalists, for example, would increase the risk of detection of these ‘two track’ systems, should they be established.
By contrast, fewer journalists working to multiple tight deadlines to produce ‘copy’ in opinion columns, news articles, websites and appearing – incestuously – as ‘commentators’ on other media, or even their own, is likely to provide favourable conditions for the incubation of ‘two tracks’.
The book ‘Flat Earth News’ makes it pretty clear that, unfortunately, modern journalism, globally, is looking more and more like this. As an inevitable consequence it’s therefore becoming fertile ground for the operation of ‘two tracks’.
Harried under-resourced journalists who are stretched for time, encouraged by their managers to be entertaining and provocative in their ‘columns’ and to become mini-celebrities in their own right (which makes the profession appeal to quite different people than it used to) are less and less likely to forego the easy option of facilitating the ‘two tracks’. After all, the ‘two track’ set-up makes for easy copy, access to ‘leaks’ (aka ‘scoops’) and, as I said at the start, probably provides quite a personal buzz and ego boost from being ‘inside the tent’.
Second, ‘two tracks’ are most likely to be established in the first place when the costs of their discovery are low. Put simply, if ‘two tracks’ are discovered the reaction to that discovery determines the ‘cost’ associated with them being detected.
Perhaps the most practical response ordinary people can make to the establishment of ‘two tracks’ in politics is to condemn it with a passion whenever there are signs that is present.
This is one of the most obvious reasons why simply accepting that ‘this is just politics as usual’ is exactly the wrong reaction. It’s actually irrelevant whether or not politics has always been like this or not. Whenever the practice emerges into the daylight we have to punish it.
In evolutionary terms, deceptive ‘signalling’ is like an arms race between the would-be deceiver and the deceived. ‘Honest signalling’ only emerges where the potentially deceived evolve mechanisms of vigilance which, ultimately, make it too ‘expensive’ for the would-be deceiver to deceive.
That’s presumably why humans have apparently evolved a so-called ‘cheater-detection‘ mechanism: To identify those in the social world who try to get something (e.g., electoral advantage) for nothing (e.g., the risk of a backlash from negative campaigning) in instances of social exchange.
The most obvious outlet for that condemnation and punishment is the ballot box. It’s a crude instrument but, as with everything, you can only use what is to hand.
Third, a media required by statute to represent the public interest could ensure that journalists in the news media have less (commercial) incentive to participate in the dual world of the ‘two tracks’. This may not be possible to impose on private sector media outlets.
If that’s the case then it’s a very good argument for extending the number of, and funding for, independent public broadcasting and other public media. This could include supporting local and regional public – or at least ‘not for profit’ – media.
Unfortunately, such independent, non-commercial media have reduced over time in New Zealand. When I was young there were extensive and varied state-run radio networks (ZB, ZM, YA and YC – all operating out of regional bases). The ZB and ZM networks have all been privatised leaving only Radio New Zealand National (the old YA) and the Concert Programme (the old YC). Radio New Zealand operates under a Charter.
Television New Zealand – while state-owned – is now run as a commercial enterprise (State Owned Enterprise) with, solely, commercial imperatives. It used to have a ‘Charter’ but that was removed in July, 2011.
Fourth, if, indeed, representative democracy is now morphing into some ‘market-based analogue’ of democracy then one option is to put the reinforcing rods of participatory democracy into its internal structure.
The more people organise themselves into neighbourhood, local and regional groups (enduring or ad hoc) to address the political issues that arise at those scales, the less likely it will be for a ‘two track’ political system to gain traction. People who organise themselves in this way inoculate themselves to the negative attack politics for which the ‘two track’ system is designed.
The reason for that is simple. People involved in this way have a more direct knowledge of political events and persons. They themselves become part of a ‘counter network’ (see below) that has its own informational pathways. That means they are less vulnerable to being swayed by the smears and negative politics that are regularly ejaculated from the second track of the ‘two track’ approach.
They know better – or simply know otherwise.
But there’s another reason why critics of Hager’s book have got it completely wrong when they claim that this is nothing new or, as Steven Joyce declared so quickly after the book’s release without reading it, “I don’t think that’s news“.
It is news, and it is new.
‘Two Track’ Politics
What is new about ‘two track’ politics is that it actually operates on three tracks.
As well as the division that Hager clarifies in the Preface to the book (quoted at the start of the post) between the leader who is ‘above politics’ and the covert, negative attack politics there is an additional track.
This is how it works.
The negative attacks (track two) are run initially in the ‘informal’ media. Here in New Zealand that includes unacknowledged ‘third party’ campaigning such as was tried by the Exclusive Brethren in the 2005 election (and is apparently being repeated this year) but also, as focused on in the book ‘Dirty Politics’, blogs such as Cameron Slater’s ‘WhaleOil Beef Hooked’ blog and David Farrar’s Kiwiblog.
These continual attacks, however, are run through these informal media vehicles in the expectation that they will enter the ‘third track‘ – the mainstream media. Even today it is this third track that has the most influence in setting the political narrative.
The mainstream media represents, then, the middle-layer in the representation of the political world to ordinary people. Politicians can do their own PR, put out press releases, do photo-ops and the like. The mainstream media dutifully report such PR efforts.
The ‘two track’ system Hager describes, however, jumps – informationally – from the politicians and political informants such as party operatives (‘hacks’) directly, and covertly, to the ‘informal media’.
The ‘informal media’ – in this scenario – has two functions. First, it ‘launders’ the information so that it’s origins are completely opaque. It ‘appears’ to come from the ‘informal media’ outlet itself – out of unspecified sources of ‘tips’ or through sterling, solo investigative work by the blogger. But, as detailed in ‘Dirty Politics’, very often that claim or impression is false.
Second, the ‘informal media’ outlet must have cultivated a network of contacts in the ‘official’, mainstream media (as well as a network in the political world). Without that network of contacts the informal media outlet would struggle to reach those people and voters who must be reached and who are the final targets for the information.
It is the overall network – a word repeatedly used by Hager – that is the embodiment of the ‘two track’ system. But, to repeat, it has three distinct areas within which, and between which, the information flows: The political world/government; the ‘informal media’ outlets; the mainstream media. (There’s also the business and, in particular, corporate world but, following John Dewey’s definition that politics is merely the shadow cast over society by big business, we can probably treat politics and business as broadly in an alliance built upon a co-incidence of interests.)
These days we hear a lot about ‘networks’ in all areas of life. It’s a bit of a buzz word, in fact, and it is the social version of the notion of ‘systems’. Networking can spell the difference between a successful project and one that barely makes it off the drawing board.
These kinds of networks are characterised by multiple, overlaid webs of interlinked actors (people), often informal in nature. They are fluid in membership (unlike some older networks like the ‘old boys’ network’). The new networks often comprise transient players leveraging off each other as they ascend (‘scramble up’) the status ladder towards some ill-defined goal associated with ‘winning’.
Given their fluidity, these networks can also dissolve and then reorganise using some old connections and some new ones.
It’s the kind of ‘network’ that underlies the ever-morphing and regenerating terrorist entities like Al-Qaeda. It’s also like the web of opportunistic links that happen in the business world as deals get hatched, people are introduced to each other and, then, deals get sealed.
Such networks, such ‘systems’, are quite resilient over time and so can serve many different purposes and actors as they fluidly reorganise.
Formal institutional processes don’t have the same flexibility and so can be repeatedly outmanoeuvred by these informal networks which can respond, almost instantaneously, as they react to new information and challenges.
The emails and other communications brought to light in ‘Dirty Politics’ give us a glimpse into these opportunistic political alliances that make use of these networks between politics/business, right-wing blogs and media. The traces are ephemeral but, like animal trails in long grass, the signs of their repeated use are clear to the trained eye.
This, then, is what is new.
This is why what is described in ‘Dirty Politics’ is not ‘politics as usual’. There is something new under the sun: The ‘three track’ network, enabled partly by new technologies and partly by the increasing insularity and interweaving of the world in which its participants operate.
It’s the emergence of a coordinated, rather than merely accidental, politico-media in-group whose lingua franca is gossip, leaks and petty stratagems. But, more importantly, it is the systematic operation and strategic use of that fluid network across the three layers of politics, mainstream media and informal media that is innovative.
That coordination and systematic operation has given us – consistently – a seemingly unending series of mini-scandals, almost always involving political opponents of the government. It is that consistency of target and similarity in modus operandum that flags the new mechanism.
One incident mentioned in ‘Dirty Politics’ but which Hager sees as a lesser example of ‘dirty politics’ actually is very suggestive of how extensive this informal network that generates negative attacks has become.
That incident involved an email sent inadvertently to Amy Adams’ office (Minister of the Environment) (pages 48-49 in ‘Dirty Politics’):
The executive assistant had sent out the invitation at 12:55 p.m. The papers show that Adams’s senior private secretary printed out the e-mail and only 10 minutes later, at 1:05 p.m., someone scanned it on the photocopier on the Beehive building’s fourth floor, home to Adams’s office, e-mailing it directly to ‘AJA’ (presumably Amy Juliet Adams).
Question time in Parliament intervened for the next three hours, then just after 5 p.m. ‘AJA’ forwarded the Labour Party e-mail to Judith Collins in her ministerial office two floors above. Notice that Adams chose Collins as the recipient. Collins had had it for only two minutes when, at 5:09 p.m., she forwarded the scanned document to Slater. By 5:21 p.m. the e-mail was posted on Slater’s blog. ‘David Cunliffe’s team isn’t off to a good start,’ Slater wrote.
As Hager writes, “Notice that Adams chose Collins as the recipient.” Why?
Were the two just ‘giggle-buddies’ who might share such schadenfraude? Or did Adams, presumably along with many other Ministers, understand perfectly that Collins was the direct conduit to Slater? If so, that suggests that the network for sourcing ‘dirt’ threaded throughout the Cabinet.
So how widespread is this network? How coordinated? How resilient?
In my view, ‘Dirty Politics’ exposes a thoroughly embedded network that threads like a mat of Convolvulus rhizomes through the body politic, the media and parts of the corporate world.
Time to apply some weedkiller.
And as I finish this post what happens?
John Key announces Judith Collins’ resignation. Why has she gone this time rather than before?
In a 2011 email from Cameron Slater to a group of people he ‘updates’ all on his organised campaign against the Head of the SFO (Tom Feeley). He speaks of Collins ‘gunning’ for Feeley who is her CEO given her position as Minister of Justice.
In that one email (included in the link just above – but also here) there is more fulsome evidence of the network I’ve just described than in any one incident reported in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics’. It mentions several journalists who are ‘running’ Slater’s ‘lines’ and describes clearly the coordination of an ongoing smear.