Bloggers dive into a dark pool

This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin November 2014

Grub Street was the warren in eighteenth century London where gentlemen and scoundrels could get hacks to write to order for a price.

The street no longer exists but hacks continue to ply their trade like the Hackney Cab from which they derived their name. Like the London Taxi, they are the equivalent of a horse for hire.

Corporate public relations have brought a level of legitimacy to the practice and, in the 21st century, we accept this form of writing-to-order as part of the media landscape. Ironically, it is a trade that is no longer the last resort of the unsuccessful and impoverished journalist but the place to which talent is siphoned off by the lure of salaries that news media struggle or fail to match.

In the United States public relations specialists now outnumber reporters 5:1 and in our part of the world any newsroom that denies a reliance on media releases as a primary source is deluding itself. It’s a situation that has had to be accommodated by a news industry under unprecedented financial pressure.

Far less palatable, however, are clandestine payments by PR specialists to third parties to throw a cloak over the real source of a story – the hack’s hack.

In the lead-up to the New Zealand general election, investigative journalist Nicky Hager published a book called Dirty Politics that was based in large part on hacked emails to and from political blogger Cameron Slater. Subsequently the unnamed hacker, who called himself Rawshark (a play on Rorschach, the uncompromising vigilante in Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel), released emails directly to mainstream media outlets.

While the major thrust of the book was political, there have also been allegations that Slater’s Whale Oil blog was involved in a cash-for-comment relationship with at least one PR specialist by which material would be supplied but published under Slater’s name. Slater denies accepting money but the New Zealand Herald’s media writer, John Drinnan, said: “Public relations people appear to have written posts that were published as editorial, and the latest dump of purported messages [hacked emails] also suggests a cost structure for people wanting to appear on the blog”.

If the Whale Oil blog had an audience limited to a handful of political fellow travellers, few would care. However, Slater has links to the ruling National Party – one consequence of Dirty Politics was the resignation of Justice Minister Judith Collins ­– and has dropped bomb-shells such as the Auckland mayor’s extra-marital affair. His blog has become a source for mainstream media (although those organisations have been quick to distance themselves from Slater and his blog, denying that they relied on him for information).

Add to that his attack dog mentality and eschewing of many of the mainstream media’s self-imposed restraints, and Mr Slater and his blog could be seen as an ideal venue for forms of ‘black’ PR that leave no fingerprints.

Reporters can, and should, check the content of media releases. But how do they determine whether the contents of a blog are the honestly held views of the blogger or a commercial arrangement with an anonymous figure who is, himself, being paid to shoot from behind a rock?

The only safe way is to seek independent verification of any claims made by a blogger and to hold off publishing until that is done. However, bloggers are now seen as direct sources of news – as in the revelations of Mayor Len Brown’s affair – and their views are given the same status as newspaper analysts in an environment where ‘comment’ becomes ‘news’ when it is republished.

Any bloggers accepting payment for publishing the views of others as their own will inevitably lose what trust media might have placed in them, as will any PR specialist using the tactic – if they are found out. And it is a very large ‘if’. If the allegations against the New Zealand blogger and his associates prove correct, and if journalists were found to have acted on that information, would we have even known about it if an email hacker had not broken the law?

The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand has a code of ethics that requires members to “avoid deceptive practices” but not all PR specialists are members of the organisation, rendering the threat of expulsion largely ineffectual. And anyway, one might argue that there is no deception if a blogger chooses by agreement to claim submitted material as his own. A code is a thin defence.

This is not a minor matter. The allegations in New Zealand related to associations with lobby groups such as the liquor, grocery and tobacco industries. There were further allegations involving attacks on investigations into a finance company that failed owing $NZ553 million.

Irrespective of whether or not they are proven, these claims highlight a trap into which it is all too easy to fall. Journalists paying the slightest attention to social media must ask themselves a simple question: “Who stands to benefit from this?” It might cast the blog, post or tweet is a different light.