Nothing To The Story? The same Defence Force, reinforced by the same ministerial authority, which denied the truth of Jon Stephenson's "Eyes Wide Shut", now denies the truth of Nicky Hager's revelation that the NZDF used American-gathered metadata to monitor the movements and contacts of Jon Stephenson in Afghanistan. Will Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, and the former CDF, Lt-General Rhys Jones, (above) be forced to acknowledge, eventually, the accuracy of Hager's story - just as they were of Stephenson's?
GREG PALAST is one of the USA’s most ornery investigative journalists. His well-researched articles regularly achieve everything that good journalism should: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Sometimes, the more than comfortable. With a good story, Palast and his keyboard can bring the full weight of justice crashing down on the heads of the mendacious, the deceitful, and the just plain dishonest.
But Palast only gets to beat the bad guys with the cooperation of the mainstream media.
It’s fashionable nowadays for bloggers and tweeters to pour scorn on what they sneeringly abbreviate to the “MSM”. But, the hard, cold truth of the matter is that a great story that finds no space on the pages of the major newspapers, or in the bulletins of the big television and radio networks, is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.
If nobody reads it, or watches it, or hears it, then it makes no impact at all.
This what happened to Palast shortly after the US presidential election of 2000. That’s the one that came down to a few thousand votes cast (or not cast) and counted (or not counted) in the Sunshine State of Florida.
Palast’s research had revealed an alarming series of political connections between the state administration of George W. Bush’s little brother, Jeb, and the company commissioned to update the Florida electoral roll. The story raised the alarming possibility that the roll had been deliberately purged of the names of thousands of electors who were more likely than not to vote for the Democratic Party candidate, Al Gore.
Palast pitched his explosive story to one of the big US television networks – and, boy-oh-boy, were they interested! Confident of a nationwide scoop, he waited for the six o’clock news-editor’s call. And waited. And waited. And waited.
“What the hell!” Palast rang back his contact at the network: “Are you guys running this story or not!”
“Oh, sorry Greg,” came his contact’s reply, “but, no, we’ve decided to leave it.”
Palast could scarcely believe his ears. “What do you mean? Why the hell not!”
“Well, we put your allegations to the Governor’s Office, and they put them to the Governor, and he told us there was nothing to the story – so we’re not running it.”
I WAS REMINDED of Palast’s cautionary tale earlier this week.
Nicky Hager, one of New Zealand’s most tenacious investigative journalists, had, with the help of the country’s largest newspaper, broken a story claiming the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) had enlisted the support of United States intelligence-gathering agencies in Afghanistan to identify the contacts and sources of New Zealand’s leading war correspondent, Jon Stephenson.
At the same time, Hager also released the contents of an NZDF “security manual” in which “certain investigative journalists” were deemed to be a “subversive” threat to both the operational effectiveness and the good reputation of New Zealand’s armed forces.
Is it possible, asked Hager, that the latter might be related to the former?
It took the NZDF and its Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman, roughly 24 hours to nut out their response. Having spent the weekend “trawling through a decade’s worth of records from the Afghan war”, the military’s top brass blandly reassured the nation that they had “found no evidence NZDF had ordered surveillance on the investigative journalist.”
The Defence Minister instantly firmed that statement up by flatly denying there was any evidence of such surveillance. The clear implication being that Hager had, at best, got the story badly wrong, or, at worst, made the whole thing up.
Depressingly, a number of newspapers and broadcasters, treated Coleman’s “no evidence” statement as definitive. Hager’s allegations, like Palast’s, had been put to the Powers-That-Be and been told there was nothing to them.
So, naturally, they immediately stopped believing them.
Did none of these “official sources say” journalists have a sufficiently capacious professional memory to recall that the NZDF had come up with a remarkably similar strategy in relation to an investigative article Stephenson himself had written in 2011?
Bland denials, based upon “evidence” which no one else can verify, should never be taken at face value. Simply asking the Governor’s Office, or the NZDF’s top-brass, isn’t good enough.
When dealing with Greg Palast, Nicky Hager or Jon Stephenson – the assumption should always be that there’s a case to answer.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 August 2013.