Saturday, April 1, 2017

Let truth and falsehood grapple

(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?” 


macdoctor said...

The NZDF do not "have form". When Stephenson released his video they over-reached and said he had faked evidence. That was what the court case was about. The NZDF settled because they were unable to prove that Stephenson has knowingly faked any of the evidence. Of course, much of the "evidence" in his video - and the repeated stuff in "Hit and Run" - would not have lasted 5 seconds in a court of law as the sources of that evidence were highly dubious indeed.

Hager's book continues in the same way. Lots of "evidence" from exceedingly dubious sources that is either unverifiable or hearsay. In true Hager form, wild inferences have been drawn, with no supporting evidence, that place the NZDF in the worst possible light. Frankly, I find that disgraceful.

Under no circumstances should a inquiry be launched. Such an inquiry would give credence to Hager's flim-flammery and place entirely unnecessary stress on the soldiers who will be required to give evidence. In the end, the accusation will be dismissed as the fantasy it is, but Hager will scream "cover up" and increase the sales of his book.

I see no reason to spend millions of dollars pandering to Hager's toxic ego.

Karl du Fresne said...

The then head of the Defence Force accused Stephenson of lying in an article – of not having been where he said he had been and not having talked to people he said he had talked to. There could be no more damning allegation against a journalist. The NZDF subsequently acknowledged it was wrong.

To me, that’s previous form. It indicates a deliberate attempt to discredit Stephenson. It’s not why I expect of the Defence Force or any branch of the New Zealand government.

As for the inquiry, my starting point is the need for openness. There are accusations and counter-accusations bouncing around and we’re entitled to know the truth. I don’t accept the argument that there shouldn’t be an inquiry because it would only serve to give Hager satisfaction. To me that’s not a good enough reason.

In any case, if people are so confident that Hager is wrong, isn’t that all the more reason for an inquiry? If it was established that his story was a fabrication, that would do irreparable harm to his credibility (although I’m not naïve enough to think it would make a blind bit of difference to his devotees, who would doubtless dismiss it as a whitewash).

macdoctor said...

Still reluctant to part with a million or so of taxpayer dollars to satisfy the dictates of gossip and innuendo.

James said...

"The then head of the Defence Force accused Stephenson of lying in an article – of not having been where he said he had been and not having talked to people he said he had talked to. There could be no more damning allegation against a journalist."

It occurs to me that this allegation could be repeated again this time round, only now it would be 100% correct. Hager and Stephenson have not been to the villages. They have not spoken to SAS soldiers. They have got all their facts wrong, as pointed out by the NZDF with accompanying evidence (helicopter landing sites, ammunition used by ISAF, presence of insurgents, recovered weapons and ammunition).

I feel that you are being overly harsh on the NZDF, who have responded with openness and candour.

There should only be an inquiry if verifiable and plausible allegations are brought forth. In this case, Hager and Stephenson have spectacularly failed. An inquiry would not only waste money, it would waste NZDF's time and resources (a precious commodity), and would march to the beat of Hager and Stephenson's drumbeat.

Their spurious and slanderous allegations do not deserve any more oxygen.