Reinstating Judith Collins to his cabinet this week, NZ Prime Minister John Key deployed a dogs-balls-obvious talking point that the Papakura MP had been “completely cleared” … “through an independent inquiry”. Here’s a clip:
Spot the talking point: “completely”. MP3 file
Watch a video of him saying it when he announced his cabinet reshuffle in NZ Herald political editor Audrey Young’s report: Judith Collins’ return to Cabinet: John Key had no choice but to reinstate ‘the Crusher’. (Note Audrey’s opinion: “…it would have been grossly unfair of the Prime Minister not to reinstate her.”)
Leave aside Audrey’s benign view for the moment. Mr Key’s remarks strike me as a case of spin and a slippery attempt to rewrite history. Maybe I’m being unfair. I think his (former? current? do we care?) texting/Threema buddy Cameron Slater trotted out the same sort of bald-statement-in-defiance-of-the-facts about another of my local National MPs who resigned in disgrace over an ethical lapse, Pansy Wong. Slater also probably thinks Maurice Williamson – who resigned from Cabinet (but not as an MP) over his improper interference in a police inquiry – has been unjustly treated too.
We’ve had a real run of bad luck with our National MPs out here in East Auckland, haven’t we? At least Jami-Lee Ross (National, Botany) seems like a nice bloke. I guess time will tell.
While we’re waiting, there are some interesting things we can discuss from evidence placed before the “independent inquiry” to which Mr Key referred…
Trigger – Nicky Hager’s book
Justice Lester Chisholm’s (very narrowly defined) government inquiry into “Allegations regarding the Honourable Judith Collins and a former Director of the Serious Fraud Office” was sparked by the revelations of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. Hager’s book sent a shockwave through New Zealand’s political-media establishment. As well as the Chisholm inquiry, Dirty Politics also triggered an inquiry into how the SIS was used as a political weapon by senior advisors in Prime Minister John Key’s office – an action by which Mr Key made Official Information Act history, but for all the wrong reasons. Download Lester Chisholm’s report here.
The book was also eagerly received by New Zealanders, judging by its ‘instant bestseller’ status (certainly by local standards). I understand 22,000 books have been printed to date, along with 2,000 e-book sales. When I spoke with Nicky Hager recently at the Centre for Investigative Journalists conference in Wellington, he indicated Dirty Politics has, of all his books to date, been the most popular and had the most long-lived impact.
Of course, that’s not how the Prime Minister’s spin doctors would present it. John Key’s initial vacuous defence (paraphrased): ‘Hager is a left wing conspiracy theorist™. He’s just made stuff up’ quickly dried, curled, and fluttered to the floor.
The Whaledump leaks which displayed some of the raw source materials (for those of us interested) also demonstrated to me how credible and responsible Hager’s ‘public interest’ publication of the information in the book was.
The efforts of the [alleged] hacker ‘Rawshark’ or ‘Whaledump’ to confirm the thrust of Hager’s book were a wildcard. The dumps threw the ‘just deny it’ game off balance. They eviscerated Mr Key’s spin, for those paying attention.
But it’s the nature of tribal politics that such informed people would only ever be a small group. Part of John Key’s teflon, smile-and-wave appeal to the general populace has always been his easy communication skills. Also, depending on one’s view of Barbecue John, an observer tends to put emphasis on one or the other components of his (reported) Merril Lynch nickname: ‘The smiling assassin’.
The needs of the many over the needs of Judith Collins
According to John Key’s statement announcing Mrs Collins’ forced resignation, he acted on receipt of an email (above) which on the face of it (‘prima facie’) indicated Mrs Collins was potentially compromised, even deeply involved in a dirty PR campaign involving her friend Cameron Slater (‘Slater Jnr’), low rent PR agent and smear artist Carrick Graham, and Hong Kong based expat Kiwi lawyer, blogger and sometime newspaper columnist Cathy Odgers.
All of these ‘players’ have been the subject of criticism now and then here at The Paepae. Regular readers will have already ascertained that I regard the three of them as quite dubious people – operators of questionable professional ethics if not morals. Does that sound sanctimonious of me? You would not be the first to suggest that. Line up behind those three duplicitous rascals.
But I’ve formed my (negative) honest opinion of them gradually. I think I’m right about them, based on my observations and interactions. But of course, I’m not infallible. They might be deeply misunderstood angels. (cough)
Mrs Collins’ firing – less than three weeks prior to the September 20 general election – crucially gave Mr Key the opportunity to lance a boil. To (at last) put on an appearance of ‘front footing’ the controversy raised by Dirty Politics and the associated allegations arising which had comprehensively derailed National’s re-election campaign.
Even National loyalists have admitted to me that the furore swirling around Mr Key regarding the subterranean attack machine operated by his staff directly from his Beehive office had badly damaged him. Rarely for ‘The selfie prime minister’, Key was plainly seen to be struggling. Under strain, his teflon coating was not just wearing thin. It was bubbling and flaking off in the heat.
I recognised the signs – for I had seen Mr Key equally discombobulated under pressure once before: late in the 2011 election campaign when, no doubt, National’s internal polling had picked Winston Peters and NZ First were broaching the 5% threshold and, it seemed, were set to triumphantly return Parliament — despite Key’s confident assurance to the contrary to John Banks at the Urban Cafe (revealed when we listened to the ‘tea pot tape’).
We learned later that Mr Key was mightily stressed by the tea pot tape fracas. The Peters poll numbers were an additional worry, National had only a slender lead against the Left ‘block’. Feeling the heat and genuinely rattled, Key launched a series of uncharacteristically negative, public and personal attacks against Peters with the theme, ‘A vote for NZ First is a vote for a new election a few weeks later’, yada yada blah blah.
Of course, Peters had the last laugh.
So it was that I noticed the same grey dread in Mr Key, the glassy eyes and tightness of jaw at things going off the rails that I had observed in Mr Key in 2011, in the last month of the 2014 election campaign. Mr Key’s trembling fingers reached for the “Fire Judith Collins” button (requiring her resignation = same thing) with dead man walking eagerness.
It was an easy sell, resembling as it did, a “Look at moi! I’ve taken action!” step.
Key’s desperate lieutenants, strategists and supporters – frantic for a circuit breaker – were at last able to point to That Thing He Had Done and, in the next breath say: ’Time to move on’.
Well, that is, unless you’re the sacrifice: Judith Collins. It was quite unfair to her, as it turned out. Worse, she was wounded by friendly fire. I’m pretty sure Cathy Odgers is off the Christmas card list, eh?
Available now: transcripts and evidence
Under the Official Information Act, I’ve acquired a pile of documents comprising redacted witness transcripts, sworn statements and evidence presented to the Chisholm inquiry. The pile runs to about 6cm, hundreds of pages. That’s considerably more words than Hager’s book Dirty Politics. It’s interesting reading.
I’ve posted them in full to my DocumentCloud account, and will make the various documents ‘public’ in the next week or so, as I work through this series of articles, so you’ll be able read them for yourself – or download them, if the notion appeals to you. The full tranche is a whisker over 90MB, but some of the documents are just cover sheets, so pick and choose. I’ll leave them on DocumentCloud, which offers some good analysis tools, although its built-in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has been somewhat compromised by the red block text RELEASED UNDER THE OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT emblazoned across each page. In a few cases, like the Cathy Odgers statement, I’ve enlarged the (rather grungy) copy provided and run it through Adobe Acrobat Pro’s OCR and saved that as separate document marked as [OCR]. (Email me for a link if you’re in a hurry.)
Oh, and many thanks to Issac Davison at the NZ Herald whose brief article ‘Champagne stunt an utter disaster: Collins‘ alerted me to the fact that these documents had finally worked their way through the arduous path of selection/redaction/preparation-for-release under the Official Information Act. It took a little while to get them as electronic documents, but there they are. A question that remains unanswered is: Why has the Herald made so little use of the documents? Not interesting? Too busy ‘converging’ with Newstalk ZB? Discussions with several sources at NZME lead me to see the Herald‘s editors as effectively seeking to sweep the whole ‘Dirty Politics’ episode under the carpet (and some at the Herald‘s role in it?).
Or perhaps it’s just a case of differing judgements of news value? You decide.
Part 1 – Poor Carrick Graham has been incredibly unlucky
Reading the documents, it’s been relatively easy to observe patterns. I also perceived various obfuscations, ‘party lines’, and what look to me like shabby evasions of the conspirators. Carrick Graham, in particular, came across badly in his interview, in my opinion.
Even allowing for what’s called ‘confirmation bias’ (my own, I mean), Carrick Graham’s credibility suffered yet another severe blow when I read his testimony. In my eyes at least.
It appears Graham couldn’t provide email records for the period demanded by his s20 production order because of not one, not two, but three laptop failures. That’s right, email records for the period of interest to the inquiry were tragically deleted (oh noes!) due to An Unfortunate Series Of Events, your Honour.
And to add even more misfortune: Poor Carrick’s back-ups didn’t work either! So sad. Poor boy. I’m sure he was distraught at all that lost data.
As icing on the cake, Carrick Graham also told the inquiry (every word true, I’m sure) the sad tale of a bungled attempt to make his email system more secure after the Hager book was published. According to his sworn testimony, tragically, that very procedure saw even more business records lost. Gee, sorry Judge. Unlucky.
In response, Justice Chisholm required Graham to provide an additional sworn statement – from his IT contractor attesting to the futile search for emails. Which was, of course, provided by the oh-so-compliant dirty PR odd job man. See —-;
Carrick Graham’s main testimony/interview (106 pages) is also notable for occasions when, rather than answer a question he was asked, he reached for the safety of the inquiry’s (deliberately?) narrowly set terms of reference, expressing discomfort at questions about his dirty PR operation, for instance, when asked about paying David Farrar, pointedly asking “…how does this relate to the terms of the inquiry?” [p19]
From my own reading of the transcript of his interview at the inquiry, and the other materials he supplied, Carrick Graham gave a slippery performance. Reading it, to me he comes across as a rubbery character, and evasive. To me, the guy seems like a wriggler, like an adolescent trying to dodge consequences for his dubious actions. Perhaps that’s what his clients – like the Food and Grocery Council and British Americian Tobacco – look for in their PR hit men? I was reminded of the mafia’s legendary ‘Omertà’ code of silence in defence of ‘the family’.
Based on what I read in these documents, I personally came to judge him as most untrustworthy. Maybe it’s unfair of me, but in my view, he’s what lawyers and judges sometimes euphemistically call “an unreliable witness”.
By coincidence, about the time I got the box of Chisholm Inquiry documents, it was announced that Carrick Graham’s business partnership with right wing great white hope for the Auckland mayoralty, Cameron Brewer, and gossip columnist Ricardo Simich had been dissolved. Perhaps Graham’s business partners reached the same conclusions? I don’t know. Perhaps there’s another, more benign, explanation.
Someone told me one of the ‘issues’ was one or more of the partners ‘not pulling their weight’, but who knows? Certainly, I wouldn’t have thought Cameron Brewer would want/need/benefit from any of Graham’s Dirty Politics stigma attached to him. But didn’t Carrick say it was good for business? Gee, it’s hard to know.
Inside Cameron Slater’s bitter and toxic fantasy world
The record of Cameron Slater’s time on the witness stand is more confirmation, as if any were needed, that the guy really is quite detached from reality. Clearly under pressure and unhappy to be there, Slater hissed and fizzed to the inquiry about the ‘dirty media’ and a ‘criminal hacker’ and moaned and grizzled about Nicky Hager invading his privacy, and the media revelling in his (Slater Jnr’s) private information blah blah …
Reprising the vacuous doubletalk of his previous court appearances and police interviews (“evasive and naive”, Judge Harvey described his performance, if I recall) Slater Jnr tried to bluster his way past inconvenient facts and documents. He really is a piece of work. (Chisholm himself said in his report:  “…While I believe that Mr Slater was genuinely trying to assist the inquiry, I decided that his evidence should be approached with great caution, especially where it conflicted with other evidence or the documentary record. …” Nuff said, right?)
This interchange, where he fatuously tried once again to spin his shallow sophistry and tissue-thin claim that he “wasn’t paid for the posts” he “was paid for strategy”. Classic horsemeat lasagne…
On the question that mattered: Was Judith Collins ‘in on the scheme’ to smear SFO boss Adam Feeley? — Slater Jnr was, naturally, mortified that he had to admit to “embellishing” the truth; exaggerating his relationship with Mrs Collins; talking big, talking big “from nothing” — all, at root, admissions that he is a liar — to save Mrs Collins’ reputation and career. But what was his alternative?
Now, perhaps it was agreed that Slater Jnr should be the ‘fall guy’, I don’t know. Maybe. But it’s clear Carrick Graham described Slater as someone who “embellished his relationship with Judith Collins”….
Cathy Odgers, likewise, in her written statement to the inquiry, called Slater a dreamer, someone creating “works of fiction” to part potential clients from their money …
In his own prickly, testy interview, Slater Jnr repeatedly came back to his touchstone: his fantasy world where many in the mainstream media hate him, and his enemies have tried to kill him, or impoverish him by attempting to hold him to account for his crass bullying and abusiveness, … but they should fear him because he has sackloads of undisclosed evidence which would destroy their careers etc etc blah blah rave rave.
Involvement of NZ Herald writers
A few days before Slater Jnr’s appearance at the inquiry NZ Herald journalists Jared Savage and Fran O’Sullivan had been interviewed. (Update: actually, the gap was more than a few days. Savage appeared 7 October; O’Sullivan 10 October; Slater Jnr 24 October.)
O’Sullivan wrote an article [‘We need to know who tried to fit up SFO boss‘, with a large photo of Cathy Odgers] a few days after her appearance at the inquiry. Slater Jnr told the inquiry he took great exception to it, claiming O’Sullivan’s column had been threatening and intimidating other witnesses (he seemed to mean himself and Cathy Odgers).
It seems unquestionably true that he and Odgers were offended by O’Sullivan’s article. Read it for yourself and see if you can figure out why, exactly. I had read it at the time and found it was interesting, and I read Slater Jnr’s response. Again, he came across as a man under pressure – which of course he was.
Neither of those two journalists covered themselves with glory during their interviews, in my opinion. Jared Savage, in particular, seems strangely to have preferred to communicate with Slater Jnr about Judith Collins’ thoughts and feelings about Adam Feeley than with her, or anyone in her office. Savage’s ‘information trading’ with Slater Jnr went several steps too far, in my view.
It looks to me like he’d been played for a sucker and was, actually, Slater Jnr’s main (if not only) source of information/scuttlebutt from disgruntled SFO insiders. By faithfully passing these damaging tidbits on to Slater Jnr, Savage effectively put the NZ Herald into the [alleged] conspiracy — cooperating with agents being paid by Hotchin for a supposed ‘media balancing strategy’ (vomit) that at the very least morphed into a typically ugly, dishonest and personalised Slater Jnr/whaleoil attack campaign aimed at publicly denigrating and undermining Adam Feeley, then later Sean Hughes of the Financial Markets Authority.
That’s not the role of the news media, in my view. Jared Savage crossed a line in his dealings with Slater, and took the NZ Herald with him. Sorry. It seems to me Savage has been lucky to get away with such actions with his career and reputation, such as it is, intact. He can in part thank Nicky Hager for Hager’s decision not to ‘name names’ of Slater Jnr’s complicit media in Dirty Politics which reached a wide audience.
As genuinely liked by some of his colleagues as he is (I’ve discussed these matters with some of them) I think Savage stuffed that up. As a result, I’m sorry to say he is damaged goods in my eyes — a situation only exacerbated by the deeply shonky reporting by Savage and Bevan Hurley around the Donghua Liu “$100,000 bottle of wine, oh no, wait, not one bottle, four bottles, oh no wait …” hit job. What muppets.
That was another journalistic screw-up, also swept under the carpet by the NZ Herald and the photogenic Tim Murphy, a really nice guy but serial maker of poor disclosure decisions about similar matters under pressure, in my view.
Slater fantasises and exaggerates on a daily basis. Anyone observing him knows that. Savage should have had the brains to work out he was being played. (I guess he’s figured it out now?) But, more importantly, Savage as deputy chief reporter at the time, and the NZ Herald itself should have been far less bloodthirsty about Feeley, far less credulous, and made an effort to be more even-handed. That’s my opinion. The paper got used.
Again, if you’re interested, read Jared Savage’s and Fran O’Sullivan’s interview transcripts for yourself (only if you’re interested, OK?) when I post the links. They’re both kind of awful.
Oh no! More missing correspondence
In an echo of Carrick Graham’s conveniently/inconveniently missing emails from 2011, Justice Chisholm had to come to terms with Cameron Slater’s eerily similar apparent lack of records of relevant correspondence. Again, the explanation was required after his appearance in the form of a sworn statement, this time from Slater Jnr himself.
There was also the mysterious case of missing/nonexistent phone records between Mrs Collins and Slater, about which Chisholm said his final report …”Those records disclosed a number of calls from Ms Collins to Mr Slater, but no calls at all from Mr Slater to Ms Collins.”
Cathy ‘colonic’ Odgers
Cathy Odgers had described her experience of the Chisholm inquiry as “colonic” (Um, Cathy. Ew!!) But in reality, even as the author of some of the more significant and protracted attacks on Adam Feeley’s character and calls for him to be sacked, Cathy didn’t even face examination at the inquiry. She phoned it in, delivering a seven-page sworn statement and a wad of past blog posts showing how vociferously she has hassled New Zealand regulators in the past. As if that was somehow honourable. Maybe it was.
But all of this became ironic later, given Odgers’ recent attempts to ‘talk down’ her own influence in New Zealand media and commentary, in an effort to argue for her proposed censorship/removal of her AsianInvasion2006.blogspot blog from the National Library. Here she is in evidence to the inquiry:
“I ran a long series of critically acclaimed posts, many referred to in other online and mainstream media, critical of both regulators Diplock and Weldon and more specifically of Jane Diplock for her high media profile and large travel expenses…”
“At the time of writing for Mr Hotchin and before I was applauded as a blogger in many media circles for the quality of my writing and investigation …”
“I was possibly the only prominent commentator in New Zealand at the time who believed that Mr Hotchin could be not gtlilty of the very serious allegations and potential charges…
And here on her co-defendant’s, oops, co-conspirator’s, website recently trying to justify vanishing:
I’m a non resident and have been for 13 years now writing a blog from outside NZ. Who decides what overseas bloggers are archived? And under what section are non-resident works covered. For example if an American was writing a blog mentioning NZ politics or a NZer living in America would they archive it?
Spot the contrast: From “prominent commentator”, “applauded blogger”, “critically acclaimed” when describing herself to Justice Chisholm; scaling down to non-resident ‘ain’t no big thang’ when spinning a line re the National Archives.
Slater later tried to ‘blame’ Odgers’ non-appearance on Fran O’Sullivan’s previously mentioned article, suggesting O’Sullivan had compromised the Inquiry with her article. Well, until I see evidence of that, I’m prepared to issue the standard response to blowhards like Slater Jnr: Yeah right.
In her statement, Odgers admitted being paid by Mark Hotchin, (or by interests associated with Hotchin, since [cough] his assets were frozen, if you recall). Perhaps as a tax-minimisation lawyer, used to dealing with secret trust funds, Cathy saw ‘no problemo’ with the situation where – like Slater – she failed to declare to her readers that she was being paid for her role writing articles rehabilitating Hotchin, and indulging in a campaign to destabilize the head of the white collar crime unit investigating the failure of Hotchin’s company.
Leave aside Cathy Odgers’ obligations as a lawyer to behave ethically and as a fit and proper person. Maybe I’ve got that all wrong. She might very well say that she has so acted through this whole affair. Perhaps she has. But I think as a newspaper columnist, “prominent commentator” and blogger she owed her readers a duty of disclosure of the fact she had been engaged – and was being paid – for PR services for Mark Hotchin. What do you think?
“I, Cameron Slater, journalist”
Slater Jnr labours under no such professional obligations but I did snort at reading him identify himself in that sworn statement above as ‘Cameron Slater of [address redacted], journalist.’
We’ve chuckled together here a few times at The Paepae at Slater’s about face on this: forcefully denying being a journalist when being called to operate in accordance with even a slender semblance of journalistic standards.
With the slippery shallowness of intellect and lack of principle he displays in so much of his often ghostwritten dreck, Slater Jnr has dropped that declamation. For now, seeking to evade exposure of his dirty PR ‘clients’, Slater Jnr the ‘True blogger’ seeks to wrap himself in a journalist’s garb; to recast his Wizard of Oz/PR attack website as a ‘news medium’; claiming those paying him to publish derogatory attacks on people (as part of a ‘strategy’) are not his paymasters but his ‘confidential sources’. Yeah right.
But, like Cathy Odgers, that wasn’t an item of information he felt any need to declare to his readers. You know why? Because they aren’t his “clients”. (What kind of a blog has ‘clients’ anyway? For advertising, sure. But to do with content?)
No, the whaleoil attack blog’s clients, like Hotchin, like Katherine Rich and the Food & Grocery Council (via Graham, presumably), like Crest Cleaning Co., and whoever is paying for the ‘concrete cancer’ series — those people and organisations lurking out of sight or in the shadows are the ones who pay Slater Jnr’s bills. It’s them, and Simon Lusk’s National Party selection battle wannabes — who pay Lusk for ‘strategy’ — i.e. to have Slater Jnr smear their opponents.
Based on my observations and the revelations of Whaledump and Dirty Politics, it seems Slater Jnr pushes their hidden agendas using exaggeration and ‘big talk’ (lies), character assassination, personal abuse and denigration. Odgers, Slater and Carrick Graham attempted to pass off their personal, grubby — in some cases commercial — attacks on Adam Feeley and others as merely their deeply held personal opinions run amok. Riiight.
They told the inquiry that the ‘opportunity’ to smear and belittle Adam Feeley over a bottle of champagne, and leaks from SFO staff unhappy with Feeley’s management of the agency … these ‘opportunities’ just came up … and were too good to ignore … but (really, truly Your Honour) the smears and ‘hits’ weren’t part of the Public relations ‘brief’ they were carrying out for Hotchin. Not a conspiracy. Oh, no siree.
Is it ‘dirty PR’?
Yes. What else would you call it? Paid-for ‘opinion pieces’ following an undisclosed agenda, with attack posts written to demean, tackle and confront media coverage that displeased the client — these qualify as dirty PR in my book.
What it’s useful to know about Cameron Slater is that he’s not an original thinker, or a leader, or ‘creative’ in anything but in an aping, derivative way. See how slavishly he’s copied Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish blog, for example, not to mention his slavish …um, emulation of the ‘dogwhistles’ and overt hate speech of people like the late Andrew Breitbart.
For instance, Slater Jnr and his wife’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is thin and derivative. It’s hard to know how much of the islamophobia and hate is due to their own religious adherence, playing up to fellow church members. Maybe a bit? Dunno. The revelation of sponsorship by Israel is instructive too.
History, and his own testimony, shows us that Slater Jnr is a shallow puppet, a ball-boy, a caddie, someone who does other people’s bidding. He was used by David Farrar, he was used by Simon Lusk, he was used by Carrick Graham, he was used by Jason Ede and Phil de Joux.
The latest sleazy decapitation and smear campaign against the Conservative Party founder, funder and leader Colin Craig didn’t originate as an ‘idea’ in Slater’s head. He’s not spouting his ‘opinion’. That’s not how it works.
He’s doing it for somebody. He’s been recruited or engaged. At least that’s what I personally think, based on my observations of Slater Jnr over the years. And good on Colin Craig for calling the sleazy operation what it is: Dirty Politics.
More on that later.
Facts are stated to the best of my knowledge and commentary is my honest opinion. Corrections or clarifications are always welcome by email. Comments are open, but may be moderated.
– Best wishes, Peter Aranyi