Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics confirmed what many involved in politics already knew – that Cameron Slater is a garbage person with little compunction about undermining enemies in unethical ways – and alleges what people had suspected – that he was part of well-organised network of political staffers, affiliated bloggers, and sympathetic journalists intent on reinforcing a pro-National Party narrative. In my earlier post ‘Subcontracting Morality’, I argued that Cameron Slater was an adept blogger who understood both media motivations for popular, scandalous stories and knew how to leak information, with his history and connections as a political operator being crucial to his success. Hager alleges a far greater degree of unethical behaviour and coordination including the Prime Minister himself. Certainly, the blogging narrative of Slater, Kiwiblog’s David Farrar, and Matthew Hooton generally bears a striking resemblance to the core National Party narrative of a stable, moderate centre-right government led by a strong, likeable leader, in contrast with a divided left led by an unpopular, gaffe and scandal-prone leader despised by his own caucus and aided by the radical, beholden Internet Mana. It would be hardly surprising that there wasn’t been at least an informal cooperation between the Beehive, bloggers, and journalists – either ideologically sympathetic or those driven by profit demands who simply want a scoop – towards mutually beneficial outcomes.
As I argued in ‘Subcontracting Morality’, the media have essentially removed themselves from ethical debates on issues like private morality – like the Len Brown affair leaked by Slater – for the sake of profitable news. This indirectly empowers politically-connected bloggers like Slater to create/ leak/ release news rather than news organisations themselves, who can remain untainted from tabloid approaches while promoting Slater’s work. Allegations involving Key, if true, would indicate a similar approach to subcontracting amorality, where dirty tricks operations could be laundered through a third party – with Slater resembling something akin to a Cayman Islands money laundering operation. In this sense, it would indicate that the reach of professional political operations into social media and sympathetic journalism are deeper and more widespread than previously thought.
The fact that New Zealand’s most popular political blogs are those with political affiliations raises a question of the degree to which the public can trust information disseminated from these sources. In the latest stats from July, Slater’s Whale Oil was the most read blog followed by Farrar’s Kiwiblog. Third place was the Daily Blog edited by Martyn Bradbury, who wrote the Internet Party draft strategy, worked as a consultant for Mana, openly supported Cunliffe during the Labour leadership election, and backing IMP, Cunliffe, and a Labour-Green-IMP coalition to the hilt. In fourth place is the Standard, a collective of left-leaning bloggers with mainly pro-Labour sympathies, including prominent poster and Cunliffe confidant Greg Presland aka Mickey Savage. If Hager’s allegations are true, it would not be a significant stretch of the imagination for some cooperation and joint strategy among many on the left. The left simply hasn’t developed the breadth, depth, and strategic nous of Slater-Farrar-Hooton and journalistic allies, nor put aside egos and halted infighting as well as the right.
The political connections of these top four political blogs suggests a hypothesis that truly popular, influential political blogs with high readership may rely heavily on the access to insider political information and patronage from any political affiliations. This would be an alarming but not entirely surprising development that political interests have successfully entrenched themselves in the blogosphere while posing as nominally independent. Not so much reacting to or reporting the news but creating coordinated PR.
If the book is wrong, current trends in politics would indicate that greater informal networks between political organisations, bloggers, and media are inevitable. With a need for politicians to remain untainted, disavow ‘dirty tricks’, and call for people to #votepositive, there is huge incentive to engage in mutually beneficial relationships to promote an agenda.