Portrait of Nicky Hager – journalist or activist?

I don’t know whether this was part of planned PR of Nicky Hager or not, but Stuff has a National Portrait: Nicky Hager – investigative journalist.

His champions call him a defender of democracy and decency; his critics call him a politically-motivated smear merchant and master of PR, who stages book releases for maximum impact and trashes reputations to make money.

Hager calls himself an author or investigative journalist. Not an activist – he hates that term. And not a Labour or Green Party stooge. But certainly political, in the sense he’s motivated by morality and social issues and the need for change.

Despite his protestations many people see him as an agenda driven activist. He does investigate like a journalist, but he is well known for not giving his targets any input to his issues before publishing, which is regarded as not good journalism.

He describes himself as ‘Author and Investigative Journalist’ on his website.

“Do I have a party political agenda? Not in the slightest. Do I have social and political motivations? Of course. Why else would I spend hundreds and thousands of hours working on things? That’s why I do it.”

He may not have a consistent alliance with any one political party but he clearly tries to influence politics with his books, with his ‘Seeds of Doubt’ blind siding Labour in the run up to the 2002 election, ‘The Hollow Men’ clearly targeting Don Brash and National in 2006, and ‘Dirty Politics’ launched during the 2014 election campaign attacking National and connected bloggers couldn’t avoid being seen as political.

And his strongest supporters and his most vocal detractors largely split along political lines.

…he likes delving into subjects others would rather keep secret, from his first book Secret Power, investigating previously unknown spy agency GCSB, to the latest, Hit & Run, which alleges New Zealand SAS involvement in civilian deaths, and a Defence Force cover-up.

His books fall broadly into two categories – war (intelligence gathering being an extension of military work) and dodgy politics. The first is personal – Hager comes from a family “really shockingly influenced by the fact the world had gone to war”.

“So the work I’ve done about war … I feel like that’s my life’s work … if we don’t do that then we’re just endlessly tricked into going to the next war and making the same mistakes again.”

I don’t question this anti-war motive, and in relation to Hager’s latest book I think the the entry of the US into Afghanistan early this century with New Zealand’s subsequent involvement is highly questionable.

But I really wonder if his targeting of one relatively tiny incident and trying to discredit the New Zealand Defence Force to the extent of suggesting possible war crimes is the best way to go about change.

He tends to polarise and entrench opinion, which tends to make his work easy to fob off as extreme activism.

Similar to my political opinions I have mixed feelings. I applaud some of the things he tries to impact on, but I question the effectiveness of the way he does things. For example I thought it was good to expose the political uses and abuses of Whale Oil, but have serious concerns about the use of illegally obtained data to do it, I am very concerned about the precedent that sets.

I also think that it’s good to shine a spotlight on unjustified and futile wars like in Afghanistan, but Hager is using victims to make more victims, in this case the SAS soldiers who were involved. Of course he is trying to put the blame for the attack at the highest levels – the Prime Minister of the time John Key, but if successful there could be some serious collateral damage.

There could also be a significant matter of New Zealand needing to have a defence force which has built a very good reputation for peace keeping efforts in different parts of the world. That was primarily why they were in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately in war even if your forces are trying to do good shit can happen – Taliban forces attacked NZ troops there mainly to try to rebuild, and the usual consequence of attacks in wars are counter attacks. The reality in war is that insurgents or opposing forces cannot just be left unchallenged.

Unfortunately, despite what I believe are genuine efforts to minimise civilian casualties military mistakes will happen and sometimes people in war situations react inappropriately.

Despite a brief flirtation with the Values Party, politics never tempted him.

Values morphed into the Greens. Regardless if Hager’s claims of no political affiliations all his books have aligned with general leanings of the Greens.

Hager never considered himself a journalist until American intelligence expert Jeffrey Richelson called Secret Power a “masterpiece of investigative reporting”. He is the only New Zealander on the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, but some still argue he’s not a journalist because he denies those in the gun the opportunity to respond before publishing.

That’s a common criticism.

He makes no apology for that, saying all he would get back would be spin.

I think this is a cop out response from Hager. Isn’t it the job of investigative journalists to dig beneath the spin?

“The responsibility to be accurate, fair and balanced has to be dealt with in your research.”

But presuming his targets would just provide him with spin seems to contradict with being accurate, fair and balanced.

One of Hager’s biggest credibility problems is his apparent feeling of being right – hence he doesn’t see the need to seek the input of those he believes are wrong – and being infallible.

Hager and supporters have established their own spin – that he never gets things wrong. But his latest book disproves that, as did Dirty Politics.

And there are I think valid questions about imbalance by omission – how can he be balanced if he is only listening to one side of the story.

A real problem he has with ‘Hit & Run’ is he is attacking the relatively very well respected NZ Defence Force (imperfect but less imperfect than most military forces) and appearing to side with people at least associated with the Taliban, people with very strict and old fashioned religious beliefs that seriously oppress women.

Dirty Politics was his biggest earner, at about $50,000. He survives by having a mortgage-free house and living frugally.

“People seem to be touchingly unaware of how little authors earn,” Hager says.”Nobody in their right mind who is doing it for the money would be writing these books.”

His income is an interesting issue. He published Dirty Politics 3 years ago. $50,000 for three years is very frugal,and his previous books have generally about 3 years apart, earning him less.

He must clock up some expenses. He travels around the country and around the world. Perhaps he gets air fares and accommodation paid for or supplied.

Hager insists the public opprobrium rarely gets him down. And he doesn’t fear for his safety, despite Dirty Politics characters publishing his address. However, the 2014 illegal police raid on his home, in search of the source of Dirty Politics‘s hacked emails, was “quite shocking”.

That did seem a shocking, over the top and futile search. The Police stuffed up there.

I’ve had my address published online as well, seems to be a tactic of certain people.


“I’m so comfortable with this, because the true objective of going for comment is not some ticking the box, it’s to be accurate, fair and balanced. That’s the purpose. And if the only effect of going for comment is that you don’t get any meaningful comment from them, and you don’t get any information and you just tip them off that they might want to sue you or cause you trouble, then there’s no gain from that.

I have a real problem with this attitude. He is making excuses for not doing what journalists would normally do and should normally do. It is necessary to filter out spin, but it is also a check against errors and mistaken assumptions.

Even the best journalists are not always right – in fact the best will test their findings to ensure they are as correct as possible, and that requires seeking more than one side of the story and more than one side of opinions.

The responsibility to be accurate, fair and balanced has to be dealt with in your research and what you write. And everyone who does this knows this. You can kind of be beaten up for not going for comment, but when you do go for comment, you don’t even get a comment – if you get anything, you get two sentences of spin.”

A journalist should never make presumptions like this. I find this attitude astounding for someone claiming to be a fair and balanced journalist.

This is more like the attitude of a political activist who is wilfully or fundamentally blind to opposing views and facts.

I note that Stuff has categorised this profile under ‘Politics’:


Corbyn at a glance

The Telegraph gives a summary of Jeremy Corbyn.


Age: 66
Constituency: North Islington
MP since: 1983
Education: Adams’ Grammar School, Shropshire
Before politics: Official for the National Union of Public Employees
Did you know? He has won ‘Parliamentary Beard of The Year’ five times

What he stands for:

  • Ending austerity
  • Protecting workers’ rights
  • Blocking welfare cuts
  • Scrapping tuition fees
  • Creating a National Education Service (like the NHS for healthcare)
  • Ensuring the NHS is completely publicly run
  • Renationalising railways and utilities
  • Abolishing Trident
  • Withdrawing from Nato
  • Introducing rent controls in unaffordable areas
  • Investing more in the arts

“I don’t do personal, I don’t do reaction, I don’t do abuse. Life is too short and it devalues the political process. I think we should try and enhance the democratic life of this country, not reduce it to that level”

– Jeremy Corbyn 


  • A new national investment bank to encourage growth and reduce the deficit
  • Public ownership of the railway and energy sector
  • Replace Trident with jobs that retain the skills of the workers
  • Reduce the welfare bill through growth and investment
  • Housebuilding programme and rent controls
  • Integrate social care with the NHS
  • A new national education service providing universal childcare, abolishing student fees, restoring grants and funding adult skills
  • Scrap zero hours contracts and a national living wage for all, regardless of age

Wikipedia summary:

As a self-described democratic socialist, Corbyn has advocated:

  • the re-nationalisation of public utilities and railways
  • re-opening coal mines
  • combating corporate tax evasion and avoidance as an alternative to austerity
  • abolishing university tuition fees and restoring student grants
  • a unilateral policy of nuclear disarmament and cancellation of the Trident nuclear weapons programme
  • quantitative easing to fund infrastructure and renewable energy projects
  • reversing cuts to the public sector and welfare made since 2010 by the government of David Cameron.

He is a member of:

  • the Socialist Campaign Group
  • the Palestine Solidarity Campaign
  • Amnesty International
  • the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
  • the National Chair of the Stop the War Coalition.