Lifting the lid, Colin Peacock

Dirty Politics: How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment
Nicky Hager
Craig Potton Publishing, $35.00,
ISBN 9781927213360

The Catch: How Fishing Companies Reinvented Slavery and Plunder the Oceans
Michael Field
Awa Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927249024

 

“Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” That zinger, attributed to Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, is still a go-to piece of wisdom today for those pointing out that plenty of nastiness goes on behind the scenes, which most people either ignore, or remain blissfully ignorant of. Some journalists today say the same applies to the unsavoury side of getting a good story. For instance, when Mediawatch asked an Australian reporter about the families of Pike River victims being pressed for exclusive and personal interviews, she fell back on that same saw. Some reporters even call their own workplaces “sausage factories”, pumping out cheap, filling content for public consumption day after day, rather than prime cuts.

Nicky Hager works alone, outside the factory system. That’s possibly why the hacker of the previously private material at the heart of Dirty Politics gave it all to him rather than a mainstream journalist. And, while Michael Field is a mainstream media reporter, in The Catch he thanks his employer, Fairfax Media, for “tolerating his obsession” while doing his day job. Crucially, though, neither journalist is a Bismarck-ist. Both believe people should know what goes on under the surface and behind closed doors on matters of real public interest, and that journalists should lift the lid where they can.

Just like another acclaimed Awa Press production by fellow journalist Rebecca Macfie, Tragedy at Pike River Mine (also overseen by former journalist Mary Varnham), The Catch is dense with conscientiously footnoted detail, but it’s still a compelling account of a largely out-of-sight business which puts food on our shop shelves and plates. Commercial fishing rarely makes the headlines but, when it does, The Catch is a great background briefing. For example, it details the alarming track record of the company owning the rogue toothfish trawlers confronted by the New Zealand Navy in January.

Field says some modern fishing is like “Buffalo Bill blasting away at bison in the American west” to the point of near-extinction. Some offenders are named and shamed in The Catch and the techniques used laid bare. But the book doesn’t always make it clear what is actually illegal and who ought to be policing it. It’s hard to work out who is to blame and for what.

But, when it comes to the way modern fishing companies operating in our waters have “reinvented slavery”, as Field bluntly puts it, The Catch puts the issue into sharp relief. Field tells the stories of the underpaid and overworked Asian men on the foreign-owned vessels, and how the cruelty they experience can go hand-in-hand with what he calls the “plunder of the oceans”. There’s an eye-opening account of the Korean-owned Oyang 70 sinking in the Southern Ocean after loading too much lucrative fish all in one go. Six men aboard died but, against the odds, the rest were hauled from the sea alive by a far better run New Zealand vessel.

But it wasn’t really a happy ending. The subsequent inquiry revealed how bad conditions were for the foreign workers, and how the boat’s owners factored their low pay into their profits. A replacement boat was shown off to the media here the following year and touted as a huge improvement. Within a year, the crew had walked off the vessel in protest at their mistreatment, and much more of that was revealed when the Korean company was prosecuted for dumping fish.

There are many more startling instances in The Catch that have barely been reported elsewhere, and Field is one of few to bring this to public view. Yet the conditions Field describes on the so-called “slave ships” are not a secret. The book’s stomach-turning colour photos of conditions on foreign-flagged boats fishing our waters belong to the Ministry for Primary Industries (which refused to name the vessels pictured). The book also has accounts of the ministry’s own observers aboard the foreign boats. One, says Field, was fired for speaking frankly to him.

Others have also copped heat for airing these important issues. In The Catch, Field reveals that two researchers from the University of Auckland (whom he also credits for revealing some of the worst offenders in our waters) were also investigated by a detective hired by a Korean fishing company. “Oddly I knew him,” Field writes. “Our daughters had attended the same school.” Only in New Zealand …

The point of The Catch is that all this is a New Zealand story – not a wide-spectrum bleat about the bad things that happen at sea and global over-fishing. The Catch sets out clearly how the low-cost labour on the so-called “slave ships” has been integral to the business plans of those with rights to New Zealand’s fishing quotas. Māori quota holders as well as the former minister of Māori Affairs, Pita Sharples, said last year that rules banning use of  low-wage crews would drive iwi fishing out of business. Field calls that a chilling echo of claims made two centuries ago by those profiting from slavery in Britain and the United States, in the face of calls to outlaw it.

In 2011, a Sunday Star Times headline on a Field story screamed “Slavery at Sea Exposed”. It seemed somewhat sensational at the time, but readers of the The Catch will find it’s scarcely an overstatement.

Unlike deep-sea fishing, no-one dies from dirty politics. In fact, the worst offenders outed by Hager seem to have kept calm and carried on unscathed, while Hager’s been investigated and raided by the police.

It’s not the first time he’s faced a backlash for using previously private communications to expose unethical conduct of people on the right of politics. In 2005, he mined the explosive contents of Don Brash’s inbox for The Hollow Men, prompting his critics (including a few other journalists) to call long and loud for his prosecution.  This latest book, too, has been condemned by some as an act of dirty politics itself, especially when it was published with last year’s election looming. But, while the prime minister famously condemned Hager as a “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, the tone in Dirty Politics is remarkably restrained and matter-of-fact through most of the book.

(Similarly, Hager never resorted to ranting in the string of interviews last year in which he was asked to justify the breach of privacy he chose to make, convinced that it served the wider public interest. Cameron Slater, by contrast, has refused to engage with media outlets who reported Dirty Politics’ revelations, even though few of them are contested. When Slater recently claimed it wasn’t true he’d been paid by PR consultant Carrick Graham in the past, Fairfax reporter Matt Nippert swiftly posted a leaked invoice on Twitter which contradicted that, throwing in the Slater-style jibe for good measure: “How you like them apples?”)

In the plea for change that ends Dirty Politics, Hager claims: “It is never right to poison the political environment for short term gain”.

His critics counter that that’s naïve, because there was plenty of poison in the body politic long before Slater or others in the book pumped in any more. Some critics also reckon he’s overstated the political damage caused by the gallery of rogues in Dirty Politics. For example, long-serving Wellington journalist Pattrick Smellie – formerly a political reporter, a government press secretary and a corporate PR man  – told me Slater’s cronies were largely fantasists. PR man Graham was an outlier, he reckoned,  even in a  trade regarded with suspicion and cynicism across the board. And the likes of political fixer Simon Lusk monkey-wrenching National Party candidate selections? Well, that’s politics.

Maybe so. But another group really has to think about what Dirty Politics reveals.

Tauranga-based journalist Alison McCulloch recently wrote: “When I read Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, I thought it should have been called Dirty Journalism. Because Dirty Journalism underpinned and enabled all that dirty politics every step of the way. It still does.” The instances in Hager’s book of partisan bloggers and political fixers feeding and using journalists for their own ends is indeed worrying. Similarly, some press gallery journalists reported information given to them from political sources – information designed to damage two Labour Party leaders.

Journalism even bestowed an award for excellence on Slater last year, a Canon Media Award for Best Blog, as a reward for “the Mayor’s Affair” scoop. Plenty of pundits insisted Len Brown’s extra-marital relationship with Bevan Chuang was of genuine public interest, but Hager sees it as a test the mainstream media failed. He points out that politicians’ affairs have not in the past made headlines, and this one only did because Slater’s purpose was political damage. There’s danger, he warns, in motivations like that defining the news.

Charitably, Hager doesn’t blame journalists for all this in Dirty Politics. Instead, he hopes that they can help to detoxify our political culture. But having gone out on a limb to expose crooked conduct and execrable ethics in politics in two books less than 10 years apart, you have to wonder if he really believes that’s likely.

Even if power-hungry politicians and story-starved journalists don’t change their ways, the book may have a lasting legacy, though. One month before last year’s election, Smellie wrote that while opinion polls might show nobody outside New Zealand’s

village-like political scene cares much about the vileness which the book shows gained succour from the Beehive … those inside the village care deeply … . Those people have influence, long memories, and professional and social connections that run right through New Zealand’s small population.

 

If Dirty Politics has moved them, maybe it will make a mark in our public life.

Field also closes The Catch saying he hopes the book will make a difference, but he also wrote about fearing he would have no tidy end for what he called “a never ending story” about the excesses of modern fishing. But, shortly after it was published, the dogged reporter was able to report that parliament had passed a law obliging foreign charter fishing vessels to obey New Zealand laws from 2016 onwards. Theoretically, that will outlaw the slave-like conditions he has explained and exposed. At the time, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the bill will “help maintain our reputation around the world”. In the book, Field claims not to be bothered that the role the media played in this has not been acknowledged by politicians.

Certainly, it is not in politicians’ interest or nature to admit they were forced to act on moral matters. But the persistence of journalists Field and Hager has exposed persistent misconduct and problems in urgent need of a fix.

Most interested historians now think it is unlikely Bismarck made up that aphorism about laws and sausages. Some cite 18th-century French writer Nicolas Chamfort as the source, because he once quoted a colleague as saying: “One would risk being disgusted if one saw politics, justice, and one’s dinner in the making.”

Voters and fish-eaters with the stomach for it will learn a lot about all three from reading Dirty Politics and The Catch. There’s plenty left at the bottom of both barrels.

Colin Peacock is a journalist on Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme.

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Posted in Economics, Media, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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