The Peter Dunne leaking saga was mind-boggling. It also provided disturbing insights into the relationship between politicians and the media. Winston Peters bagged his man. After the initial shock, not a few of the mainstream media succumbed to a form of collective angst which has seen Dunne segue from deranged to not much short of heroic. We are now persuaded that what we really saw was a sensible and decent man gunned down for doing the right thing.
Some may not agree: Dunne jumped ship from Labour because it wasn’t far enough to the right. That begs the question of why he was there in the first place. He earned the wrath of fairly fundamentalist Christians who joined up with him in United Future.
If he was doing the public a service by leaking the Kitteridge report a week before it was due to be made public, it wasn’t much of a one. We have learned or been reminded of the symbiotic relationship between the media and leaking MPs. The latter proliferate in all parties. Journalists need stories. If this seems a little perverse it probably is. Leaks may not be evenhanded. They are probably given to preferred journalists who may have their own political agenda. But we were again persuaded to view this cosy set-up through rose-tinted spectacles.
We should be asking ourselves if the quasi-heroic portrait of Dunne is a response to alarm at the prospect of Peters as kingmaker again? NZ First was sidelined by most polls and the media before the last election. The party’s success rubbished the prognostications, made the media look biased and not a little stupid and in some instances really sour. Not all of us were thrilled to see Dunne, the Maori Party and John Banks throw their hand in with National. If Peters is kingmaker again my bet is he would likely to be an irritating one.
Democracy is like that.
The real worry for our ‘democracy’ is the substantial decline in the number of those voting and and how we remedy that. I don’t think the disenchanted worry about the manoevering of minor parties. They are disenchanted with what all are the parties have on offer, which is a pretty bleak future for all too many of them. The mainstream media doesn’t seem to be too worried about doing some digging on this.
Battle of the Sagas: Dunne Vs. Hager
The “Hager saga” is also a pertinent reminder of how poorly the mainstream media can perform. Nicky Hager is an investigative journalist, and a decent and sensible man. He has defended Dunne’s actions. I don’t know if his support is appreciated. Hager is not loved by either Labour or National. He faced very unpleasant and repeated accusations in mainstream media of stealing the emails he used in his book The Hollow Men to discredit National’s 2005 election campaign. No proof of the theft was supplied. Two police inquiries instigated by the National government found it was highly unlikely the emails were hacked into. Hager’s version can be found at Pundit.
Hager’s accusers, some of whom held or had held media jobs, were not hung out to dry. Our media doesn’t need to be jealous of its patch. Investigative journalism is not in abundant supply.
Leaks: Does the Relationship Between Parties Matter?
The other issue raised by Dunne’s actions was the nature of the relationship between Dunne and Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance. I can’t see how the exact nature of the relationship (a personal one was denied) matters. Leaking can occur anywhere: drinkies, coffee, romantic, honeytrap (if the latter occur) and marital assignments. There is no law preventing politicians from marrying or being romantically involved with members of the press corps, let alone attending their weddings or being good friends. Some of this I do find disturbing and one-off disclosures of a potential conflict of interest aren’t enough to dispel my belief that bias has been a little too prevalent.
Political reporters often end up as ministerial press secretaries, working in public relations, media training, lobbying for corporates, SOEs and the like. Careful career planning may tailor their reporting to the interests of potential employers and the remuneration on offer. Requiring political reporters to wear a large badge proclaiming ’REMEMBER THE PRESS IS NOT IMPARTIAL’ would be an excellent start.
But we need more than MPs leaking to their media chums to keep us properly informed. The Official Information Act was intended to help redress this situation. There are big delays in obtaining answers which are probably due to under-resourcing. Maybe that is deliberate. We need an effective method of embarrassing ministers who don’t give prompt answers. Whistleblowing needs better protection. At present it seems the best one can do is hope for a good outcome. Huh.
Meanwhile stay tuned to the next chapters in Dunne’s life: how will he vote on the revamped GCSB legislation and will he prove as durable as his arch-enemy Peters? If he quits Parliament he certainly won’t be greatly disadvantaged and should he be appointed to some quango he will possibly be better off. Compare his paltry leak and rosy future with the outlook for Edward Snowden.