The Terror of the Nicky Hager Edition
‘Each book could destroy the business,’ writes editor Nicky Hager
In the mid-1990s, I started working with investigative writer Nicky Hager. I had the most singular of all my authorial relationships with Nicky, the result of the powerful, usually hot topic, which is her business.
I had known Nicky from our early days in forest conservation – he had been a campaign comrade – but he had also had a long interest in security issues. In 1996, he came to us with a nearly finished book which, for the first time, revealed the existence of the highly secret ECHELON surveillance program conducted between the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the New Zealand, now commonly referred to as the Five Eyes Intelligence. Alliance. This alliance effectively means that New Zealand is doing the bidding of its strongest allies. This raises myriad moral and sovereignty questions about who we spy on and why.
We published what became secret power, with great trepidation – a prominent QC and expert in media law had expressly warned us against the project, clearly stating the risk of imprisonment if we published state secrets, which we obviously intended to do. But during a first demonstration of Nicky’s strategic sense, no one came knocking. In this case, and in all future publishing decisions with him, it was a question of whether the subject of the book – in this case, the government and its intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Office – wished the scrutiny and public exposure of a lawsuit, even if they were likely to win it. The other question that applied to secret power and, again, with all of Nicky’s subsequent books, was both ethical and practical – is exposing secret or private information justified? This is only the case if it is clearly in the public interest, which is also the main legal defense if necessary.
In the process of being published secret power we developed our own organic publishing model, used repeatedly over the next 20 years to get Nicky’s risky books into the hands of readers and to minimize the risk of being snuffed out by a High Court injunction, the tool most likely a book would use to prevent publication. This involved producing the books at breakneck speed to reduce the risk of discovery. Once the book was written, Nicky worked intensively alongside an editor for a week or two; I would lay out and proofread the book in two or three days, then I would print it in the greatest secrecy. Once printed, we delivered them by overnight courier to bookstores across the country without any prior warning, explaining to the booksellers why we were doing this and offering to take back anything they didn’t want at our expense. This meant that the book was already available to readers just as Nicky was beginning to create a media storm, thus greatly reducing the window for a successful legal action to be launched: by the time an injunction could be drafted and submitted at Court, wide availability meant it would be unnecessary and therefore unlikely to be granted.
secret power proved to be a book of international significance – it led to an inquiry in the European Parliament to which Nicky testified, and could be seen as the precursor to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the workings of the US Security Agency in 2013 and the ensuing global debates on mass surveillance and information privacy.
A National Cabinet minister lost it at Wellington airport and had to be physically restrained by his aides
Three years later, Nicky came back to me with Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign, which he co-wrote with Australian environmentalist Bob Burton. Based on a leak from a worried whistleblower, the book revealed how government corporation Timberlands was secretly using taxpayers’ money to run a secret PR campaign to justify its logging of native forest on the West Coast. . This greenwashing broke a fundamental rule of public service – government departments and corporations cannot secretly campaign to advance their own agendas – and the story exploded just as the authors and I hoped.
Coincidentally, we happened to publish on the same day as the National Party’s election campaign launch in 1999. It completely destroyed their media splash, and they were furious – I know because [co-publisher] Craig Potton happened to meet a National Cabinet Minister, with close ties to our region, at Wellington airport the next morning. He lost it and had to be physically restrained by his aides after pushing Craig in the chest.
Then, when Helen Clark and her Labor government came to power later that year, logging of the West Coast’s native forest was halted. Timberlands had overshot badly.
Nicky’s next book, Seeds of distrust, published in 2002, which detailed how the then Labor government covered up the illegal planting of genetically modified maize in New Zealand after intense lobbying by big business; the controversy known as Corngate. Seeds of Distrust was basically about government accountability and transparency, but even if the book was accurate, things didn’t go well for us. TV3’s John Campbell ambushed Prime Minister Helen Clark over the issue in a TV interview, and she responded by calling Campbell a “little moralizing creep”. It was a lesson in the dangers of crossing paths with a furious Clark, and his government was very effective in obfuscating the matter with technical arguments. The book was a harrowing and sobering experience as we lost the PR battle with the media unsure of the veracity of Nicky’s work.
I went on to publish a number of other important books with Nicky, all of which focused on speaking truth to power. hollow men, in 2006, was an inside look at then-Opposition leader Don Brash and the questionable tactics he and other National Party members employed as they sought to seize power. Brash had heard rumors that someone was leaking his personal emails, so he successfully applied for a global injunction preventing the publication of this material. He had no idea, however, that just a few kilometers away, in Kaiwharawhara, we were finishing printing 5,000 copies of hollow men, largely based on those leaked emails.
The injunction was a disaster for us, as it meant we couldn’t sell the books and potentially had to pulp them, so with nothing to lose, we decided to try to pressure Brash to lift the injunction. Nicky called a press conference, and he and I introduced the Wellington media. With a small stack of printed copies of hollow men exposed, we explained that people were not able to read this book even if it was in the public interest that they should. The tactic worked spectacularly – the frenzied media response and pressure on Brash forced him not only to resign from the National Party leadership, but also to lift the injunction. We were then able to release the book, an instant bestseller, which revealed, among other things, that Brash had deceived the public about his relationship with the Exclusive Brethren, who had secretly made a substantial donation to the National Party.
Nicky’s Next Book, The Equally Explosive dirty politics, was published in the middle of the 2014 election campaign and exposed the dark tactics of John Key’s national government. An anonymous hacker, Rawshark, had been so enraged by the behavior of Cameron Slater, the right-wing blogger behind the Whale Oil blog, that he managed to hack into his Facebook account and extract much of Slater’s communications. . After a long process of gaining Rawshark’s trust, Nicky received this information, and it became the basis of the book. dirty politics explained in startling detail how unscrupulous Key and his operators were in feeding Slater inside information and using it to attack their political enemies. It remains a shameful stain on the Key government.
For me, this part of the edition has often been terrifying
It also led to another dirty incident when, following the publication of the book, the police, perhaps in an attempt to please their political masters, raided Nicky’s house and illegally obtained her records. personal finances, all in a failed attempt to uncover Rawshark’s identity. . Nicky sued in the High Court, winning an apology and substantial damages from the police.
We have published two other books by Nicky on security issues: The wars of other peoples in 2011, an extremely well-researched great book on New Zealand’s invisible role in the so-called War on Terror; and, with Jon Stephenson, Hit and Run in 2017, detailing a Defense Force cover-up of a New Zealand SAS operation that killed civilians in Afghanistan.
For me, this side of publishing has often been terrifying, given the potential for legal action that lies behind every book that could destroy the business. It was always enhanced, however, by the privilege of being able to publish Nicky’s remarkable books. Having the freedom to assume them seems like the ultimate gift of being an independent publisher.
It says a lot about Nicky’s extraordinary dedication and research skills, regardless of her courage, that despite the endless vitriol of her detractors, we have never found ourselves in court for any of her books – the passage of time has always revealed the accuracy of his work. Therefore, my trust in him is absolute. His most powerful weapon, and the one behind everything he does, is his integrity. His only motivation is to make the world a better place, and money and power just don’t matter to him. In my opinion, he is a national treasure.
Taken with permission from New Publication Bushline: a memoir by Robbie Burton (Potton & Burton, $39.99), available at bookstores nationwide.