Dirty Politics. Remember that? It seems like a bad memory, a fleeting, nightmarish glimpse into the inner workings of New Zealand politics and the interplay between politicians and the hired guns who do their dirty work.
As I’ve written before, one of the most disturbing revelations in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was the coordinated campaign to smear public health researchers advocating evidence-based interventions to cut obesity and smoking and alcohol-related diseases.
Ten months and an election later, has anything changed? Not really, as this month’s North & South magazine reveals. Journalist Peter Newport had to endure “six months of drinking coffee with [Carrick] Graham” to secure an on-the-record interview with the shadowy lobbyist linked last year to some of the most pointed smears published on the Whaleoil blog.
The North & South piece is a fascinating insight into the 43-year-old, who started his career as a cigarette sales rep and still counts Big Tobacco companies among his clients. It also suggests that the Dirty Politics publicity did nothing to temper his appetite for running interference on well-meaning and credible enemies.
“There’s no sign of fatigue, it looks more like a limbering up for a main act still in the future”.
The piece reveals that when Newport visited Graham’s Parnell office, he was greeted with “an array of passport-sized photographs, stuck to the wall like a TV cop show operations room, linked by colour thread. These are his current targets, complete with their affiliated organisations and their available budgets”.
The current targets, he adds, are “people linked to the HRC, the Health Research Council. This is the major funder on behalf of central government of biomedical, public health, Maori health and Pacific health research… these are the people Graham is currently being paid to attack”.
At the top of the mosaic is a photo of Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland. Swinburn has been repeatedly attacked in blogs running on the Whaleoil blog, that Carrick Graham is alleged to have fed to Cameron Slater to run.
So Swinburn is still on the hit list, presumably alongside Doug Sellman, Jim Mann and numerous other respected public health researchers who dare to question Big Food, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, who likely form the bulk of Graham’s client list.
Interviewed for the piece, Swinburn uses an oft-quoted line from Gandhi to explain the fight he is engaged in with the likes of Graham:
“First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you… and then you win.”
The enemies of the public health researchers are clearly in the fight stage – how long the war continues is anyone’s guess, but knowing scientists, few of them have the stomach for this type of thing. It will be up to Swinburn and others to take the barbs on behalf of their lower-profile colleagues.
We need to support these scientists, now more than ever.
Pick up a copy of North & South, which also has some good commentary in the Carrick Graham piece from physicist and Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy, who in his usual pragmatic way pointed out that there needs to be some common ground carved out with Graham and his Big Business backers.
“Scientists acknowledge that business and industry should have a voice at the table, but what worries us about this [Dirty Politics] situation is that it wasn’t declared. It was a mechanism to fund what appeared to be a public voice, but scientists are very careful about declaring their interests. Industry should do the same.”
That’s the important thing. Graham’s war is a covert one – we still don’t know all the players who fund him. Newport was stonewalled when he went in search of them and tried to establish how they fitted into Dirty Politics.
On a related note, this great piece from Keith Ng looks at the media’s role in Dirty Politics. Keith appears to be saying that the media failed to gain any traction on Dirty Politics because they remained a “passive observer” reporting the facts revealed, approaching pundits for comment, but never really “forcing the powerful to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and holding them to account”.
“It’s more than just saying it and walking away.”
That’s pretty much what the media did, unable to get a real handle on some of the issues, including the Carrick Graham smear campaign.
Keith also rightly points out that there was just an absence of natural justice in the whole treatment of the Dirty Politics revelations. People were entitled to coherent explanations, to transparency, to people in power taking seriously the allegations made. Instead they were met with further obfuscation, misinformation and weasel words.
The media reported it all, shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Should they have gone further? Keith thinks so.
“By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There’s an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they’re invited to do so by journalists.”
Indeed, the vacuum will be filled. Which is why it is important that scientists are able to present the facts to the public, even in the face of sophisticated campaigns to undermine them.