IS NICKY HAGER AN UNETHICAL HYPOCRITE? YOU BE THE JUDGE:
By Ian Wishart
I hope Nicky’s work in his new book Hit and Run attacking NZ SAS in Afghanistan is a step up from his previous effort in 2014.
In his book Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager reprints allegations contained in stolen private emails – theories about a wide range of people. Among the allegations he has printed are that former Act leader Rodney Hide was blackmailed into quitting because he had been caught sending inappropriate text messages to a woman.
Additionally, Hager reprinted emails alleging Auckland mayor Len Brown was having sex with prostitutes.
Neither Brown nor Hide appear to have been asked to comment on the truth of the allegations. In fact, Hide has definitely confirmed he was not approached, and that the allegations are false and without substance.
Yet here is what Nicky Hager testified to the Wellington High Court in a defamation case last year:
“I believe the more serious the allegations we write, the more care that is required to ensure we have got things correct. I say to myself that no one can ever criticise me for things I haven’t written, so that if I am not absolutely sure of something, I don’t publish.
“Research is something that can take months or years. In this case the allegations were serious and personal. I would not include allegations like those in my work if there was so little time for proving the facts…
“I was struck by the fact that the sexual allegations appeared to rely entirely upon the words of the plaintiff’s ex-wife. As a journalist, I would feel very uneasy about publishing, let alone putting my name to, sexual allegations from an ex-spouse unless I had done a lot of work and found very strong corroborating evidence.”
In Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics book, he has no witnesses at all; no prostitutes admitting to sleeping with Len Brown, no ex-spouse, no woman saying she was sent inappropriate texts by Rodney Hide. Hager’s entire ream of “evidence” is actually hearsay gossip, which is usually inadmissible in court.
“There are issues of logic in investigative journalism,” Hager told the High Court. “In particular we have to be careful that our evidence actually supports our conclusions…
“What would count as strong enough proof to publish allegations such as these? It is very, very hard to know what happened in someone else’s bedroom…If I was trying to investigate allegations like these, I might look for documentary evidence of complaints the alleged victim made at the time. I might try to find witnesses of diaries. I would ask about medical or mental health records. I would if possible confront the person against whom the allegations are being made, as they might be ready to admit at least part of the story. Even with these various lines of approach, it would quite likely still be impossible to make progress.
“Relying on a single source, an ex-partner, feels totally inadequate to me. I would never publish such serious allegations on such flimsy grounds.
“In the case we are discussing, where the allegations were serious and the evidence was far from being solid enough to publish with confidence, I would definitely have gone to the person being accused to hear their side. Not only is that fair to the person concerned but also it would form a vital part of the checking of the facts. The person’s response would be very important as to whether I proceeded to publish the allegations about that person.”
Those are the words – in sworn testimony on oath – of Nicolas Alfred Hager – in the Wellington High Court on 1 August 2013.
Remember, the allegations published in the book he was being asked to comment on were a woman’s claims that her first husband back in the 1960s was addicted to sex, tried to take her to strip clubs and was in her opinion a pervert for those reasons. The woman later alleged in court that she had been raped during the marriage, although in the 1960s this was not a crime. That allegation was not in the book that Hager was asked to comment on.
In contrast, Hager’s Dirty Politics alleges Len Brown not only had an affair with Bevan Chuang but that he may have been sleeping with prostitutes, and that Rodney Hide was sending unwanted text messages to a woman. Both of these allegations are serious and have an impact on two families. If true they are matters of public interest, but Hager had done no fact checking of any kind.
In cross examination, Hager told the Court he would “never” use a single source in a sexual allegation:
“Single source is regarded as bad form in all journalistic training and it’s sort of seen as the beginning rather than the end of the process, yeah, that you would get a single source and that would be where you’d start and then you would head out into the world to try to corroborate what they’ve told you.
“So these are your personal standards?”
“These are my personal standards, yes. Oh no, without wanting to be a hypocrite again, there would be instances in which I would use a single source, but I wouldn’t use it in a contentious, complicated, murky area where the stakes were high. I would never do that.” [Trial Transcript page 347, lines 19 to 28]
Asked whether he was saying a woman should never accuse someone of inappropriate sexual behaviour unless she had multiple witnesses to back her up (so that she was not a ‘single source’), Hager replied:
“I am specifically saying that a woman or a man making allegations of those kinds after however long, as the only source, would not be enough for me to even dream of publishing it. Even though I might personally completely feel sympathy and support their right to try and find justice in every way they can, that’s different from a decision to publish.”
“Because you would be concerned they might not be believed in Court?” asked barrister Chris Tennet.
“Not because of that. I’m concerned that I might be wrong and do an injustice to somebody else by believing one person when I didn’t have, actually in the end, good enough grounds.”
“So supporting evidence would influence your decision?”
“Yes.” [Trial Transcript page 348, lines 20 to 31]
Ironically, despite Hager’s evidence on his “personal standards” of fact checking helping convince the jury to find for the plaintiff, major new evidence emerged that resulted in the High Court quashing the jury guilty verdict in its entirety, and ordering a retrial. Among the grounds argued for a retrial [although it didn’t require the court’s consideration in the end] was that Hager’s evidence was flawed.
The Wishart book that Hager said should not have been published relied on first hand evidence from the alleged female victim, including sworn affidavits as to her experiences. She has now been backed up by another female complainant who has come forward. In Hager’s book, the allegations are contained in stolen emails repeating third-hand gossip and hearsay with no attempt at fact checking or asking the men concerned whether the sexual allegations were true.
Hager told the Court that even if the sexual impropriety “was central to the story, I wouldn’t have published. I would have waited until I had my central argument stronger…if I have got 90% which is as solid as a rock, and something which I would like to add, but I just haven’t got there, I would leave it out.” [Trial Transcript page 321, lines 13 to 18]
“In a political commentary often the defamation is about what someone has said about someone else and it revolves around issues of opinion. The thing which is special..when you’re alleging facts then you put yourself in a much more dangerous position, and that’s why in my comments I was saying if I was alleging facts which were being summarised as someone being a pervert, then I would regard that as a much more necessary time to be approaching them [for comment].” [Trial Transcript page 319, lines 23 to 33]
The question for readers is this: has Nicky Hager gone one step too far with his book Dirty Politics? Major defamatory allegations of sexual impropriety were made, and not fact checked. Worse, Hager never had an actual witness, just some stolen emails repeating hearsay gossip.
If that’s the standard of fact checking on just one small portion of the book, how much trust can the public have in Hager’s standards of journalism?
Disclosure of interest: The book Hager criticised in the Wellington High Court was co-written by Ian Wishart. That case has now gone before both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court after the High Court threw out the guilty verdicts handed down by a Wellington jury.
The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court upheld Wishart’s request for a retrial on the grounds of material new evidence.