On Pundit's invitation, Nicky Hager argues that Matthew Hooton's attack on police this week is just another smokescreen
Matthew Hooton has complained that the Police investigation into National Party leaks used in my book The Hollow Men was "profoundly incompetent or corrupt". He repeated these words three times in his writing on the subject and suggested that the detective inspector in charge of the case was politically biased. It was an entirely unwarranted attack on the police officers involved.
What should we make make of this attack? All it really means is that Hooton did not like the Police's conclusions and felt entitled to attack them personally for not coming up with the findings he had hoped they would.
After my book was published in late 2006, Hooton joined other right-wing voices in declaring (without a shred of evidence) that the internal National Party papers in the book had been stolen. He declared confidently that sooner or later they would uncover the people responsible. This bluster came to nothing when the Police ultimately found no evidence that any crime, hacking or other wrongdoing had occurred, as I had consistently said. Fortunately, the Police had made no progress in identifying my legitimate leakers either. I have a life-long responsibility to these sources and so I'm of course relieved that neither the National Party nor Police have worked out who has been providing me with information.
I met the Police officers who investigated the National Party complaints. My impression was that they had tried very hard to get to the bottom of the leaks, much harder than the National Party's own half-hearted inquiries. I feel sorry for them now that they have to put up with personal attacks from someone like Matthew Hooton.
But they shouldn't feel bad about it. Hooton's comments say much more about Hooton himself than they do about the Police investigation. Hooton gets a lot of space to sound off about subjects like this, so it is relevant to pause and put the spotlight on him.
I first became aware of Matthew Hooton when he was a spin doctor in the late 1990s for Cabinet Minister Lockwood Smith. He got a mention in my book on anti-environmental public relations, Secrets and Lies. At that time he was helping his Minister argue that the state company Timberlands was actually helping improve the environment by chopping down West Coast native forests. This cynical world of ministerial advisers is illustrated beautifully by the current Australian TV satire called The Hollowmen, which is well worth watching online here.
I next noticed Hooton in 2003, when he was a National Party activist arguing in a party conference that National should drop the nuclear-free policy. That year he was working as a freelance PR consultant, notably assisting the tobacco industry. Over several months he collected information on organisations supporting new smoke-free legislation, information that was later used by the ACT Party's Rodney Hide to attack those groups and the smoke-free legislation on the day it was introduced to Parliament. Willingness to work on the side of tobacco companies is a very clear way of identifying the less ethical PR operators. (John Key's strategy adviser Mark Textor, of the Australian firm Crosby/Textor, likewise stands out as someone who was willing to work for tobacco companies.)
These experiences paved the way to Hooton's next job, working freelance for Don Brash. What Hooton doesn't mention when he expresses is indignation about the leaked information in The Hollow Men, is that he is one of the people the book shows at work. His strategy e-mails are there for the world to see. Anyone who wonders what to make of Matthew Hooton's public contributions to New Zealand politics really should read what he writes in private. His advice is sometimes clever, but it is also cynical. It is very revealing.
Which brings us to the point. Anyone who wonders why Hooton is making wild allegations about theft and crime again needs only to see what the leaked materials revealed about Hooton himself. His words have since been used in the Hollow Men stage play and now in the feature-length documentary. This is the unacknowledged context of all Hooton's comments about my book and the Police.
Like Don Brash and the other National Party figures featured in the book, presenting themselves as the victims of dark deeds is preferable to facing up to their own dark deeds as revealed in the book. For this sort of PR person, the answer when faced with a crisis is to attack the messenger, deny everything and claim that they themselves are the victims in the affair. Like an octopus squirting ink into the water, the hope is that these diversions will allow them to escape unscathed.
In this world of spin, words, arguments and personal attacks are all just means to an end, tools to advance their and their clients' objectives.