Monday, July 27, 2015

Investigative 'journalist'? I don't think so

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 24.)

Nicky Hager’s lawyer helpfully explained to Justice Denis Clifford in the High Court last week that his client’s name rhymed with lager. As it happens, it also rhymes with saga, which might have been a more appropriate comparison.
Debate about Hager’s book Dirty Politics, which exposed connections between government figures and right-wing muckraker Cameron Slater, dominated last year’s general election campaign. Now it has had a sequel in court, where Hager claims police searched his house unlawfully after Slater complained that material published in the book had been obtained illegally by hacking his computer. (Hager, it should be noted, says he had no part in acquiring the material.)

Hager’s case hinges on whether he can claim the protection of something known as journalistic privilege, which covers the right to protect confidential sources. His lawyer claims the police didn’t adequately consider this right.
Central to the case, it seems to me, is whether Hager is entitled to call himself an investigative journalist. That’s apparently how he prefers to be described, and most of the media oblige him by using that term. The court heard that the Crown accepts he is a journalist.

This is helpful for his image because the word “journalist” conveys a sense of professional impartiality. But to my knowledge Hager has never worked as a journalist in the commonly understood sense of the word, and I resent him appropriating the description.
Journalists follow certain rules. They are expected to approach issues with an open mind and to report them in a balanced and objective way. (Some people dismiss objectivity as unattainable, but in fact it’s a wise and perfectly workable principle that has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades.)

Ideally, if not always in practice, journalists are expected to maintain a certain detachment. Where there’s another side to a story, they are expected to report it. And when they make allegations against people, they give them an opportunity to respond. Hager doesn’t abide by these rules.
What journalists don’t do, in my experience, is set out to pursue causes, which is what Hager has done for nearly 20 years. All his books and articles are directed toward a consistent end. Everything he does is calculated to challenge and undermine what we loosely call “the establishment”.

Sure, he uses journalistic skills, and uses them very well. He could show journalists a few things about digging beneath the surface and uncovering information that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden. But that’s partly a reflection of his motivation, which is that of a doggedly determined leftist crusader.
What he does is entirely legitimate and even praiseworthy in an open democracy, providing it’s done lawfully. Hager’s books make an important contribution to informed debate and help voters make decisions on important issues, such as state surveillance and honesty in government.

But does that make him a journalist? I don’t believe so. He was more accurately described in police documents as a political author. You could also call him an activist (which he apparently dislikes), a campaigner, an annoying pebble in the shoe of the establishment – but not a journalist.
Justice Clifford, of course, may decide differently. He may determine that there was enough of a legitimate journalistic function in what Hager did to entitle him to the protection of privilege. (And no, this column is not an attempt to sway him; High Court judges are impervious to the opinions of columnists.)

There are two other aspects of the Hager saga that trouble me. One was the timing of his book.
Bona fide journalists don’t set out with the express purpose of sabotaging a political party’s election campaign. Yet it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Dirty Politics was timed to cause maximum damage to the National Party.

My other problem is that crucial material in the book was allegedly obtained by an electronic form of theft.
This was justified by Hager’s defenders on the basis that theft is okay, even laudable, if it results in the disclosure of information that deserves to be published in the public interest. But I would argue that at the very least, this is morally dubious territory.

We may be better off for knowing that Slater ran a political bad-mouthing campaign in cahoots with government figures, but that doesn’t get around the fact that the information in Dirty Politics appears to have been acquired improperly.
Hager likes to claim the moral high ground, but the truth is that he was up to his eyeballs in the dirty politics he professes to despise.

1 comment:

Brendan McNeill said...

Hagar is supremely confident that the ‘ends justify the means’. Stealing someone else’s property is bad, except when it is good.