Lies, Fake Lies and Alternative Facts

7 October, Havelock North Function Centre
Readers and Writers, HBAF 2017

Let me start at the end, in case this is too political for you. This interview (between Matt Kidd, house dean and media studies teacher, and Nicky Hager, investigative journalist and author of six books) has convinced me that our democracy needs people like Nicky Hager; independent men who ask hard questions and use their critical thinking to challenge norms the over-employed and under-educated don’t have the time or means to examine. That doesn’t mean I like him, but I do respect his place in a society that needs to ask more questions.

Fact: He doesn’t have a mobile phone, “because I need all the time for thinking I can get.”

Hager’s whole life is spent gathering information, with no secret place in this highly connected world. Half his time is spent strategically searching for inside sources. He takes optimism from his experience that most people are offended by lies.

Discussing fake news Hager explains how repetition by media has a lot to answer for in giving such falsehoods their power, “Politics is a soup of impression management”. He says this tactic is aimed at making people disengage from politics, refrain from voting altogether, in fact, “The quality of our politics is directly proportional to our media and their policy.”

Sentences like the following worry me, “Do a stocktake on the number of good-quality commentators on political policy, this number is more important than the actual policy.” Did I hear that correctly?

Hager asserts (several times throughout the interview), that everyone should re-read Dirty Politics and The Hollow Men instead of us reacting in a new way every time, for instance, we have a General Election. He says he is gratified that his outing of nasty smear campaigns, like Cameron Slater’s, means we have not seen this used so much this time and that Labour avoided trouble by presenting a new “unsmeared leader”.

Fact: Matt would like to see Media Studies as a compulsory subject.

Fact: Hager advocates reading whole books, “Don’t capitulate to a Twitter-length of commentary, don’t abandon books.”

The audience has warmed up now, they are vocal with approval and clap points well-made, such as the need to be literate on the incredibly sophisticated world we live in. And the need to combat segmented, opinion-specific news, proliferating all too readily on the internet and Facebook. Hager gives his remedy as preservation of big, substantial, public-funded, mass media that we all listen to: triple the size of Radio New Zealand and reconnect it to our national television channel.

Hager lumps President Trump and John Key unfavourably together in rejecting expert opinions. This is described as creating a “soporific effect” on the voter: they turn off. Hager says we have been through a “sleepy sickness” period with Key. Amusingly the fire alarm malfunctions at this precise moment and the lady to my left smiles and vocalises my thoughts, “John Key didn’t like that.”

It is obvious that there is not enough time to cover all the topics. Election contributions, sending soldiers overseas, our systems saturated by political influence ruled by the small percentage of very wealthy at the top….

Fact: Nicky Hager has thought about entering politics, saying he is “public-interest motivated”, but thinks he can do more good from the outside.

I have had a slightly uncomfortable feeling of ‘reds under the bed’ that ebbed and flowed throughout this excellent interview, but fact checking and skepticism are healthy right, isn’t that what I’ve been hearing?

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