9 Aug 2020

'Hit and Run' runs its course

From Mediawatch, 3:47 pm on 9 August 2020

It’s three years since ‘Hit and Run’ first put Operation Burnham in the headlines, throwing light on a situation that unfolded far from the public gaze. The official report is out after a long and costly inquiry. What did the media make of the outcome?

Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in a media scrum at the launch of 'Hit and Run.'

Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in a media scrum at the launch of 'Hit and Run.' Photo: RNZ / Jeremy Rose

When Hit and Run was published in March 2017 political reporters came to the packed book launch even though the invitation said the book was “not about party politics or the election.” 

Two previous Nicky Hager books - Dirty Politics and The Hollow Men - produced a rich harvest of political headlines - so they came anyway.  

Hit and Run

Hit and Run Photo: Supplied

But Hit and Run - written with correspondent Jon Stephenson - was more like Nicky Hager’s book from 2011 Other People’s Wars. 

That showed that New Zealand and its troops were even more enmeshed in Afghanistan than the public had been told. Operations Burnham and Nova in 2010 certainly went under the public’s radar until Hit and Run hit the shelves - and the news.  

The book said the key facts were hidden from the public and denied by the NZDF and government ministers: most crucially - that civilians had been killed.   

“At the end of this process, someone's credibility is going to be shredded forever. The allegations are too serious,” the NBR’s Rob Hosking wrote at the time.   

The PM at the time - John Key - said there was no need for an inquiry but The Listener, The Press, The New Zealand Herald, The Gisborne Herald and other publications called for an inquiry in editorials. The Dominion Post did so twice.

NZDF chief Lieutenant-General Tim Keating conceded there may have been civilian casualties. But he insisted the “central premise” of the book was incorrect and there were “major inaccuracies" - most notably, the location of the SAS-led raids described in Hit and Run.

But the media also raised doubts about the book. The New Zealand Herald highlighted other discrepancies that it believed undermined the book - such as incorrectly captioned bullet casings. 

“Some basic errors in Hit & Run have weakened their case for an inquiry . . and "seems to have staved off a government inquiry,” The Dominion Post said at the time. 

Photo: PHOTO / RNZ

The inquiry  - and another one by the inpector-general of intelligence and security  - were stalled by the withholding of some important information and delays in supplying other data.     

In the course of the inquiry, Herald reporter David Fisher discovered documents released by NZDF after investigations by the Ombudsman showed the former PM John Key had been told that there no civilian casualties during Operation Burnham. 

In this case the NZDF were willing to make the details public at the time but a handwritten note on the front of the memo said: "PM and Minister (of defence Wayne Mapp) agreed not to release this information into the media."

Afghan representatives of those villagers withdrew from the inquiry a year ago. Lawyers representing them said   they were "completely disillusioned . . . and worn down by the process."

When previously classified documents released by the inquiry in May 2019 showed the NZDF thought civilians may have been killed in the days following an attack in Afghanistan, Nicky Hager told the inquiry  - not for the first time - he believed the NZDF was more concerned about its reputation than than the truth. 

Reputation management 

When the inquiry's report came out late last week one reputation damaged was that of former defence minister Wayne Mapp.

He had to admit on RNZ's Checkpoint he had been told about casualties but - even after many many interviews about the raids and the fallout in the years since - he forgot

The Attorney-General David Parker said the the inquiry found Hit and Run did contain errors but also confirmed its main allegations, and in doing so it “performed a valuable public service.”

That was noted in an editorial in Stuff papers last weekend. 

“The inquiry has also shone a mostly favourable light on Hager's work, and the worth of investigative journalism," the Otago Daily Times editorial said on Monday. 

Former newspaper editor Andrew Holden told RNZ said the authors had been “vindicated.” 

For Jon Stephenson, it's the second time. He sued the NZDF chief in 2014 to protect his reputation against claims made about his and his work in Afghanistan by the NZDF which was eventually settled in 2015.  

This week Nicky Hager welcomed the inquiry's recommendation of an independent Inspector-General of Defence to scrutinize the NZDF in future. 

Noting that the Dominion Post carried the reaction to the report on the front page under the headline Redemption next step for Defence Force writer Elizabeth Knox said:  “I think atonement comes before redemption.”

With that in mind the chastened former defence minister Wayne Mapp told RNZ

"I've always been of the view that New Zealand as a nation owes compensation to the victims. I have always felt that we haven't done enough as a nation to find out. I think is now incumbent upon the government now having got the report to do more for the villagers."

While lots has been written and broadcast this past week about the report that drew a line under the Operation Burnham inquiry, the real victims of what went wrong have not been the focus or the reporting. Like the raids themselves they remain out of sight and largely out of mind.