Hager’s revelations have the authoritarians worried

The Sunday Star-Times is reporting interesting things coming out tomorrow:

You can always spot the stories which have the supporters-of-the-status-quo worried:

https://twitter.com/MatthewHootonNZ/status/573949709938634752

https://twitter.com/MatthewHootonNZ/status/574007328468377600

I hate to break it to Matthew Hooton, but in a world where Cameron Slater argues for the right to be called a journalist, you’re not going to get far saying that Nicky Hager isn’t one.

Of course, Hooton has a longstanding beef with Hager:

https://twitter.com/matthewhootonnz/status/370009843781734401

Ladies and gentlemen, one of the foremost rightwing commentators of our nation.

Who texts the PM?

An OIA request for information about the Prime Minister deleting his text messages is back (hat-tip to @eey0re) and Wayne Eagleson has found another wafer-thin excuse for the wholesale deletion of his master’s cellphone records:

With the large volume of text messages received and sent by the Prime Minister every day, these need to be regularly deleted not only for security reasons but also to ensure that the Prime Minister is always able to send or receive messages by preventing the cellphone exceeding its memory capacity.

What I always like to do with issues around newfangled technology is compare them to an old-school, “real-world” situation. In this case, let’s imagine that Treasury has been OIA’d about documents relating to a policy decision, like cutting taxes. And let’s imagine that the response says, “We can’t produce those papers, because we destroyed them.” And when people say “I’m sorry, what the hell did you just say?” Treasury responds,

With the large volume of documents received and written by the Treasury every day, these need to be regularly incinerated to ensure the Treasury is always able to receive and write documents by preventing our filing cabinets exceeding their capacity.

Yeah, that’s not how it’s meant to work, and they know it.

My view on this issue from day 1 has been: sure, you don’t want to keep sensitive material on a cellphone in case it gets nicked. Sure, cellphones only have a limited memory capacity. But if you are a senior civil servant, or an experienced politician, you know damn well that there is a set of principles and rules around preserving that information for the integrity of the state.

Maybe those rules aren’t completely up-to-date with all the new nifty ways we have of communicating. Maybe there’s not a specific “how to deal with a ton of meaningless text messages about when the car’s arriving” guideline.

So you ask. If you appreciate the need for transparent and accountable government, that is.

Unless, of course, it’s very convenient for you to just go “oh whoops, there’s no guidelines around deleting thousands of messages sent and received by the Prime Minister’s Prime Ministerial cellphone, guess we’ll just erase them.”

Because then no one would ever be able to prove, to pick a random example, just how often he contacts Cameron Slater.

Watching our language on mental illness and disability

[Content note: ableist language]

It was probably inevitable that in a post on The Standard about the differences in commentary style between leftwing and rightwing blogs, someone would come along and start saying things like:

Kiwiblog’s comments threads feature a great many angry retards, who mistake the laying out of their prejudices for thinking about a subject and presenting an argument on it. This topic attracts them more than most, and the thread was accordingly psychotic in tone.

When I pointed out that using words like “retard” and “psychotic” was unfriendly to people with mental health issues, it was probably also inevitable that I would be called a member of the “volunteer word police”.

The thing is, ableism is a serious issue. And I’m not ashamed to point it out when I see it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the word “ableism”, this is a good introduction.

There are two very good sets of reasons to not use that kind of language.

The first is the harm it causes. The way we talk about people with disabilities or mental illnesses contributes to how society treats them. We can use language which accords people some basic dignity and agency – like “wheelchair user” – or we can use language which pigeonholes them and defines them purely by what they “can’t” do – like “wheelchair-bound”.

And when we talk about judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, callous people like the standard commenters at Kiwiblog as “retards”, we’re saying that people who have severe mental disabilities are judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, and callous. Do you think that’s going to lead to anyone saying “gee, maybe I should be more open-minded and accommodating to people with mental disabilities?”

There’s a lot of highminded progressive principles which liberal/lefty people subscribe to, about treating people equally and not tolerating oppression. And we extend our analysis of power and exploitation to language all the time. We can all see the harm caused by referring to workers as a “resource” or telling sickness beneficiaries that “the best path to recovery is paid work.”

But when it comes to ideas like “don’t use ableist language” or “stop calling Paula Bennett fat” those progressive principles tend to fall down. Suddenly, we refuse to see the harm we cause with our language.

The second reason to avoid ableist language is, sadly, probably more persuasive.

That’s the idea that when we write off threatening, bigoted hate-speech as “retarded” or far-right and religious extremists as “nutjobs”, we’re downplaying the real threat they pose and cut ourselves off from being able to challenge their ideas or the people who propagate them.

Calling Kiwiblog commenters “angry retards” basically lets David Farrar off the hook for providing a platform for bigotry and hate. Talking about Cameron Slater’s mental health all the time mitigates the fact that he has built a following on deliberately destroying people’s careers and trying to threaten their lives. Writing off people like Anders Breivik as “crazy” stops us from examining and understanding the huge community of people who think, say, and may be planning similar violent actions. (And writing off that entire community as “crazy” is a great way to let them organise further acts of terrorist violence right under our noses.)

It’s easy enough to see why this language has a lot of currency. It’s so satisfying to be able to write off whole groups of people as being beneath us, isn’t it? But really it just hurts everyone else, including ourselves.

If that makes me a member of the Volunteer Word Police, I can only hope that the job comes with a shiny badge.

If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to stop using words like “retard” or “lame” in your day-to-day life, here’s a handy guide.

The meaning of dirty politics

One of the strategies of the right in NZ politics has been to take any complaint levelled against them – of corruption, of malpractice, of conspiracy – and reduce it down until it’s meaningless.

An excellent recent example of this took place on the Open Mike post at the Standard, where political hacking, and thus Dirty Politics, was being discussed. Dirty Politics, to most people in the NZ political sphere, has a pretty specific, well-known meaning. It refers to the actions documented by Nicky Hager by a cast of unethical players on the right, who use smear, innuendo, ghostwritten blog posts and allegedly even blackmail to shut down political opponents and promote a far-right, conservative ideology.

The book didn’t have the killing-blow impact on the general election which many people thought it would. It hasn’t stopped people like Matthew Hooton and David Farrar being used as political commentators in the mainstream media – sometimes even being asked to comment on Dirty Politics as though they have no stake in the game. It didn’t even claim the scalp of Judith Collins – that was another terribly revealing email – though it set the stage for it.

It’s still a powerful weapon for the left. As much as the right have tried to say “but the left do it too” – with their only example being one post which briefly appeared on The Standard in 2008 and was pulled precisely because it was an unethical move – their political machine has been damaged by the exposure. Cameron Slater is no longer a good conduit to get dirt into the mainstream. John Key cannot replace Jason Ede with another “blog liaison officer”. And they’ve relied on that two-track strategy for so long, into their third term (which is when the wheels start to fall off the masterplan anyway), that it could be impossible to build a completely new framework to control the political narrative.

What they can do is co-opt the idea of dirty politics and divorce it from any real meaning at all.

Thus you get Pete George – the derailing mastertroll ofNZ political blogging – leaving 20 comments on one post at The Standard which include contradictory assertions: that dirty politics isn’t serious because it’s what everyone does; that dirty politics is serious because it involves hacking, ergo Cameron Slater isn’t involved in dirty politics because he’s not a hacker; but also that people who tell Pete George to shut up and stop trolling are playing dirty politics.

When called on his behaviour, he complains that Nicky Hager “doesn’t get to control” how the phrase “dirty politics” is used.

I don’t think Pete George himself is a part of the Slater/Ede/Collins/Odgers dirty politics machine, but he’s a useful weathervane of how effective their strategy is: defining dirty politics as everything and nothing to render it powerless.

From being a significant piece of investigative journalism which shone a spotlight on the forces which are trying to turn NZ politics into a nasty, back-stabbing, big-money game, the aim is that “dirty politics” will enter our lexicon as just another way to say “people in a political debate calling each other names.” In the long run, it’s part of the strategy of turning people off politics so they don’t agitate, don’t organise, don’t vote.

How do we stop it? It’s a big project, turning around a well-resourced, widely-heard narrative. But we can be very clear in our meaning when we talk about dirty politics. We can keep pointing out when it happens and naming it for what it is. And with online platforms it’s much easier to get those messages out to a wider, less political audience.

And we don’t let the right de=fang Dirty Politics.

The downfall of John Key

The question of the day is whether John Key mishearing, forgetting, or not wanting to answer questions about Cameron Slater’s bizarre text messages is going to be the nail in his coffin.

Bryce Edwards is asking it, and Bryan Gould is one of many people wondering what kind of dirt Slater must have on Key to make him, against all apparent political logic, refuse to jettison the alliance with the attack blogger.

The thing is, if you’ve been around the online world of NZ politics for any amount of time, it’s always felt fairly obvious that associating with a nasty smear merchant like Cameron Slater would have to blow up in Key’s face at some point. It had to, if there were any justice in the world.

Haven’t we known for years that Cameron Slater/WhaleOil was a vicious piece of work who built his pageviews on clickbait, spam, and personal attacks? Haven’t we known for years that he was, in one way or another, deeply involved in the National Party political machine? Weren’t people pointing out that his writing style changed markedly from post to post depending on the target, and that his targets were frequently people or organisations which were opposing the interests of key National Party players?

Wasn’t everyone saying when Dirty Politics was released that it just confirmed everything we already knew?

So in a sense, last week’s text messages, and the shifty-looking way Key has tried to avoid talking about them, doesn’t feel like much of a killing blow. If you were already looking at Cameron Slater and John Key and thinking “well we know something’s going on there” it’s not even the biggest, scariest piece of information we know about their friendship. For it to bring about John Key’s downfall, it would have to mean the wider situation had changed.

And maybe it has, with journalists feeling pretty pissed off – that Key doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s dodging their questions, that Key gave his new cellphone number to Slater but not even members of the Press Gallery, and that all this is coming after it’s been made crystal clear that Slater has access to information, even help straight from the PM’s office to get that information, which they will never get.

On the other hand, the general election’s done. National could crash ten points in the polls overnight and it wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t recall Prime Ministers, and they don’t have an obvious, immediate replacement for Key who could hope to make things any better.

And in three years, who even knows if people will care about what John Key texted to that WhaleOil guy that one time?