Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics appears set to colour the whole tone of the current election campaign and have some impact on the election’s outcome.
It has also given us a window into the tactics of rightwing bloggers, lobbyists and political strategists intent on discrediting scientists who present evidence that conflicts with their political and commercial interests.
The movie Thank You for Smoking gets several mentions in Dirty Politics. It follows the exploits of Washington D.C. big tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor and his efforts to use pseudoscience and spin to defend the tobacco industry. Nick meets regularly for lunch with a collection of lobbyist colleagues who represent the alcohol, fast food, firearms, oil drilling and hazardous waste industries. They call themselves the MOD Squad – the merchants of death.
Dirty Politics, based largely on emails and chat transcripts hacked from the Gmail and Facebook accounts of Cameron Slater, founder of the Whaleoil blog, reveals that we have our own MOD Squad, who coordinate attacks on scientists and public health researchers and funnel money from big business to the bloggers willing to uncritically push the corporate line.
Some will shrug and suggest that it isn’t news that this sort of stuff goes on here in New Zealand. That may be true. But for the first time, we are able to connect the dots between some of the main players and their financial backers and the way they attempt to discredit scientists commenting on major public health issues such as obesity and smoking.
Whale Oil and the “troughers”
The scientist most targeted by the MOD Squad in Dirty Politics is Professor Doug Sellman, an expert in addiction treatment and Director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago. Sellman is an outspoken advocate of greater alcohol control. With other public health experts, he set up Alcohol Action NZ, an advocacy group aimed at providing evidence-based solutions to New Zealand’s drinking culture. It’s tagline is: We need more than just tinkering.
The majority of us enjoy drinking alcohol, but all are alarmed about the way alcohol dominates many social situations and the scale of unhealthy and dangerous drinking in contemporary New Zealand – a crisis that enriches the liquor industry while causing immense harm to individuals and society as a whole.
This advocacy has put Sellman on a collision course with the MOD Squad, and in particular Carrick Graham, a lobbyist who worked for British American Tobacco for 10 years and is the son of former National Cabinet minister Doug Graham. Hager alleges that Carrick Graham, still in business as a lobbyist for hire, pays Cameron Slater to run blog posts critical of people endorsing efforts to tighten up alcohol and tobacco regulation.
From Dirty Politics:
“Slater earns his living by putting articles on his website written by Graham, and others, as if they were his own work. Graham and others send Slater the completed articles, with the heading already written and often the pictures supplied, and he simply pastes them onto his site and publishes them at the specified time. As the country’s largest audience political blog, it is a potent platform for planting corporate messages.
“For this, Slater is paid $6,500 each month, for what in total would be about an hour of work.
“On 26 February 2014, for instance, Slater received an e-mail from Carrick Graham, which contained the finished text of a snide attack on Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre. The next morning, pre-set for 8.a.m. publication, the post appeared on the Whale Oil site headed ‘Confirmed: Doug Sellman Gone Mad’. It said by ‘Cameron Slater’ but every word, and the headline, had come from Graham or perhaps Graham’s client. It is for this that Slater gets paid.
“Carrick Graham is the main person, year after year, who has paid Cameron Slater most of his income.”
That particular attack on Sellman was in response to a news story Sellman had commented on about alcoholics stealing bottles of hand sanitizer from Waikato Hospital so they could drink the liquid, which is high in alcohol. Sellman commented that this is the sort of thing you’d expect in a society like New Zealand’s with a heavy drinking culture and “excessive alcohol marketing”.
The Carrick Whale Oil piece went for the throat:
“If there was ever a case of demonstrating once and for all that Professor Doug Sellman is mad, this article ‘Drunks steal sanitiser for alcohol’ proves it… any ounce of credibility that this guy once had has long-since evaporated.”
This is one of numerous attacks on Professor Sellman that usually result from him being quoted in the mainstream media on some alcohol-related story. But Professor Sellman isn’t alone in being targeted by MOD Squad hits. Epidemiology and biostatistics expert, Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, also gets regular mentions, as well as Professor Janet Hoek, marketing expert at the University of Otago.
As with climate change deniers’ attacks on climate scientists, the framing of the attacks is to label scientists “troughers” – living off the taxpayer, obsessed with amassing research funding by playing up risks to society to enhance their own research careers. A very cynical view of science indeed.
For Christmas of 2013, the MOD Squad even went to the trouble of creating an animated Christmas card featuring the faces of Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburm and others dancing as Christmas elves with health minister Tony Ryall. The video was posted to Whale Oil’s Youtube channel, but who created it is hard to tell – Slater, Graham… or a woman called Katherine Rich??
The KR “hits”
Carrick Graham is a middle man. Who is he actually working for? Hager alleges that the client behind the Doug Sellman attack outlined above was Katherine Rich, the former National Party MP who is chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, which represents companies selling alcohol, soft drinks, tobacco – everything you can buy at a supermarket. Rich is also on the board of the Health Promotion Agency, which is supposed to, well promote health!.
Many emails are outlined in Dirty Politics that include the reference to “KR hit”, in other words, a pre-packaged blog post commissioned by Katherine Rich and sent to Whale Oil via Carrick Graham.
Hager asks rhetorically: “But why would a respectable person like her be involved in a snide attack on a university professor? The obvious answer is because it was in the interests of the big companies she represents, and could be done secretly.”
Other KR “hits” destined for Whale Oil all related to food and public health – there’s one outlined about Fonterra’s recall of bottles of cream in January due to E. coli contamination.
Hager: “Graham sent an e-mail to Slater with the subject line ‘KR – Fonterra (first thing in the morning)’ The prepared text, headed ‘Calm down, move on’, said, “Better circle the wagons… Fonterra is recalling a few thousand bottles of cream. Nothing strange about that, yet, as typical of most lightweight MSM journalists you’d think the plague had hit New Zealand… People need to calm the f**k down’. It appeared on the blog word for word first thing the next morning.”
Rich led the charge on behalf of the industry against mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, cherrypicking scientific experts to support the industry view that fortification was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. This flew in the fact of a strong body of evidence to support the case for fortification, which is undertaken in numerous countries and which reduces neural tube defects. The Government opted not to require mandatory fortification, a big win for Rich.
Rich was interviewed last year for the New Zealand Herald’s 12 question series. Her answer to question 10 should definitely be read in a different light now…
10. Do lobbyists get a bad name?
They shouldn’t. New Zealand has a wonderfully open democracy, everyone can have their say. There’s no secret about the sort of issues industry associations work on. If it’s a consumer goods or food issue, I’ll be working on it.
To what extent big beverage companies are involved in funding the likes of Slater isn’t clear from the emails quoted in Dirty Politics. But the email exchanges between Slater and Carrick Graham suggest these companies were at least involved in coordinating some of the “hit” material. Take this exchange, which followed a TV news item featuring calls for a ban on energy drinks in schools.
Hager: “Slater sent an e-mail with a link for the news story to Graham, who replied ‘Yes, have forwarded to KR and Frucor.’ He said that Frucor would not do anything (‘they’re useless’) but ‘Coke keeps sending stuff to KR expecting her to do something (where we come in). Hit pending.”
No Joy in Dirty Politics
Carrick Graham has pay masters other than Rich, claims Hager, a situation that results in some rather funny contradictions. For instance, as Graham was lining up the hit on Professor Sellman, he was also allegedly working for Dominion Breweries undertaking a ” IL hit” against rival liquor company Independent Liquor, which sells ready to drink mixers. A series of posts slamming RTDs followed on Whale Oil, all ghost-written by Graham who as also had a go, via the blog, on plain cigarette packaging and anti-obesity efforts. Just to strengthen the facade, Carrick Graham maintains numerous anonymous commenter profiles, chipping in on the Whale Oil blog posts he himself has authored with such pearls as:
“Cigarette companies don’t kill New Zealanders. Which part of that don’t people understand. Anyone who thinks breathing smoke into their lungs is a good idea is a complete loser. People have a choice and the ability to think about this. Oh, and don’t try the pathetic line about children not having any idea what they are doing – that’s crap.”
According to Hager, Graham posted that under the name “Naylor” with the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. A tip of the hat to the anti-hero of Thank You for Smoking.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a coordinated hit-job identified for another common punching bag of the right – freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy. That’s likely because no paymaster was there to write a cheque specifically to go after Joy. But that didn’t stop Slater from engaging in some pro bono work for his MOD Squad buddies. Here’s what he wrote in November 2012 on Whale Oil when the New Zealand picked up on the fact that the New York TImes had interviewed Dr Joy about the state of our rivers:
Of course the Herald Tribune cites Massey’s Eel Man Mike Joy who sucks on the tit of taxpayers as a paid up member of Massey’s academic Green Taliban.
My response is f*ck all this Green PR spin and crap. It ain’t worth a cent to NZ apart from giving santimonious pricks something to bang ourselves over the head with. It is all a 100% Pure Wank.
Three days later, PR man Mark Unsworth totally undermined Slater’s chance to earn a retainer for attacks on Joy, when he released an email he had sent Joy, attacking him directly. There was no pay day for Whale Oil but he covered it anyway:
Does it make a difference?
So is it worth it? Do Slater’s not-so-secret-anymore clients actually get value for money? After all, anyone reading Whale Oil probably knows what to expect on issues like tobacco and alcohol control, dirty dairying, climate change and the obesity epidemic. Most of the attacks on Professor Sellman were in response to quotes he made in the mainstream media. He had already had his say and the mainstream media continue to quote him widely. So efforts to discredit him seem to have failed.
However, what the strategy does do, something learned from Republicans in the US apparently, is that by feeding highly partisan stuff to the blogosphere, it makes the likes of Katherine Rich look so much more moderate when she submits her op-ed piece to one of the major newspapers – which she does on a regular basis. She comes across rational and evidence-based compared to the Whale Oil rants.
It also allows any little tidbit – the fact a scientist is going to a conference in an exotic country for instance, to be turned into a “trougher goes on taxpayer-funded junket” hit on a blog, something that wouldn’t be likely to get traction in the mainstream media.
Ultimately, we are better off for knowing some of the tactics used by these people and the linkages between them. Next time someone orders a “hit” to run on Whale Oil, it will be that much easier to trace back the chain of command and see where the money is coming from.
The impression I’m left with I having read Dirty Politics, is very similar to that expressed by Andrew Geddis and Danyl McLauchlan – that these are toxic people who seem to revel in the nastiness of what they do – just like Naylor’s MOD Squad did. I get that these are quick-witted, cynical, occasionally funny people. I used to chuckle form time to time over the blog posts of Cactus Kate, another Slater hit collaborator who has been outed in Dirty Politics. But this isn’t just about ego and winding up their opponents. It is about an ideological campaign to attack anything that stands in their way, with money changing hands along the way to sustain the attacks. I think we always had a sense this sort of stuff probably went on, but the reality of it laid bare in these leaked emails is jarring and disturbing all the same.