A Tale of Two Tracks. Part II – Something new under the sun.

[This is the second part of a two-part post. In the first post I argued that our modern world is susceptible to ‘two tracks’ arising in all areas. In this post I argue that it is wrong to claim that what has been revealed in the book ‘Dirty Politics’ is just ‘politics as usual’.]

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 (Adam 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.

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