Dirty laundry

The response on the part of the National government to the out-of-left-field publication of Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager has been almost as revealing as the content of the book itself.

Members of National’s traditional constituency, the well heeled, the business and farming communities probably won’t admit it, but they’ll be feeling queasy when they find how routinely the Government uses a potty-mouthed, puerile bully, aka Whale Oil (Cameron Slater), to attack its opponents.

Judith Collins features heavily in the book and the dialogue between herself and Slater reveals far more of the vicious and vindictive Collins that surfaces only occasionally in the public arena. She’s been happily feeding him scuttlebutt for years, faithfully reproduced on Whale Oil.

Key is determinedly keeping his distance from the National party flunkies implicated in the story. Perhaps predictably he is trying to control the narrative with responses along the lines of:

  • the claims made in the book are ‘dissolving before our eyes’
  • it’s perfectly normal to ‘brief’ bloggers as well as the mainstream media because social media is such an important part of modern communications
  • the content of the book is based on stolen emails
  • but everyone else does it, so why can’t we.

Well, let’s take a closer look. Apart from a claim made about Collins intervening to move a prisoner that appears fairly circumstantial, nothing in the book has been seriously challenged.

As for briefing bloggers, well yes that’s fine – but does the Government also “brief” bloggers such as The Standard or Public Address, which take a perhaps less pro-National line than the likes of Kiwiblog and Whale Oil? And there’s a big difference between the mainstream media and blog writers like Cameron Slater, David Farrar – and me for that matter. They’re not bound by journalistic standards or ethics or basic fact-checking obligations and in Kiwiblog/Whale Oil there seems little or any attempt to moderate the often vitriolic and hate-filled comment threads.

Stolen emails? I understand much of the chatter that was passed to Nicky Hager was in the form of Facebook messages, not just emails. But yes, they were sourced after someone mounted a cyber attack on Whale Oil’s system in response to Slater’s “feral” slur about a young man killed on the West Coast. So Hager has material taken without authorisation and he has to tread a fine ethical line. He pointed out in an interview today that he had refrained from publishing any of the personal details also included in the 8 gigabytes of data.

I was somewhat surprised earlier this year when Whale Oil was given the 2014 Canon Media Award for best blog. Apparently it was for his breaking the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang affair story – it would be interesting to know how much digging he did on his own behalf for that one. There was a fair bit of criticism at the time from other journalists but most of this was slapped down – honour among thieves and all that.

So what’s going to become of this? Nicky Hager has written a good, carefully crafted book that throws more light on a process that we all kind of knew goes on, but is far more deeply institutionalised within the National Government than we might have realised. If Judith Collins really does fancy her chances of taking over as leader in the post-Key era, this book does her no favours. Most National supporters (like those in Epsom) will probably just shrug and smirk like their Dear Leader, hold their noses and carry on.

Labour will probably kicking themselves that they’ve chosen their relentlessly Pollyanna-ish “Vote Positive” tagline, because this book has plenty of juicy material to tempt them down off the moral high ground and get stuck into National and their right wing blogger friends.

At this stage the story still has legs and it’s going to add another dimension to what is shaping to be a seriously loopy election campaign.

Update: Key gets slippery in Monday’s Morning Report.


Staying awake

Between 1915 and 1926 an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) swept the world, leaving many victims in a statue-like state, motionless and unable to communicate. In the 1960s the anti-Parkinson drug L-Dopa was tried on these patients, with dramatic results. After decades in a catatonic state, they “woke up”, with faculties and memories from their earlier lives intact. This apparent breakthrough was described by Oliver Sachs in his book Awakenings, later turned into a movie starring Robin Williams. It also formed the core of the challenging but intriguing novel  Umbrella by Will Self. Sadly, the effects of the drug didn’t last and the patients gradually lapsed back into their torpor for the rest of their lives.

Few, if any of the victims of that original epidemic are probably alive today. Yet our rest homes and hospitals are full of people, not just elderly, who are kept in a similar zombie-like state. If you’ve helped care for a parent or grandparent with dementia you’ll know how dispiriting this can be.

Well I’ve just seen a little gem of a documentary at the NZ International Film Festival, Alive Inside, that shows how even the most intractable of dementia sufferers can have their lives improved immeasurably through the simple medium of music delivered via an inexpensive iPod and headphones.

Film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett follows the work of volunteer Dan Cohen, who set up a non-profit organisation in the US, Music and Memory. The premise of what they do is pretty straightforward and stunningly successful, yet Cohen faces enormous barriers to spreading the practice of helping dementia patients reconnect with their past lives and their present through the music they listened to when they were younger. One of the most heart warming of many examples was 92-year-old Henry – you can see the clip here.



He and the others looked like those L-Dopa patients must have, back in the 1960s – awake, alive and connected, not only with their memories but also with those around them. The big difference is that this therapy is sustainable and inexpensive. It wasn’t only dementia or Alzheimers sufferers who benefitted. A prickly and difficult woman, institutionalised with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia softened and smiled for the first time in a very long time, just through the music. When she said “I’m having fun”, you knew she really meant it. And a middle-aged man confined to a bed with MS for the past decade and facing a bleak, depressing future, was reconnected with his life and simple pleasures through the same medium.

Of course the music therapy is not a panacea and it may not work for everyone, but it made you wonder why no-one has tried this before on a large scale. The core function of music to stimulate and communicate has been well understood for a long time, yet many of the “nursing homes” that Cohen approached to take on board this scheme were surprisingly resistant. The problem appears to be that elder care has been taken over by the health system, rather than the welfare system and has been thoroughly medicalised. It’s easier, apparently, to keep patients controlled with anti-psychotic drugs than it is to give them what the really need – human contact, a sense of being needed, and of course that music. One practitioner in the documentary pointed out that he has no problem prescribing $1000 worth of anti-depressants for a dementia patient, but “prescribing” a $40 iPod shuffle loaded with their favourite music could be an insurmountable challenge.

But there is hope. Cohen’s cause has been picked up through social media and is finally getting some traction. And the baby boomer generation (to which I belong) is now contemplating its not-too-distant future as elders. They won’t put up with being institutionalised and hospitalised in a haze of medication. We just won’t let it happen – will we?

See the doco if you can – it’s a beaut, and far more uplifting than a film about dementia deserves to be. And load up that iPod with your favourite stuff. You might need it sooner than you think.