There's never been so many obstacles in the way of investigative journalism - but there are opportunities and ways to challenge these silences.

by | 25 Sep, 2023 | democracy, journalism, Propaganda

Nicky Hager at the Operation Burnham inquiry into SAS conduct in Afghanistan. Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's book 'Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour', prompted the NZ government inquiry. (Photo: Newsroom)

New Zealand author Nicky Hager is a world renowned investigative journalist who has challenged many aspects his country’s political and military establishments. His article detailing Australia and New Zealand spying in the Pacific, published in Declassified Australia in February 2022, remains one of our most read stories. 

In this article he examines the obstacles and opportunities facing investigative journalists reporting on environmental and political issues. Hager was a keynote speaker at Dataharvest, the European Investigative Journalism Conference in 2022 – this is Part 2 of an edited extract of his speech. We recently published Part 1.

The main problem stopping change is not a lack of facts about the issues. The main thing stopping change is the continuous organised obstruction, delay and watering down of environment policy by well funded industry lobby groups.

It is the fake community groups – Mothers for More Motorways-type groups – the paid spokespeople and publicity campaigns, the funding of biased experts, the full-time lobbyists, the corporate election donations, the law firms threatening to sue governments for introducing needed regulations and the rest of the mercenaries who help companies fight desperately needed change.

There’s nothing especially new about this problem, except that there’s more and more of it. When decades of climate change denial didn’t work so well any more, they shifted to greenwash and continued fighting regulation. These tactics are at the heart of the politics of climate and the interrelated issues of water, food, natural places and transport.

Exposing these tactics and the vested interests behind them is one of the best ways we can make a difference in this area. There is a public appetite for stories that reveal secret manipulation so we shouldn’t need to struggle to get them published.

I became aware of the growth of anti-environmental public relations campaigning in the late 1990s. I put it on the list. Some time later I found someone willing to lend me a wonderfully complete set of files from a United States PR company that was running a very aggressive pro-logging campaign on New Zealand rainforests.

I stood at a photocopier for the whole night (those were less digital days) and got the box of files back to my source by early morning to be put back in the company offices. It was such good material I used it to write a book; and it revealed such cynical and grubby tactics that it helped to discredit and end the logging. I’ve kept returning to the subject of anti-environmental tactics since then because it seems like an especially helpful way we can make a contribution.

This type of organised obstruction goes on year after year on many issues. There are industry-funded PR campaigns on virtually every controversial or disputed issue. PR and related industries have grown exponentially in the last generation. But most of these anti-democratic tactics go on uninvestigated and unreported. PR people say that the best PR campaign is one that no one knows is going on. Many achieve this.

A lot is written and said about climate that seems hopelessly inadequate compared to the size of the problem. But investigating and exposing the people resisting change seems like exactly the right thing at the right time; joining the fight of our times. Exposure and bad publicity are some of the best defences against these lobby groups and their tactics.

Nicky Hager in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand in July 2023. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Organised undermining of democratic politics

Industry lobby group campaigns like to argue that they are just having their say in a democracy. But often a large part of their effort and paid resources go into trying to stop their opponents having a say, for example by attacking their funding for being “too political”.

It is anti-democratic; designed to silence the scientists, experts, public interest campaigners, politicians and others who speak up on issues that affect the industry profits. They know it is much easier to push unpopular agendas if the public interest voices are quiet. We see this in many issues which look superficially like democracy at work but where business and other powerful voices dominate. A thinned out democracy.

I see investigative journalism as essentially a public service, working alongside the other people in our societies who are serving the public interest in different ways. One of the useful things we can do with our skills is to help protect those other people from being silenced by PR companies, lawyers and the rest. Here are some important examples.

The government’s dirty blogger

I did a book in 2014 about a prominent New Zealand right-wing blogger, associated with the then governing party. The blogger specialised in personal attacks, which he published daily against his party’s political opponents and more or less any person involved in public interest issues and politics. 

Smears, mocking, half truths, sex scandals: social media are the ideal unregulated zone for such tactics. Many people were intimidated and silenced by him and his helpers, which was their purpose. It was having a seriously bad influence on our democratic culture.

I had become aware of this sometime earlier and put him on the list. As often seems to happen when our antennas are tuned, I was lucky and found a good source.

It turned out that the operation was being fed with information and attack lines by a dirty tricks coordinator in the prime minister’s office, from his office two doors from the prime minister’s. Before the book, our media, to their shame, had recently voted the blogger as media blogger of the year. They regularly picked up stories from the blog and took attack stories directly from him without declaring the source.

The launch of the book, which revealed the dirty tricks team in their own words and communications, had an immediate effect on everyone involved. The blogger dramatically fell from grace, as did the Minister of Justice who was one of his main sources of attack stories. The book, which has the unsubtle title Dirty Politics, still has an influence on discussions of politics years later.

My favourite part of that book was catching a PR man who was writing personal attacks and paying the blogger to post them on behalf of his hidden clients.

Various high-profile public health academics specialising in alcohol, sugary foods and tobacco were being attacked week after week, year after year. Each time one of his smears was posted, the PR man would leave a series of comments under different names, further smearing the academics. Luckily, there were documents about this smear campaign in the leaked papers I received. They revealed the identity of the PR man, who had previously been head of corporate relations for British American Tobacco, and showed him sending through each smear to be posted online. The medical professors used the book to go to court and successfully sue those involved.

Similar social media manipulation of course goes on in other countries. These people watch each other and copy each other’s tactics. This story may remind you of something similar in your country. It is not easy to gather information on the covert parts of this work but difficult projects can be most rewarding. 

Private investigators Vs the public

I’ve exposed:

– private investigators that spy on and infiltrate climate groups (many times);

– tobacco industry tactics used to intimidate Ministry of Health researchers;

– campaigns to have outspoken university lecturers fired or at least silenced;

– organised efforts to cut off sources of community group funds;

– and, most recently, private investigators watching the houses and tailing the cars of former cult members to stop them speaking against the cult publicly.

These sorts of tactics can unfortunately be cheap and effective tools for minimising criticism of their clients.

I think all this matters a lot. There’s much more harm occurring to the democratic/public interest side of our societies than we realise. But also this is an important strategic opportunity for investigative journalism. We can make a contribution to the public good by helping those people carry on their work and stopping them being silenced.

The optimism of investigative journalism

I would like to name the worst social problem by far in my country which is uncontrolled house price inflation and a resulting massive transfer of wealth from less rich (and younger) people to richer people.

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where this isn’t the dominant social problem, it might sound like an obscure problem. But in my country and others, it is the root cause of many serious problems. As usual there is a well-resourced political campaign to try to stop policy changes and regulations. It urgently needs investigative journalism.

I will give a few thoughts now about how we can look after ourselves and keep going; and then end with some comments about our role in society.

Early in my career a wise person saw me throwing myself into my work and gave me some advice. He said that if it is important to do this work now, it will still be needed right through our lives. This is right of course. And if we can keep going, then over time we discover how much more can be achieved in decades than in years.

I believe that investigative journalism is an inherently optimistic activity, based on a belief in the decency and social conscience of others. It is based on the hope that our work can produce change. It is based on the belief that sources will trust us and risk themselves to help get information to the public. It is based on belief in the good of ordinary people and that they will care about issues we reveal.

It is an optimistic activity, but doesn’t always feel that way. We do hard and sometimes discouraging things, and none of us are indestructible. 

First, we can’t work on everything. I take comfort from the thought that while I work on some issues, other people are working on other issues. It is a joint effort.

Also I know that burnout happens but we can recover. It seems to happen when we push ourselves for too long without feeling motivated. I find the best cure is a rest, friends and time out in nature, then changing to new projects where I do feel motivated, away from whatever I’d been feeling allergic to.

I’ve also become aware that one of the most precious things in my work is thinking time. I consciously plan my life to maximise thinking time. We all know about the things that fragment and use up our time. I’m just saying it, it helps immensely to have more time to think and let ideas bubble up from our subconscious minds.

Next, newsrooms are not always friendly and collaborative places. An antidote for this is building friendships and networks with people across our profession. This makes us far more likely to continue in journalism. I believe the main value of a conference like this is to give us a chance to meet others.

Inquiring journalism. (Photo: Terje Sollie)

Although we hear about “largest collaborations ever”, the ideal size for effective collaboration is often two people, or a few people, a scale where great focus is possible and good relationships can grow.

Also, investigative journalism structures need to be consistent with our values, making space for, and giving equal influence to, people who are not from dominant countries and races. This doesn’t seem urgent when you’re from the dominant countries or races, but it does when you’re not.

And while I’m mentioning collaboration: I believe in collaboration. I don’t mind being contacted for information or advice. My contacts are not hard to find.

Rebuilding public respect through investigative journalism

The public, and especially young people, need us not to be pessimistic or cynical. This means managing our own feelings. Yes to pointing out problems. Yes to pointing them out loudly. But one of the most important things we can give others is the hope that things can get better, that it’s not all hopeless, that people care.

The media gets a lot of criticism and that can erode public respect. Our work can build it.

We know that how we act is as important as what we do, for instance how we speak in public, and how we treat people including people we’re criticising, and definitely how we treat our sources who we must always put first.

Whether we know it or not, we are some of the spokespeople for ethics in our societies. There are laws and police forces for crime, but not for truth and ethics. The public needs people more than ever who they can trust about what is fact, and what is right and wrong, and also who will talk honestly about the grey areas. These are more reasons why we have to look after ourselves, including looking after our optimism and hopefulness.

Investigative journalism is, first and foremost, a democratic activity, a public service, where a relatively small number of people using the skills of our trade can sometimes make a massive difference to the issues we work on. It is, at heart, about making things better, about change. The public don’t care whether we win awards; they want us to help change things.

The profession of journalism should be clear that it is on the public interest side. It is about redressing the obvious inequality of power and creating the possibility of democratic decision making.

Often it is the PR companies, industry lobbyists, spin doctors and the rest on one side, and the news media and other public interest forces on the other. Investigative journalism is an important part of giving the public interest side a chance.

We are not part of a news-entertainment industry. We are not here just to produce tomorrow’s scoop and long reads and media awards. We are here to make a difference. Many people care about the same things as us and wish they could do something about them. We’re the lucky ones. We have an opportunity to do something.

We should push it as hard as we can, accepting you can have trouble for challenging the powerful. We should stick together and support each other. We should look after ourselves and ensure we keep going. We have work to do. People are relying on us.

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Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager is an investigative reporter and author of seven books. He has written widely on New Zealand and allied intelligence operations, including two books. His latest book, Hit & Run, on civilian casualties during an NZSAS raid in Afghanistan, led to a major government inquiry. View all posts by