(First published in The Dominion Post, March 31.)
I know what you’re all thinking. Lord, spare us any more comment on the SAS-Afghanistan controversy. But please bear with me here.
Yes, I think there should be an inquiry. But I have to hold my nose as I write that, because I don’t trust Nicky Hager. There are a number of reasons for this.
He insists on calling himself a journalist, but all the journalists I’ve worked with made it their business, before bursting into print with damaging allegations against anyone, to seek a response from the person or persons accused.
This is called balance, and although it has become unfashionable in certain quarters it remains a fundamental principle of fair journalism.
Hager doesn’t bother with balance. He and co-author Jon Stephenson didn’t approach the Defence Force for its side of the story before publishing Hit & Run.
This is consistent with Hager’s previous modus operandi. I don’t think he gave Cameron Slater a chance to respond to the claims made in Dirty Politics either, or Don Brash when he published The Hollow Men.
He likes to get in first with a king hit. It’s much harder for someone to fight back when they’re sprawled on the canvas with the wind temporarily knocked out of them.
Hager would probably argue that the reason he doesn’t approach the subjects of his books is that it would give them an opportunity to obstruct publication, possibly with legal action.
But newspapers take that risk every time they run a potentially damaging story about someone. It doesn’t stop them seeking comment from the people or organisation they’re about to take a whack at.
Certainly there’s a danger that the aggrieved party will seek an injunction against publication, but I believe there are other reasons Hager why doesn’t give his subjects a right of reply.
The first is that his story would be undermined if there turns out to be a compelling counter-narrative. Better not to take the chance.
Another is that by publishing before his subjects have a chance to respond, and getting saturation media coverage (as he routinely does), he establishes a huge psychological advantage. His victims are immediately in the position of having to come from behind.
Is Hager’s tactic of launching his books just in time to make the TV news, thus allowing no time for journalists to seek contradictory comment (and this after tantalising the media with high expectations of a scandal), part of this strategy?
Very likely, although it should be pointed out that early evening is the standard time for book launches. In any case, you could say it’s just clever marketing. Perhaps there’s a bit of shrewd capitalist lurking in the crusading left-wing author.
My other reason for not trusting Hager is that he has an agenda. I’m suspicious of people with agendas, because they tend to frame their narratives to align with those agendas.
To put it another way, there’s a danger that the agenda, rather than the facts, will dictate the narrative, and that any facts that don’t conform to the agenda will be ignored.
In Hager’s case, the agenda can’t be neatly summarised, but it’s there. It can be broadly categorised as an antipathy toward, and distrust of, “the establishment”, capitalism and authority in general.
He seems convinced that those in power are constantly plotting to deceive and mislead the people. That theme runs through all his work. I’m not sure that such a pessimistic mindset leads to reliable conclusions.
So given that I don’t trust Hager, why do I think there should be an inquiry? Well, partly because I don’t much trust the Defence Force either.
I suspect they resent outside scrutiny. This may explain why they seem so bad at dealing with it. The military is an insular institution, not accustomed to having to explain itself to others. And like virtually all bureaucracies, its natural instinct when under attack is self-protection.
Besides, the NZDF has previous form. Several years ago, disgracefully, it tried hard to discredit Hager’s co-author Stephenson – a journalist for whom I have some respect – and ended up paying him a settlement in order to avoid a $500,000 defamation action.
In this latest case the NZDF came suspiciously late to the party with a story that was intended to shoot Hager down in flames, but which succeeded only in muddying the waters and creating more doubt and confusion in the public mind.
The only way to clear this mess up now is with an open and independent inquiry that would clarify matters once and for all. To quote the poet John Milton: “Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a fair and open encounter?”