Dirty Politics: The battle of the metaphors

There's lots of stuff we know and lots we don't know following the latest round of Dirty Politics interviews... Here's my take on what we know so far and what it means

It's a matter, ultimately, for the courts. And voters. But the debate over Cameron Slater's accessing of the Labour Party website in 2011 has become a war of metaphors.

Here's what we know so far: In 2011 part of Labour's website was left without security, I'm told as it was in transition between internet providers. According to Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, Facebook messages between the two men show National Party member and former Auckland City Councillor Aaron Bhatnagar discovered the hole in security and told Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater. Slater facebooked Bhatnagar at the time that he was "working with senior Nats" on the release, but today won't say which "Nats". 

Slater admits to having, as he put it on The Nation today, gone "into the back end of the Labour Party's website" but won't say who else joined him there.

From Labour's logs, four computers were shown to have entered the site and left an electronic fingerprint. One was Slater's. Another was a staff member at National Party headquarters. National's President Peter Goodfellow confirmed to NBR in 2011 that "a head office staffer" accessed the data out of concern that National's own website may have similar holes. What Hager's book claims is that the IP address was traced to national.org.nz and that person didn't just look, but downloaded the database.

Hager's book says Bhatnagar's was the third computer and the facebook messages, if accurate, show his discussions to Slater about accessing the site, the amount of data found ("18,000 emails and the credit card transations") and how the security lapse could be revealed to embarrass Labour. I've just spoken to Bhatnagar, however, and he says he's not in a position to confirm or deny he went into the Labour site. I asked if he can't remember or just doesn't want to say and he merely replied he was in no position to comment.

The biggest question is around the identity of the fourth computer. Hager alleges it was Key's staff member Jason Ede. The fourth person was using a "dynamic IP address". Hager doesn't have any proof that the fourth computer was Ede's, except that Ede emailed Slater saying Labour was chasing them by trying to match them to IP addresses and he was relieved he had a dynamic IP address.

Slater is refusing to confirm or deny whether he was working with Slater on all this, so with those peole choosing not to answer those questions, we can't know for sure who did what.

Slater, though, admits going into the website's "back end" and Goodfellow has admitted the same for his staff member.

This despite John Key's insistence this week that "National was nowhere near Labour's website" and this has "nothing to do with us". Goodfellow's own admission contradicts Key.

Indeed, Key went from denying it outright to saying "If Jason Ede went and had a look at it out of curiosity, fair enough. But it's  got nothing to do with the National Party."

That seems rather contradictory in itself, and frankly National's response to this over the past few days has been as off-message and erratic as I've seen. And crucially, Hager alleges Ede didn't just "look", he downloaded the data there.

So now one of the central questions in this issue has become whether what Slater and that unnamed National Party staff member did was illegal. And this is where the metaphors come in.

My first conversation with someone on the Labour side was that it was like walking into someone's unlocked house, poking around and taking documents you found there. Josie Pagani adapted that this morning, pointing out that the website was a public place, so it was more like walking into a shop and copying down documents you found there.

Matthew Hooton said no, it was more like picking up material on the side of the road and that it was no more than you'd expect that a political operative would grab it and use it to damage their opponent. Such is politics. Pagani agreed.

But on Twitter others have challenged that logic. The Green Party's 'Toad' tweeted, "If I leave TV on side of road for few minutes while moving house still not legal 4 someone to take" and New Zealand First's Tracey Martin tweeted "Public Place so ok to lift data? Ok so you take my handbag at the park? Better?"

If you compare it to entering a shop or home and taking stuff, it certainly sounds illegal. If you just pick it up off the road it sounds immoral and, well, dirty politics, but not criminal. So the metaphor you choose says a lot about how you see this issue.

The law in question seems to be the Crimes Act in section 252(1), which says:

"Everyone is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years who intentionally accesses, directly or indirectly, any computer system without authorisation, knowing that he or she is not authorised to access that computer system, or being reckless as to whether or not he or she is authorised to access that computer system.”

Yet at the time Labour chose not to press the issue, worried that it was a distraction in election year and not a good look for the party. But now, framed differently, Labour will again consider legal action. The Greens have already laid complaints, so it seems the courts will get to rule on this eventually.

But what about voters? Do they care? And more crucially, do they understand? Even if the actions were legal, are they moral and decent?

I don't think any New Zealander would be comfortable with Slater or the National Party staffer going into a website that wasn't theirs and downloading data, including emails and credit card details. They would ask how they'd feel if it was there credit card and they'd be angry.

If that angle gets reported clearly, I can see this damaging National. More, if Ede is shown to have been the fourth computer, then Key is certainly tarnished. Having a "senior advisor" downloading personal info without consent or authorisation may or may not be criminal, but it's certainly unethical.

And one final point: Judith Collins. We know that she passed on the name of civil servant Simon Pleasants to Slater and the next day he wrote a blog accusing Pleasants of being a snitch, leaking on Bill English's housing arrangements. Pleasants was a former Labour staffer but he denies the leaking, has never been disciplined and remains in a government job.

So what was Slater's question that prompted Collins' five word reply, "Simon Pleasants, Manager Ministerial Property"? Slater says he can't remember, Collins says she was just confirming a name already publically available. It all depends on that question. Was it 'who's that Labour guy again?' it's innocent. If it's 'who's the bugger you reckon is leaking the English stuff? I want to roast him', it's a sacking offence.

Because a roasting is what occurred. Pleasants was named by Slater and attacked as a snitch. Commenters on his site made death threats against him and his family and the police got involved. For a Police Minister, as Collins was at the time, to have helped spark that is arguably irresponsible, maybe worse. Going by Slater's past behaviour and the political context, you might assume he was not seeking the name for fun.

But equally, Collins might say she was confirming a detail to a friend with no idea how he meant to use it and how it might play out; neither she nor Slater are responsible for how people react to a story.

Which is a fascinating Journalism 101 ethics debate, but doesn't get us far in terms of ministerial responsibility. Key says he won't even look  into it, Opposition parties say she must go.

Then there's the Bronwyn Pullar angle and questions whether Collins told Slater things she only knew due to her role as minister. That's another complicated angle I'm less clear on, but I just thought I'd note that it's also being looked into.

And that, friends, is where we're at with Dirty Politics this weekend. As the Prime Minister has been saying for the past few days, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about all that.