A publisher writes on ‘the terror’ of publishing Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager (left) with his publisher Robbie Burton
Author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager (left) with his publisher Robbie Burton at the launch of Dirty Politics in 2014. Image: Nicky Hager

BOOK EXTRACT: By Robbie Burton

In the mid-1990s I started working with New Zealand investigative writer Nicky Hager. I have had the most singular of all my authorial relationships with Nicky, the result of the potent, usually red-hot subject matter that is his stock-in-trade.

I knew Nicky from our early days in forest conservation — he had been a fellow campaigner — but he also had a long interest in security issues. In 1996 he came to us with a nearly completed book that, for the first time, revealed the existence of the highly secret ECHELON surveillance programme run between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, now commonly known as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

This alliance effectively means that New Zealand does the bidding of its more powerful allies. It raises myriad moral and sovereignty issues about who we are spying on, and why.

Bushline: A memoir, by Robbie Burton - cover
Bushline: A memoir, by Robbie Burton. Image: P&B

We published what became Secret Power, with a great deal of trepidation — a prominent QC and expert on media law had expressly warned us off the project, making chillingly clear the potential for jail time if we published state secrets, which we obviously intended to do.

But in an early demonstration of Nicky’s strategic nous, no one came knocking. In this, and in all future publishing decisions with him, it became a careful weighing up of whether the subject of the book — in this case the government and its intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau — would want the scrutiny and public exposure of a court case, even if they were likely to win it.

The other issue that applied to Secret Power and, again, with all Nicky’s subsequent books, was both ethical and practical — is the exposure of secret or private information justified? It is, only if it is clearly in the public interest, which is also the primary legal defence should that be necessary.

In the process of publishing Secret Power we developed our own organic publishing model, used a number of times over the next 20 years to get Nicky’s risky books successfully into readers’ hands and to minimise the danger of being stifled by a High Court injunction, the most likely tool the subject of a book would use to prevent publication. This involved producing the books at breakneck speed to reduce the chance of being discovered.

Printed in absolute secrecy
After the book had been written, Nicky would work intensively alongside an editor over a week or two; I would lay out and proofread the book in two or three days, and then print in absolute secrecy.

When printed, we would drop them via overnight courier into bookshops nationwide without any prior warning, explaining to booksellers why we were doing this and offering to take back at our expense any they didn’t want. It meant that the book was already available to readers just as Nicky started to create a media firestorm thereby significantly reducing the window for legal action to be successfully launched: by the time an injunction could be drawn up and submitted to the court, widespread availability meant it would be pointless and therefore unlikely to be granted.

Secret Power proved to be an internationally significant book — it led to an enquiry in the European Parliament at which Nicky testified, and could be regarded as the forerunner to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the workings of the US National Security Agency in 2013 and the subsequent global debates about mass surveillance and information privacy.

Three years later Nicky came to me again with Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-environmental PR Campaign, which he co-authored with the Australian environmentalist Bob Burton. Based on a leak from a concerned whistleblower, the book exposed how the government-owned Timberlands was secretly using taxpayer money to run an undercover public relations campaign to justify its logging of native forest on the West Coast.

This greenwashing broke a fundamental public service rule — government departments and state-owned enterprises cannot secretly run campaigns to help further their own agendas — and the story blew up exactly as the authors and I hoped.

By complete coincidence, we happened to publish on the same day as the launch of the National Party’s 1999 election campaign. It completely destroyed their media splash, and they were furious — I know this because [co-publisher] Craig Potton happened to meet a National Cabinet minister, with close ties to our area, in Wellington airport the next morning. He lost it, and had to be physically restrained by his aides after he shoved Craig in the chest.

Then, when Helen Clark and her Labour government came to power later in the year, the logging of native forest on the West Coast was stopped. Timberlands had badly overreached.

Things didn’t go well
Nicky’s next book, Seeds of Distrust, published in 2002, which detailed how the then Labour government had covered up the illegal planting of GE corn in New Zealand after intense lobbying from big business; the controversy known as Corngate. Seeds of Distrust was essentially about accountability and transparent government, but while the book was accurate, things did not go well for us.

TV3’s John Campbell ambushed Prime Minister Helen Clark about the issue in a television interview, and she responded by calling Campbell a “sanctimonious little creep”. It was a lesson in the perils of crossing a furious Clark, and her government managed very effectively to cloud the issue with technical arguments.

The book was a distressing and sobering experience as we lost the PR battle, with the media uncertain about the veracity of Nicky’s work.

I went on to publish a number of other important books with Nicky, all of them focused on speaking truth to power. The Hollow Men, in 2006, was an inside look at then leader of the opposition, Don Brash, and the questionable tactics he and others in the National Party employed as they sought to gain power. Brash had heard rumours that someone was leaking his personal emails, so he successfully sought an over-arching injunction preventing publication of this material.

He had no idea, however, that only a few kilometres away in Kaiwharawhara, we were just finishing printing 5000 copies of The Hollow Men, based in large part on these leaked emails.

The injunction was a disaster for us, as it meant that we could not sell the books and would potentially have 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 fronted the Wellington media.

With a small pile of printed copies of The Hollow Men on display, 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 response by the media, and the pressure bought to bear on Brash, forced him not only to resign as leader of the National Party but also to lift the injunction.

We were then able to release the book, an instant bestseller, which revealed, among many other things, that Brash had misled the public about his relationship with the Exclusive Brethren, who had secretly given the National Party a substantial donation.

Exposing john Key’s ‘dark tactics’
Nicky’s next book, the equally explosive Dirty Politics, was published in the middle of the election campaign in 2014, and exposed the dark tactics of John Key’s National government. An anonymous hacker, Rawshark, had been so enraged by the behaviour of Cameron Slater, the right-wing blogger behind the Whale Oil blog, that he managed to hack into his Facebook account and extract a large tranche of Slater’s communications.

After a long process of winning Rawshark’s trust, Nicky was given this information, and it became the foundation of the book. Dirty Politics laid out in startling detail how unscrupulous Key and his operators were in feeding Slater with inside information and using him to attack their political enemies. It remains a shameful stain on the Key government.

It also led to another grubby incident when, in the wake of the book’s publication, the police, perhaps in an attempt to please their political masters, raided Nicky’s house and illegally obtained his personal financial records, all in a fruitless attempt to discover Rawshark’s identity. Nicky took action in the High Court, winning an apology and substantial damages from the police.

We have published two others of Nicky’s books on security issues: Other People’s Wars in 2011, a large, supremely well researched book on New Zealand’s unseen role in the so-called war on terror; and, with Jon Stephenson, Hit & Run in 2017, detailing a Defence Force cover-up of a New Zealand SAS operation that killed civilians in Afghanistan.

For me, this strand of publishing has frequently been terrifying, given the potential for legal action lurking behind every book that could destroy the company. It has always been ameliorated, however, by the privilege of being able to publish Nicky’s remarkable books. Having the freedom to take them on feels like the ultimate gift of being an independent publisher.

It says everything about Nicky’s extraordinary dedication and research skills, quite apart from his courage, that despite the endless vitriol from his detractors, we have never ended up in court over one of his books — the passage of time has always revealed the accuracy of his work. Consequently, my trust in him is absolute.

His most powerful weapon, and one that lies behind everything he does, is his integrity. His sole motivation is to make the world a better place, and money and power simply do not matter to him. In my view he is a national treasure.

  • An extract reprinted with permission from the newly published Bushline: A Memoir, by Robbie Burton (Potton & Burton, $39.99).
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