Interview with Nicky Hager: Critic

George Elliot: There’s been a lot of blowback from Hit & Run. What is your assessment from the response to that?

Nicky Hager: So far the book is going very well. It could seem like the goal was that the government announced the enquiry, and that was the test of whether it worked, but it was never likely that the government was going to agree to an enquiry. What we did was we laid out the story of what happened in Afghanistan and the catastrophe that went on there, and then we didn’t, say, send people off to the criminal courts, we just said have an enquiry into it. The reason we’re doing that is it saves us the trouble of pretending to be international criminal lawyers. But also, it was a really reasonable ask. The government will normally launch an inquiry on anything that’s controversial that they want to close down. SO asking for an inquiry was a perfectly reasonable ask, except that they were almost certainly not going to do it.

So you already thought that they wouldn’t?

Yeha, and the reason that we were going to do it, given that it is the most simple thing and for Bill English it would have been an easy thing to do because he wasn’t responsible for thing that happened. The reason they weren’t going to do it is because they don’t want an inquiry. Especially the SAS really badly doesn’t want an inquiry. If an inquiry is even faintly effective, it will confirm what’s in the book. So while we asked for something reasonable, it was because even that was going to be refused, probably. And that’s what happened. It creates a perfectly reasonable tension which still has to be dealt with. It’s a long way of saying, the book’s come out, which is great, lots of people are reading it, it’s been discussed enough so it’s put the issue on the map, and now there’s this powerful creative tension which is “what are they going to do” and they haven’t done it yet, which is all we can hope for at this stage.

Are you optimistic that anything could happen in the future, if this discussion plays out?

Yeah. Maybe it will all die and be forgotten and no one will ever think about this again, but war crimes are such a big thing – potential war crimes, I should say – that people are still uncomfortable about thing we did in WII a hundred years ago. It’s so big and so important and so impossible to push under the carpet, once there’s a whole book laying it out person by person and chapter by chapter. I have enough faith in this country that this is going to be faced up to. All they’re going to be doing with their evasion and their dodging is meaning it’s going to last for longer. But it’s still going to happen.

Politically and strategically, do you think it would have been easier for the government to have an inquiry?

Totally. Totally. It would have been routine for Bill English to say “I didn’t make the decisions, they were made by my predecessor, I very much doubt that our military has done anything wrong but there have been very serious allegations raised, and therefore, the proper thing to do is to have an enquiry just to reassure the public that there’s nothing any deeper. He could have done it in a way that didn’t show any sympathy for these “despicable” people who’ve raised these issues, or which is ostlie to his political tribe. but the really fascinating question is why they didn’t do that. And the reason why they didn’t do that is not because their polling told them it didn’t matter, I don’t think this is a political calculation. Not that they thought this was a really cunning way to get out of it to make those laughable excuses they made – “don’t worry, we’ve checked with a very independant person called the Chief of Defence force and there’s no problem. This isn’t a brilliant political strategy. The reason they didn’t have an inquiry is that the NZSAS has a lot of influence over what happens in the defence force, and they really really really don’t want to have an inquiry. Right from the beginning they decided that this was only going to be really bad news, so they wanted to cover it up. And now they’ve compounded it. They’ve got the original things that went wrong, and that they did, and that’s compounded with 12 and a half year of hiding and covering. Each time they raise the stakes of how much they don’t want it to come out, they’re just making it worse. we’ve just gone through another round of the cover up. They would have been better to just face up to it, but they didn’t.

Are there people who you know of close to the gov or close to the defence who are upset with this issue?

Yes. There would be no book, not even a long news story, without people on the inside who wanted us to tell it.

How do you approach those people?

Some approached us, which was why it happened. The fundamental reason why there’s a book called Hit & Run is that some of the people in here had consciences that were getting worse not better with the passage of time. What our job is, John S and me, is that we then find more people. A one source story or two source story on something so well hidden and so complicated isn’t going to do it. Because NZ is a very well connected society, and because we’ve worked on these subjects before, who knows who in Afghanistan in 2010. For example, I’ve got this from a bit before. I’ve got past different source . ..  I was able to head out and find more and more people. People’s memories are imperfect – you need them all to work out what’s going on.

What was it like working with John?

It’s actually harder working on a project with two people than one. For all sorts of practical reasons. I could not have done this without him. It was definitely the right thing to do. His special thing he’s done over the years is learning how to operate networks of contacts in countries where the rest of us wouldn’t survive for a week. He brought something essential and unique to the project which was that while I could have written about what the NZers have said they’ve done, he could find Afghan troops who were involved, and most importantly, he could talk to the locals and hear their side of it. Where did this person run, who was that person, who was the person who was shot on the hill. What kind of wounds did they have?

A fascinating part of the story was that it was clear that quite a lot of the injuries and deaths had been caused by the fact that they’d been using helicopter gunships under command of the SAS. A helicopter gunship in a tightly packed civilian area is just a recipe for catastrophe. Because John is in contact with the locals, we work out these questions, like where did this person die, and where were they found, and what were the circumstances. there were two of them who didn’t have helicopter weapon injuries – they had bullet holes. Which sounds really gory, but as we were kind of trying to , you know, be detectives at the scene of the crime, long distance in the past, as much as we could, indirectly, there were these two people who were not killed by helicopters, and one definitely not – he had three bullet holes in his front as he cried for help, a young school teacher – so the thing was, how do we figure out what these people were. In that case, it gradually came into focus because the SAS people were telling us how they would drop snipers at particular positions around the place, and then we put the sniper stuff to the locals and they said “Oh yeah, we found these strange things up on the hills, drink bottles and thing, in this position that overlooks it all. Then we could draw on a map where the possible sniper position was compared to this young man ran fearfully from his parents house where he was on holiday and ran up the back of the house, and it wasn’t proven but it looked more and more likely that he became an insurgent dangerously approaching the SAS position, because he ran from his house and there were bombs going off.

With the initially investigations from the ISIE, were there local authorities involved.

The government has repeatedly said there was an inquiry by ISIEF. They found this, they found that. It sound like a bit of a boring detail, but the most important to say about that review is the context in which it was happening, which was that there were large numbers of civilian casualties going on in different tacks around Afghanistan. It was starting to wear out the relationship between the foreign forces and the Afghan government. So for every one of them, every time there was a new allegation for civilian death, at that particular time when it was very sensitive politically, they would do a quick inquiry. In this case, in a matter of a few days which is a very short time for an inquiry, and without going to the area, and without interviewing the locals – in other words, without much of an inquiry at all – they knocked off a report and put out a press release saying “there may have been civilian deaths, we’re not quite sure, but if there were we apologise to the families of the people concerned.

Is this something that happened quite a lot?

They were doing one for every allegation of civilian deaths anywhere in the country by any country’s forces. The point of the story is that this was not worth;ess but a very rapid ticking of boxes. They never went to the area or collect much. So for the SAS to say six and half years later and then for Bill English to say “this was all investigated at the time and they didn’t find any death” – first of all that wasn’t what they found, and second of all it wasn’t the real review and thirdly, the SAS, I know from their own personnel, knew who was dead and what happened, they knew all that. They didn’t do their own review, they just hid behind this quick, token thing that was conducted by the foreign forces there and it really doesn’t answer the question at all.

What was the whole deal with the map thing? Cos the way I read it, someone is really wrong?

Yes, and the answer is, it was us. But, so when you reveal something that has been hidden and deliberately hidden, and they believe they can get away with hiding it because it’s based in a mountainous country where there aren’t even roads or maps, and no one goes there and there isn’t cell-phone coverage, they had good grounds to believe they could just hide the whole thing. It’s really hard to research. And when you’ve done something like that, and you finish it, there is always a chance that there is a small error in what you do, because the imperfection of time and space, and human memory…

And the whole naming of spaces is always a bit different presumably…

And the risk of making a small mistake is that someone goes, “oh look this thing has awful holes, for example they’ve got the wrong place, and it’s a completely different operation – which is what the Chief of Defence Force said, he said “it must just be a different operation” – he claimed they had the same named operation doing it on the same night. From the very beginning it was like, spare me, you cannot honestly be arguing this. But they were right, we had interview the locals, who had told us the names of their villages: [can’t make out the names] they had explained who was coming out of their houses, who was carrying their baby, and in immense detail, none of which has been disputed, and then when they were asked to place these two villages on a map – in this country with no maps  and no history of maps, it’s not the way they think as far as I can see, and no roads, and no general landmarks that anyone on the outside would know – they marked about 3 bends wrong on the river from where they actually were. So we made a mistake and the Defence Force said they got it wrong and it was a different raid and so I had this most uncomfortable, but necessary, job of reading their stuff and putting out a press release saying “yes, we’ve got the right villages, we’ve got the right operations, the right dates, but the Defence Force is correct; the map location of the villages is slightly wrong, which is of course a real gift, but it doesn’t change the story at all, and it was very disingenuous of them to claim that this was the end of the book. It was like “come on kids, that’s the type of argument that you think that the year 7 school debate might try”, but not the Chief of the Defence Force.

You’re used to it, but the smear that happens afterwards, or the internet comments, which i’m sure you don’t read, are you used to it now?

Yes. I advise my journalistic colleagues, and it’s one of the pieces of advice I give to people is, which they always ignore, is never read the comments. Never read anonymous comments, because it’s mad-dog, unrestrained land where you don’t want to let that nonsense into your head. But yeah, it’s fair to say that I’m always bewildered at the level of personal attack, when, I think, I’ve done a careful piece of work. But I also know that, because I wrote a book called Dirty Politics on this very subject is, that a lot of it is tactical. People are saying it not because they think it’s complete nonsense and that war crimes don’t matter, they’re doing it to shut it up, they’re doing it to create a diversion, to shoot the messenger, and if you understand that, it’s not personal. I can honestly say I felt virtually nothing.

It’s a lonely place to be if you’ve do some work and everyone believes that you’re wrong. I’ve been there and it’s a horrible place to be. It’s remarkable that the people in charge came up with. As long as they don’t get away with it, it feels fine.

Where do you see this book in your greater career, as opposed the most recent one,Dirty Politics?

I’ve done pieces of work that have been longer and harder and perhaps more important than this, but this one really matters to me a lot. I wrote this big fat book called ‘Other People’s Laws’ on the war in Afghanistan, which i think is the best thing I’ve ever done, which covered all sorts of issues. The value of Hit & Run is that there’s a power in telling a single story really carefully and I really like this whee you can take something which could just sound like another statistic in a war where everything is going wrong, and you take it and we could take it and humanise soldiers who actually care, and didn’t go into the army to hurt children, and humanise the locals who aren’t just mad, screaming, Taliban, weirdo people living in dusty, rocky, places, they’re real people who have a history and lives and also, very cautiously, humanising soldiers. Because only the most foolish person turns them into devils, when there is a reason they’re fighting, and they have their own reasons for why they’re fighting and dying and things like that. Being able to look at one story really closely and all the levels of it and what h means and not 1500 words in a newspaper, but actually chapter after chapter and then being able to roll it out to what does this say about NZ and where we’re going, and how our military works and how they could hide this it’s very satisfying to have the space to tell a story really well like that, so someone reads about this tiny little molecules worth of what actually happened over the whole war, they’ll actually get a better understanding of how war works, what we were doing there and whether we should join the next one of these, which is a big questions for NZ. From my POV, for someone who actually cares about war and what’s going on there it was a perfect opportunity.

I was wondering what your thoughts were on the whole internet damaging journalism thing?

So books do something that can’t be done in short form, but the internet does some things magnificently well. It has powerfully increased the amount of intelligent commentary nd the breadth of voices that get heard. There are some things that are fantastic about the internet, but there are also some things that are terrifying about it, because as everybody who has read this [Hit & Run], someone who wants to know more about the world has a greater opportunity than ever, but most people who use the internet just get consumed by junk, and less reality than ever before, and so there’s this huge contradiction in what’s going on, and it’s just a terrifying contradictory situation.

What do you think about NZ’s investigative journalism? Are there many other people like you who do this?

There are relatively few people who are doing full-time investigative journalism. There’s a small number who get paid for it, miraculously; Fairfax and NZ Herald and a few other places, but there’s very few. It could go down to zero quite easily with the merger [of Fairfax and NZME] so it’s precarious. So the main way that investigative journalism thrives in NZ, considering our population and resources, people just get on and do it anyway. Like, most investigative journalism is done by filmmakers who research, over years sometimes, investigative journalism. Or it’s done over decades, by generations, by somebody who gets a bee in their bonnet about something and they write a book about it, which is investigative journalism, when done well, with good research and things. And so, that’s my model for investigative journalism in NZ, not that we will get more and more resources or more and more people sat in offices on good salaries doing it, but that people will believe in it.

Because no one was going to pay me a liveable salary to do what I do, I worked my way into this by earning my money in one way and researching and writing in my spare time, and that’s more or less the way NZ does it. That’s the main reason we have actors, novelists, musicians, etc, is that we earn our money one way and do it in our spare time. That’s fine, it’s a small country and it’s a solution to an economic impossibility.

Do you see yourself among those people (musicians, artists) rather than the parliamentarians and the activists?

Yeah. I am economically! I got into this earning a living by being a builder, because you have to get money from somewhere. I’m not actually too sure where I’d place myself. I’d put it a slightly different way. There are people who are getting rich, looking after no. 1, focussing on careers etc, but then you see that there is always a group of people who have a sense of social service, that their point of life is to do things for other people. What is casually called ‘making a difference’ and I find there are people all over the place like that, and you kind of recognise each other across a crowded room. There are people in the military who are desperately trying to make a difference, not all of them, but they really do their best. That’s the difference. It’s not just that I am trying to be famous, important, or rich myself or whatever, but that I’ve been born on this planet with all of thee privileges in light of everything that could have or is going wrong, to do something decent with our time. I’d like to think of myself in that group, but they’re all over the place.

Before we finish, I’d like to know what  you think about Wikileaks? Their processes, their criticism that they just dump everything, and also their politics?

Well I have to make a declaration first. I’m friends with Julian Assange and i like him and I respect him, which colours my thinking. Ummm the essentially idea that Julian had for Wikileaks back in 2006 was born out of the War on Terror, at a time when the world was getting much more secretive and the US was closing down many govt website that previously had information on, they were claiming secrecy for everything about their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there was a wave of secrecy going on in the midst of hugely important events that were destabilising the World, like the invasion of Iraq which have created the troubles with ISIS and in Syria, the refugee crisis, and it was getting harder and harder to even know what went on. Julian’s idea was that you needed something on a scale similar to that to tr and counter it and in a digital age, the leaking meant we had something that could be a legitimate counter to that. This was a funny, marginal idea he had for years and nobody took any advantage of him or it, but then they had enough successes that the idea started to be seen. This is a longer answer than you wanted probably but it’s very interesting. And then the example of that got in the head of this young person, Chelsea Manning who gave them the Embassy Cables in Afghanistan War and Iraq, which is really where Wikileaks became stellar. I think that was genuinely a proof of what Julian was thinking, which was that you really needed to shake things up on that scale. The information that came up on Afghanistan, which was mostly unchanged, is the most amazing resource for someone who wants to know what was happening with the CIA’s parallel war in Afghanistan. All of these things that came out of there was down to the work that Julian Assange and Wikileaks did, so I think they’ve completely justified their position in history for the rest of time as an amazing idea that worked. Edward Snowden, quite likely, would not have thought to do what he did without Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. I’m a great fan. That’ doesn’t mean I agree with everything they do.

Although people love to say he’s a very difficult person, as if there aren’t other really difficult people all over the place, I think he’s done extremely well.

Lastly, for people who will actually read this in university, particularly young and up and coming journalists, do you have a message for them, or some advice?

Yeah I do. It’s very mixed advice. I think that like, medicine, social work, there are many roles that are particularly needed in society, and I think journalism is one of those…it’s right up there. It’s like people involved in political activism, I see journalism as being right up there, as one of the most essential, noblest, good careers you could do. That’s the good news. At the same time, as we go through the transition from the pre-digital news media to the situation after the digital age has come in, where news organisations are collapsing around us, this is a really difficult and unfair time to ask people to do a course, build up their student loan, and try and find some possibly frustrating job to do. And so my advice would be to understand the problems of the news media orgs and separate that from the amazing job they do. So people who do this, not to be tricked by the collapsing nature of the industry, should be wary of the complicated nature of becoming a successful journalist. Also be aware that, this is one of the most amazing ways to contribute to society, and society is not going to stop journalism, in fact it’s going to need it more and more and more.

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2017.
Posted 11:43am Sunday 7th May 2017 by George Elliott.