Why we need another Hager book

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Author Nicky Hager is releasing a new book today. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nicky Hager is needed more than ever in New Zealand, and that’s why the launch of his new book later today is something to celebrate.

By Bryce Edwards

Nicky Hager is incredibly polarising. There's a lot of hate for him and his books. That tends to happen when you take on the Establishment and the political right - and they have good reason to regard him as an enemy. However, some of the criticism of Hager also comes from the left, even within the media and universities, where he is sometimes dismissed as a distraction or unreliable.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hager's six existing books, together with an array of important news journalism, show him to be an exceptional investigator and public intellectual.

The real value of Hager's work is that it enhances the democratic process. His research is usually on the powerful in society, and helps us understand how that power is used. Of course it's the nature of the powerful that they seek to wield their influence without raising public awareness. But in a democracy we need to know how society really works, why decisions are made, and how they are influenced.

This is why in 2015 I contributed an affidavit to the High Court explaining why Hager's work was in the public interest and needed to be protected from police actions - you can see this here: Bryce Edwards affidavit about Nicky Hager and Dirty Politics.

Hager's focus on media and political communications

It's the traditional role of the media to investigate and hold the powerful to account. But the question is whether they do that very well. In New Zealand our political discourse is extremely thin and limited. In many ways, our news media do a very good job with the resources they have. But it's not enough. We need other contributions to political debate and information. Ideally, this should include plenty of think tanks, NGOS, universities, and other parts of civil society. But these institutions are also relatively weak in regard to contributing to the health of democracy and politics.

That's where Hager comes in. His research has always epitomised the role of the investigative journalist -dealing not with the day-to-day minutiae of politics and current events, but undertaking projects that require lengthy periods of research and analysis. No one else in New Zealand has been able to fulfil such a necessary role.

The state of New Zealand's media and political discourse has been a key concern in Hager's work. Most of his books revolve around issues to do with political communication and information. The role of the media is normally central to his work - with the assertion that the media is either being manipulated by the powerful, or not carrying out its role inadequately.

Secrets and Lies (1999), the Hollow Men (2006), and Dirty Politics (2014) are centrally concerned with how news is manufactured and influenced by the powerful. Hager clearly has a very strong dislike for, and is strongly critical of, the public relations industry. This can be seen in the topic Hager chose for his 2012 annual Bruce Jesson Foundation lecture: Investigative journalism in the age of media meltdown: from National Party Headquarters to Afghanistan. Similarly, his 2007 talk at the Auckland Museum was on Propaganda then and now. And in 2008 he gave a very good lecture to sociologists, titled Imagining a world where the PR people had won.

More recently, Hager talked at the University of Otago about problematic role of PR being used in government departments - see John Gibb's news report, Inclusion, transparency urged.

So there's a very strong chance that his new book could be about media and political communications. After all, Hager has already stated in a late 2015 interview with Toby Manhire that the book he has been working on is "one of the most important projects that I could imagine in my life" - see: 'A kick back against government intolerance' - an interview with Nicky Hager.

There is certainly a huge public appetite for critiques and criticisms of the media in New Zealand. A survey out last week showed the public's trust in the media is plummeting. The annual Acumen Edelman New Zealand Trust Barometer measures public trust in the four institutions of government, business, NGOs, and media - and it is media that is the least trusted. Only 29 per cent profess trust in the media, and this is down from 38 per cent last year - see David Brain's Trust in New Zealand 2017.

State surveillance and the military

I've been reported as suggesting that the book could be about state surveillance - see Tracy Watkins' Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager releasing new book.

This is because spying is clearly one of Hager's long-running interests. His first book, from 1996, was the very influential "Secret Power, New Zealand's role in the international spy network".

The NBR's Rob Hosking also argues this is likely: "More likely, much more likely is something spy agency/espionage related. Mr Hager first made his name with the book Secret Power, in 1996, which outlined New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes network involving the US States, Australia, the UK and Canada. It remains his most important work, certainly because of its impact outside New Zealand, and his involvement and interest in spy related matters have remained high. Shot through as it is with the assumption that any spying done by any of those countries is ipso facto bad, it has nevertheless been highly influential" - see: Hager's latest book may be back to spies (paywalled).

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Hosking adds that "such a book would have international import right now, given Donald Trump in the White House and the wispy but discernible tendrils between Mr Trump and the Russian secret services".

Of course Hager has written about military themes before - especially with his book Other Peoples Wars (2011). And we live in times of heightened threats of conflict in certain parts of the world. In nine days' time, Hager is participating in a Wellington panel discussion in conjunction with the New Zealand premier of John Pilger's latest film about a looming military conflict in Asia and the Pacific between the US and China - see: The Coming War on China.

Not about John Key

There is a lot of excitement about the prospect that the new book could be an expose of John Key, perhaps revealing "why he really resigned as prime minister". As Rob Hosking says, "Mr Key is to give his valedictory speech to Parliament 24 hours after Mr Hager's book launch and there have been so many, mostly scurrilous, stories put around as to the 'real' reason Mr Key decided to stand down as prime minister that the announcement of another Hager book has been catnip for the conspiracy theorists" - see: Hager's latest book may be back to spies (paywalled).

This seems unlikely. Although Hager has said very little on what the book is about, these limited statements don't seem to equate with a Key book. Hager has communicated that the new book is not a sequel to Dirty Politics, and in fact: "It is a completely different book" - see Isaac Davison's Nicky Hager's new book released this week, 'completely different' to Dirty Politics.

Hager has also stated that the book is not related to this year's election. But certainly the book could have an impact on voting without it being directly about the election. A more wide-ranging expose of how government operates could be devastating for the National Party. And, of course, it's worth noting that the Fairfax parliamentary press gallery journalists made a prediction at the start of this year, "There will be one more political bombshell in 2017 that will change the course of the election and install Andrew Little as prime minister" - see: The year that might be: Our political predictions for 2017.

Labour leader Andrew Little is confident that it won't be about his party - see Newshub's New Nicky Hager book won't be about Labour - Little. Little praising Hager's work: "Mr Little says Mr Hager's past books have contributed to the democratic process, and he's looking forward to seeing what he has in store this time."

Finally, in a light-hearted Spinoff article, Toby Manhire canvasses possible topics of the new book, and suggests some betting odds - for example, it could be a book about Velcro (based on Hager's clue that the topic is "gripping and important"), with estimated odds of 100-1; it could be about John Key's resignation, 50-1; tax, 15-1; New Zealand's involvement in war, 10-1; and state surveillance, 10-1 - see: Nicky Hager is about to publish a new book. What's it about? Here are the odds

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