Open eyes to corruption

Nicky Hager, who is taking part in Aspiring Conversations at the Southern Lakes Festival of...
Nicky Hager, who is taking part in Aspiring Conversations at the Southern Lakes Festival of Colour, in Wanaka, next Friday. Photo supplied.
Aspiring investigative journalists need look no further than their nearest local authority to find corrupt practices.

So says New Zealand investigative journalist, and guest at next week's Southern Lakes Festival of Colour, Nicky Hager.

Although Mr Hager's attention is focused on offshore tax havens and New Zealand's part in the war in Afghanistan, he believes there is plenty of low-level corruption much closer to home.

''I don't think we are a country where suitcases of money change hands, but I think, for example, in local government and areas like that a lot of really dodgy things happen.

''I mean the decision about what the public money gets spent on, the reason why one contractor gets it rather than another, or the reasons why the subdivision gets approved, is often to do with friendships and favours.

''Quite often they are actually pushing the limits of what you would call corruption, in my opinion.''

Mr Hager said New Zealanders were lucky not to live in a highly corrupt society where it was necessary to bribe government departments to get things done.

''But we are way too complacent and it would actually be safer and better if we had some good journalism probing at things like local government to make sure it didn't happen as much.''

Mr Hager says the reason why New Zealand was perceived has having little corruption was ''because we are so poor at picking it up''. New Zealand was near the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index because ''our kind of corruption'' never came out.

''The old boys' network operates; decisions get made for dodgy reasons; people do each other favours which never get revealed and no-one ever finds out about it. That doesn't make it right. It just means no-one knows about it,'' he said.

Mr Hager has been an independent investigative journalist for 20 years and said it was not a road to prosperity.

Turning down jobs with media organisations he thought would not allow him to do the work he wanted had meant living ''very cheaply'' with a ''very small income''.

He considered himself lucky to have built his own home in Wellington during a post-university career as a builder.

He believed big news organisations were generally unwilling to employ investigative journalists or to fund months of research into important stories, and those ''occasional'' investigations they did fund were for ''marketing purposes'' .

''When it does happen, it does have a sense of not being a serious long-term commitment but more to look like they are doing something.''

Mr Hager said the lack of investigative journalism was ''just the economics'' of New Zealand's small media and the ''lack of commitment'' from the big news organisations.

He likened New Zealand's investigative journalists to novelists, poets and film-makers who, with a few exceptions, were largely not commercially successful.

''The reason why people are novelists or investigative journalists is because they believe in it and want to spend their life doing it,'' he said.

''The only reason why people would spend months or years on a subject is because they really care about the subject.

''And that's the foundation of investigative journalism everywhere.''

The subject of Mr Hager's Aspiring Conversation at the festival is ''Fighting Other People's Wars'' about the longest overseas war New Zealand had been involved in.

He found it remarkable that in the age of the internet, New Zealanders knew less about the country's involvement in the war in Afghanistan than they did about World War 1.

Mr Hager said ''half the problem'' was media organisations having journalists visiting Afghanistan only for brief periods and being ''embedded'' during that time.

The other half was the ''people keeping the secrets'' were well-paid public servants who ''seem to think that's OK, to be involved, sometimes, in torture or drone strikes, or full-on military activities in another country and that no-one in New Zealand even needs to know they happened''.

''This, to me, is really improper behaviour.''

As an example, Mr Hager said there had been some publicity about New Zealanders handing over prisoners to American and Afghan forces knowing they might be tortured.

''That came out because of an independent journalist in Afghanistan.''

But while that journalist, John Stephenson, won an international award, Mr Hager said he knew Mr Stephenson was ''perilously'' lowly paid.

''But that's OK. Because we get to do the job that we really want to do ... ''


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