Good PR relies on bad journalism: the "stolen e-mails" story

The latest reporting on Don Brash's "stolen emails" has again exposed National's political spin machine and a media with a curious attitude towards the public's right to know

I recommend being at the centre of a news issue for getting a close up view of how the news media operates. It is not always a pleasing or uplifting experience, but it is informative.

In the past two weeks there has been a rerun of the "stolen e-mail" story. The story followed the usual pattern of the "news flurry", where something or someone gets a story going, the other media jump in to do imitation pieces and then some of our stock of mostly right-wing commentators wade in with their uninformed musings. A typical flurry lasts between three days and a week, and then usually the subject is dropped completely.

Let me begin by summarising the background to the "stolen e-mail" story. Two and a half years ago I published my book The Hollow Men about the inside workings of the New Zealand National Party. The book was based on a wide range of leaked documents (including sensitive e-mails) plus plenty of information that was never written down and could only come verbally from inside sources. The then leader, Don Brash, his staff and various MPs were revealed lying deliberately to the public, knowingly breaking election finance laws and conducting all sorts of secret and deceptive activities that were at odds with their public faces. Don Brash's colleagues pushed him to resign as the book came out, as a scapegoat to deflect attention off the wrongdoing of other National Party figures who have remained in politics.

The party had been caught out in a massive way and various key figures were angry and vengeful. Once Brash's colleagues had distracted the media onto the change of leadership, they began a campaign of attacking me and the book. Public relations manuals provide the blueprint for how to react in a crisis such as this: deny everything... distract attention off your own actions by attacking the messenger... present yourself as being the victim. Spin doctors keep using these techniques because journalists keep falling for them.

In the case of my book, Brash and the National Party presented themselves as the victims by claiming that the material in my book had been stolen. They called in the police to reinforce this idea. It is a story that has served them well. It is completely untrue and there has never been a shred of evidence to support it. But National Party people have raised the story when it has suited them and the media has quoted them and given the story repeated rounds of publicity.

The first stories, back after the book came out, all claimed that the materials in my book "must" have come from "hacking" either Don Brash's personal computer or the Parliamentary Services server. Both suggestions were unlikely in the extreme (they have secure systems) and were, anyway, untrue. This did not stop the hacking stories being regularly recycled. The National Party, then a National Party private investigator (Russell Joseph, managing director of Corporate Risk) and then the police all investigated the allegations of computer hacking. I know from my inside sources that National and its private investigator found no evidence of hacking and eventually the police also decided that they were confident there had been no electronic intrusion.

Despite this, these stories have been run and re-run for two years. Can you imagine the media running two years of stories in which I claimed the National Party had broken into my house, where I could produce no evidence at all and where the police couldn't find any either? They would rightfully say that they couldn't possibly publish defamatory allegations like that unless I produced solid proof.

The latest "stolen e-mail" news flurry was basically a recycling of the idea that the police have covered up e-mail crimes. There had been an earlier flurry when the police declined to release their investigation file under the Official Information Act (but had released a summary of their conclusions, including that they did not believe there had been hacking). But the story arose again when an unnamed person pursued the issue to the Ombudsman and got a heavily edited version of the police report released. 

Anyone who actually works on police stories knows that the police are routinely unhelpful under the Official Information Act. I have a number of requests with police at present that are months overdue and others where I've been refused everything and gone to the Ombudsman for assistance. This is, unfortunately, normal. But various journalists in the latest news flurry were persuaded that the heavy editing was evidence of a dark conspiracy.

Let's look at what went on.

First, none of the journalists seemed to question why the police report had turned up and who was spinning the story. In this case, it appears that the story only arose because the National Party-aligned PR consultant Matthew Hooton (not Brash) pursued the papers to the Ombudsman (Hooton is telling people he may yet take the issue further to the High Court). Why is Hooton doing this? It may simply be because he looked so bad in the National Party documents I reproduced in The Hollow Men (and if it was Labour Party internal documents I had been leaked, revealing dishonesty and deception by Labour MPs, it's possible that Hooton would not be so doggedly campaigning for Parliamentary security). I don't know. The news organisations didn't ask him. Neither did they ask him about his motives.

Hooton has been a significant – if not the main – promoter of the hacking allegations and more recently the idea of a Labour-led government-police cover up of e-mail theft. He's written this in some angry newspaper columns and declared it in the space that Radio New Zealand gives him as a commentator. Hooton is wrong about a Police cover up, just as he was about the hacking.

None the less, it is Hooton's spin on the story – proposing the extremely unlikely idea that senior Police officers know about a crime against members of the current government but have chosen to lie about it and cover it up – that was unwittingly picked up as the "framing" of this latest flurry of stolen e-mail articles. Our media are not good at realising when an issue is being orchestrated and they have adopted a partisan framing.

The internet version of TVNZ's story, for instance, said without attribution that, "The heavily censored police document is more revealing for what it leaves out rather than what it discloses." It referred to a cover-up and a whitewash, leaving readers to feel that something dodgy was going on without the reporter voicing Hooton's absurd allegation (which I doubt the reporter would believe).

TV3's story was both better and worse. The journalist did a reasonably decent job of trying to be balanced. He talked about "leaks", whereas the TVNZ story casually talked about stealing and theft, as if the repetition of these allegations has somehow made them fact. But then at the end of the TV3 item they used footage of Brash making new and even more unlikely accusations against me. I am amazed they broadcast the accusations without requiring any evidence. Here is the transcript:

Author Nicky Hager wasn't available today but has insisted the person who gave him the e-mails was acting legally. Brash disputes this, and says Hager also used information taken from a break in at the house of supporter Diane Foreman.

Brash: "I  don't say he was involved in the criminal action directly but clearly he took advantage of that and wrote a book on the basis of that."

As one made-up set of allegations against me was running out of steam, Brash was allowed to make up a new one. It is completely untrue. But just like the e-mail theft allegations, Brash was apparently not even asked to justify his claim. Anyone who has read my book knows that there is nothing in it that would have come from Foreman's house. Besides, was I supposed to have taken information from a house thief? Or maybe from the Labour Party hired burglars? Whatever it is, it is so unlikely and insulting, what did TV3 think they were doing?

The most likely answer is that they just didn't think. Not too hard, anyway. They, like other media, had already repeated equally baseless and insulting allegations about Brash's e-mails. Here was another colourful piece of footage to fill out the news bulletin on a quiet Saturday evening.

Indeed, once the framing was set, no journalist appeared to question the validity of the story or step outside the framing coming from Hooton's unacknowledged campaign. The week of media stories dumping on the police produced results too. Yesterday the Police Commissioner announced a review of the e-mail case to check it had been conducted properly, as the ongoing criticism "had the potential to undermine public trust and confidence in the police". The review is fine by me—it will disappoint that critics by finding no cover ups or political pressures—but it will also be an unnecessary waste of time. I wish this media pressure had been applied on an issue that actually matters. As I said, it is an illuminating experience being at the centre of a news story and watching what happens.

Being fair, there was legitimate news value in National's original allegations in 2006 that the information in my book came from someone hacking their computers. Of course it was interesting that they said this. But they should have been asked to front up with proof, not just quotable one-liners. When the proof didn't materialise they shouldn't have been given any more space.

Certainly it is not the job of journalists to try to uncover each other's sources. This is what one reporter seemed to be doing this week, going beyond reporting to telling the government that it should do more to pursue my sources. The reporter spent a large section of John Key's press conference on Monday urging him to dump on the Police inquiry and in effect lobbying for a new prime ministerial one (you can listen to her trying to boss around John Key here: PM's Presser: Brash's emails and Ms Rankin).

It is a familiar experience. In 2003 I spent months researching a major feature article about the activities of the New Zealand Special Air Service, military spies and other military personnel in the war in Afghanistan. It was the first solid information that the public got on New Zealand's biggest contribution to a war since Vietnam. Some reporters saw the value of the revelations and wrote follow-up stories. But others wrote silly "security" stories about the supposed security threat of me, shock-horror, finding inside sources who would leak information about the secret Afghanistan operations, as if I had done something dangerous by informing the public what the military was doing in its name.

This is like the journalists who ignored the many important revelations in The Hollow Men in favour of joining a hunt for my sources. What concerns me most are journalists siding with the authorities instead of with the public's right to know what its leaders are doing.

Instead of falling into the 'police cover up' line, the journalists would have served the public better by carefully reading the six volumes of police e-mail investigation documents released last week for what they did say. The papers note, for instance, that my book contained documents (including a leadership acceptance speech by Brash, a fax and three sets of National Party board minutes) that had never been on the computer systems – evidence that should shut up any reasonable person from repeating the computer hacking stories. This is presumably part of the reason that the police realised that, as I had consistently said, the information had come from sources other than hacking computers. They also give a sense of how much work the police had done, explaining why National sees no point in going through the process again.

Once the e-mail hacking story is laid to rest (which it should have been for all but the truly bigoted), the explanation that remains is that I was given the information in my book by insiders. This is what happened.* It is a debatable question whether taking a copy of a document to which you have lawful access and giving it to someone else is theft. But, however you see it, it is no different to what happens in every other leak in New Zealand and around the world.

National Party MPs proudly held up leaked papers in Parliament when they were in Opposition and would forcefully reject the idea that they had received stolen goods. The same media organisations that have done National a favour by talking about "stolen e-mails" would strongly defend their right to receive leaks without this being characterised as criminal activity. One person's theft is another person's leak. It seems to depend simply on whether you approve of the information reaching the public.

In the end, the difference between a leak and a theft is mainly spin. National and its allies have been spinning. That's the way people like them operate. My complaint is not about them, but about journalists and news organisations who adopt their spin and uncritically join their campaign. Whether unthinking or malicious, it is not good journalism and good journalists should not fall for it.

* I said in the acknowledgements to The Hollow Men that I had received information from people "in and near the National Party" and that "six people in particular provided most of the information". This has been repeated carelessly in news stories as "six National Party insiders" and even "six people close to Don Brash". Please note, I didn't say either of those things. I have an obligation to protect my sources and so I was deliberately not saying how many were "in", how many were "near" or anything about what those terms meant. But it is obvious from reading the book that I received a large amount of information from people with very good access to the leader's office and I also had good sources on what was happening inside the National Party caucus. I had other information about some of Brash's allies outside the party that could not have come from either of those sources. This diversity of sources always made it surprising to me that anyone who had read the book would give any credence to the "hacking" story.