21 Mar 2017

'Hit and Run' sparks headlines - and a backlash

From Mediawatch, 6:52 pm on 21 March 2017

News of another Nicky Hager book in an election year became a big story, well before reporters even knew what it was about. Mediawatch looks at how Hit and Run hit the headlines.

Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson have released a book, 'Hit & Run', about the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan.

Nicky Hager, left, and Jon Stephenson speak to media at the book launch. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

TV reporters at the launch of Nicky Hager's new book in Wellington last night were ready to report live on the 6pm news, even if they were not sure what they would be reporting.

The book alleges civilians were killed during an SAS-led revenge raid in Afghanistan in 2010, authorised by then-Prime Minister John Key, with key facts hidden from the public and denied by government ministers.

While these allegations were not known by journalists before the book launch, speculation kicked off as soon as the invitation to the launch dropped into the inboxes of journalists and Hager's supporters last weekend.

The email promised a “gripping and important” book about an unspecified topic.  

“There will be no media comment until the launch,” said the invitation, somewhat sternly. But while there was no advance comment from the author, there was plenty from the media - even though almost all of them were completely in the dark about the book itself.

In a New Zealand Herald column headed Why we need another Nicky Hager book, Otago University's Dr Bryce Edwards said “it would be something to celebrate”.

“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,” wrote Dr Edwards, who wrote an affidavit in support (PDF) of  Hager during the fallout from his last book Dirty Politics.

PR practitioner Matthew Hooton - who featured prominently in Dirty Politics - reckoned it was Hager pulling the strings:  

Dirty Politics became an issue during the last election campaign and, a decade earlier, The Hollow Men lifted the lid on the National Party led by Don Brash.

Even though the invitation insisted this new book was “not a sequel to Dirty Politics nor related to the election,” political reporters duly gathered at Wellington’s Unity Books for the unveiling. No other author has such a pull on the profession in this country.

Timed to perfection?

Rolling out stuff.co.nz’s live blog, political reporter Stacey Kirk credited Hager with “razor-sharp timing” with previous books.

It was election year again, said some. Surely no coincidence?    

Mr Key’s parliamentary swansong was the following day, noted others. Was that a factor?

Some pundits said the launch time of 5.15pm was chosen in the hope of maximum exposure with minimal scrutiny on television.

“That will make it very difficult for everyone  - but particularly the 6pm news -  to do anything other than advertise it, rather than go to the relevant players for responding comment,” said Stacey Kirk on stuff.co.nz.

But a simpler explanation is that after-work time is typical for drinks-and-nibbles book launches designed to shift some units. A case over sales over spin - or commerce over conspiracy?

picture of the Metro story published in May 2011

The Metro story published in May 2011 Photo: supplied

It became clear party politics was not the topic when Hager emerged with co-author Jon Stephenson.

The foreign correspondent’s earlier reporting from Afghanistan in Metro revealed New Zealand soldiers had taken part in so-far secret raids and handed over Afghan prisoners to the US forces. He went to court when the Defence Force undermined his reporting with false claims and eventually won a substantial settlement after a gruelling defamation trial.  

This book’s claims are even more serious - alleging civilians were killed and wounded during the 2010 raid, with information kept hidden from the public.

Those following the live blogs on stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz found that out almost as soon as the reporters in the room. Both sites fired up video feeds soon after Hager began speaking. The Daily Blog live-streamed the entire event from the beginning.

Three minutes after Hager announced the book, journalists received an email with three attachments: a press release, a list of denials of the attack in questions which had been reported in the media, and a ‘Q and A’ document ending with: “What should happen next”.

The launch of 'Hit and Run' leads the news  live on TVNZ 1.

The launch of 'Hit and Run' leads the news live on TVNZ 1. Photo: screenshot

Both main TV bulletins - Newshub at 6 and TVNZ1 News - then led with the book, and the authors' call for an inquiry.  

TVNZ political editor Corin Dann stressed he could not get comment from the Defence Force or relevant politicians, “given the tight time frame”. This was the way Hager worked, he added.

Earlier in the day, Mr Key had told Dann he thought Hager was "a conspiracy theorist" whose claims "don't tend to stack up". But it is Hager's track record of stacking things up which drew reporters to the unveiling of a mystery book.

Reporting live from the book launch on TV3, Newshub's Jenna Lynch said there were audible gasps from those in the bookshop when Hager revealed the book's findings.

But those weren't the important reactions. Viewers need to hear from those who had categorically denied civilian casualties.  

Soon after after 7pm, media outlets were reporting they had no responses yet from the PM's office, the Minister of Defence or the Defence Force.

On stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz, the Hit and Run news was "leapfrogged" by breaking news that Jacinda Ardern had "leapfrogged" her leader in a new opinion poll.

Photo: screenshot

But when the Defence Force released a statement standing by its previous claims that no civilians died in 2010, the story was back at the top of the pile.

"The lights were burning in the Beehive on Tuesday night as an army of staff speed-read the explosive new book," Fairfax media's Tracey Watkins reported on Tuesday night

Hager's previous book on New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan - Others People's Wars - came out between The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics, but received nothing like the coverage. Unlike party politics, it's an issue that is usually out of sight and out of mind for New Zealand media  - and way beyond the Wellington beltway. 

With another set piece book launch Hager - this time, with Stephenson - has managed to swing the spotlight back onto it.