Nicky Hager on War Crimes, Owning Your Mistakes and the Aftermath of 'Hit & Run'

We spoke to New Zealand’s most polarising investigative journalist about his latest book: the backlash, the denials, and how his family’s history of escaping Nazi Germany changed his perspective on war.

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04 April 2017, 11:15pm

Hager's house is hidden—almost invisible from the road, up a small maze of pathways lined with red dahlias and a blanket of orange nasturtium vines.

"No-one comes up here unsolicited," Hager says, striding ahead up a seemingly endless flight of stairs.

The more obvious exception to that is the police, who raided this house in October 2014, in search of information to identify one of his sources. The raid was later declared unlawful, and the police forced to pay damages. But it helped cement Hager's place as one of New Zealand's most controversial—and oft-under-fire—investigative journalists.

For the past two decades, he has written about some of New Zealand's most secretive and powerful institutions: from spy agencies and the SAS, to the prime minister's PR office. The latest book, Hit & Run, co-authored with Jon Stephenson, is a heavily-footnoted volume alleging a botched raid by New Zealand troops on two Afghan villages in 2010. It documents, among other things, the life and death of Fatima, a three-year-old girl killed by shrapnel, and Islamuddin, a teaching graduate villagers say died under fire. It alleges homes were deliberately destroyed, and a prisoner beaten and transferred to probable torture. The book asks whether the allegations amount to New Zealand involvement in war crimes.

Perhaps more than any other journalist or author in New Zealand, Hager raises hackles when his work comes to publication. Hit & Run was met by an onslaught of competing press releases, lobbed insults, statements and counter-statements. The Defence Force maintains that there was no wrongdoing by New Zealand troops. Hager and Stephenson found themselves forced to admit to an error in the book, after the Defence Force discovered one of the maps marked the village two kilometres off from their actual location. Yesterday, Prime Minister Bill English announced there would be no inquiry into the allegations of civilian deaths.

It's now been two weeks since the book's release date. Hager is making cheese scones. Leaning over the grater, he is a steady, earnest, measured speaker, and seems faintly embarrassed about the slew of profiles that followed Hit & Run. VICE asked him about the aftermath of the book, having to admit to a mistake, and how his family's persecution in Nazi Germany shaped his views of war.

VICE: How did you come across this project? Like how did it first cross your desk?
Normally with my projects I've been thinking about a subject for a long time and something seems to need to be worked on so I set off to find something out. This one was completely different, in that it began because I was approached by one of the people who involved in these attacks in Afghanistan. And it was instantly riveting and all my instincts were telling me the person was real, and that it was serious. And the next two and a half years of contact have only strengthened my confidence about the source. And then of course we got more sources, and I worked with Jon Stephenson and it all grew from there.

I remember a little while ago, before the book came out, in an interview I think with Toby Manhire -
I shot my mouth off.

I don't think you gave much away at all, so if that's shooting your mouth off the bar must be quite high. But you said you couldn't imagine a more important project in your life. Can you tell me why?
That was probably a little bit overstated. [laughs] In the sense that there are quite a lot of things which are important to me. But issues of war and peace are really big for me—and actually for the life and soul of our country. What we do in foreign wars, and whether we act with the values and beliefs of our country—I think that this is the kind of stuff that really affects the track of our history. On most things, the country lives in a state where our beliefs aren't really being tested and exercised. And actually you need things to happen where your values and beliefs are being crashed into and thought about, and debated, and people figure out what side they're on.

"You realise that war is the worst disintegration of civilisation, and morals, and how people treat each other, and it brings out the worst in the world that can happen. If you've got family experience of that, this infects your whole life.

You've talked a little bit in the past about your family background being part of the reason you're interested in war and peace and how that plays out. Can I ask you about that?
I don't think I'm at all unique in this. I think there is a strong skepticism about militarism in New Zealand, which began in the first world war or before. But for me personally, the second world war was completely catastrophic for half my family. All the Austrian side, where most of the people got killed by the Nazis–tried to escape in different directions, didn't make it. And so, you grow up not thinking of war as a kind of exciting adventure, that young men go off and do. You actually realise that it's the worst disintegration of civilisation, and morals, and how people treat each other, and it brings out the worst in the world that can happen. If you've got family experience of that, this infects your whole life.

I also wondered if there are kind of uniting themes to your work—you've done projects across a lot of different spheres—politics, the military and surveillance being the main ones. But when you're looking at a possible project or someone comes to you with something, is there something you look for in it?
Yeah definitely. Because there aren't many people who have the luxury of time that I have for projects. You can only do so many projects in your life. I want to choose the ones that are the most worthwhile: which aren't just a sensational headline, but which actually talk about something important. Where the story is a story in itself, but also raises important stuff about, for example, how politics works, or what's virtuous or not virtuous in politics.

I'm interested in the role of promotion of your work, and how you see that. There's this image, especially among some commentators, of you as a kind of very savvy, calculating PR operator. I'm wondering what your reflections are on that, where you see yourself sitting.
So, how do I respond to personal attack line number 7: the "manipulative PR genius" is what you're asking?

Yeah, the mastermind.
Well I think if you're going to go to the trouble of doing work, anyone who's doing work, raising issues or telling people what's going on around them, there is no point in writing a book if no-one knows you've done it. This isn't some noble private duty. You've stuffed up the project if you haven't been heard by doing it. All your hard work has been wasted. So part of the job is making sure it gets noticed. However, I do think that the PR mastermind line is just one of the various things people raise when they don't want to debate the issues at hand. It's a way of denigrating the activity without actually having to address what's going on.

"The very next day after they'd made the accusation, I cancelled everything else and spent the entire day reading their materials and checking everything. And when I'd done that, I could see we had the wrong location. Slightly wrong.

I wanted to ask about the moment you realised there was this error in the location of the village. What was it like? Was there a moment? Because they'd had the initial press conference saying you'd got it wrong, and you'd said it was bollocks. What happened next?
So, what I'm used to is normally, whatever I do, the first PR trick that's used is to say it's full of inaccuracies. Whether or not it is, they always say that as a way of dismissing it. So the fact that they said there was an inaccuracy in the location I didn't take very seriously at first, because we had maps, details, lots of locals pointing out where it was and things. But the very next day after they'd made the accusation, I cancelled everything else and spent the entire day reading their materials and checking everything. And when I'd done that, I could see we had the wrong location. Slightly wrong. We had the right towns, we had the right everything. The whole story was correct, but in the untracked, roadless mapless country we were dealing with... Where we'd said the villages were that had the attack, those villages were actually slightly somewhere else. So there was, what I would rate as: deeply annoying because it could be used against us, but a really minor and insignificant mistake.

But a mistake.
But it existed! And so what I did was, I thought, I just have to front up with this as fast as I possibly can. The normal thing people do in this world is they fudge it. They just kind of keep arguing their side, or they skirt around it. You don't get credit for owning up, you just get trouble for it. But I wanted the book to be as solid as it possibly could be and have all the credibility it deserved—which means that even if something is non-essential, but something's not right in it, that I front straight up about it. So that same day, I wrote up a four page report saying we were right about this, we were right about that, this accusation is not right, but this! They're correct, we got the wrong place. Knowing that I was going to have to wear it. What I would argue is that's no less than I'm asking them to do, which is when something's wrong, not to weave and trick and deny, but to front up. If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander. But it wasn't comfortable.

Yeah I guess most journalists have a trust relationship with their readers—but you more than some. Your sources you have to keep anonymous a lot of the time, and you don't work under a kind of masthead like the New Zealand Herald that sort of 'denotes trustworthiness'. So did you worry, even if this is a minor mistake, the fact you'd got anything wrong could mean readers start to dismiss your work, or lose that trust?
Not quite. I was absolutely certain it would be used against me, as it has been. I wish we had a political system where you got credit for owning up to a mistake. It would make everyone better. It's how the world should work. In fact it's always the opposite. But I've been through lots of these stirs. What I have learnt is, miraculously, when I feel that I have been ritually demolished by smears, and nasty things said about me that I seem to come through. So I wasn't too worried about my credibility, because experience has taught me it will probably be alright.

When you responded to one Barry Soper article that came out, you said you know, if he'd just come back to me and run this past me, we could have pointed out why it's wrong. I found that interesting because this is often a criticism of your work - that you don't run the allegations or the evidence past the people concerned.
Yeah [that is a criticism]. Except that it's not true. Let me explain. When I do a news story, or a newspaper feature, or an online feature I go for comment from every person mentioned, just like everybody else does. Of course I do! You couldn't get the stuff published otherwise. Books are different, complicatedly different from that. I make an exception for that because there are some people who it's impossible to go to comment from. Because it is so easy to muck up a book with tactical legal action, or other techniques, that going for comment is just too risky to ever be able to get the book out. 

I'll be more explicit. One of my books, a book called The Hollow Men, got injuncted. Luckily I managed to argue the case in public until they took the injunction off. But if I hadn't, the amount of money it would have cost to fight that injunction—which had no merit at all, would never have worked in court, was completely false—the amount of money it would have taken to fight that injunction would be more than the publisher, me and everybody earned from the book. It is just too easy for someone who's organised and resourced to stop something. It's not perfect but it's just the way it is.

"I feel disappointed first of all for the people in the villages. The forgotten people in Afghanistan, who were the victims of the SAS raid. Who we know have been really amazed and encouraged that people are talking about them far away in New Zealand—this will be really disappointing for them.

The prime minister's just announced there will be no inquiry into the evidence you provided in the book. You must be disappointed.
Yeah. Very disappointed. I feel disappointed first of all for the people in the villages. The forgotten people in Afghanistan, who were the victims of the SAS raid. Who we know have been really amazed and encouraged that people are talking about them far away in New Zealand - this will be really disappointing for them. I'm also disappointed as someone who has spent two years working on this that it has been dismissed, that all the information in the book has been dismissed in such an unworthy kind of a way, by just pathetic claims that there's no substance to it—which is just not true. In other words, it's not a serious response. And if I could say one more—I'm actually really disappointed with Bill English. I thought he was better than this. I genuinely thought he would come to the issue clean and make a good decision.

Have you continued to be in touch with your sources through this process? Can you tell us anything about what they've said or how they're feeling now?
No. For the practical standard procedure reasons, I signed off before the book came out with all my most secret sources, because it was just not fair to try and communicate around the time of publication and the turbulence. It's actually just not safe enough for them. So I haven't the vaguest idea of what they're thinking.

Did you discuss during the writing of the book whether they'd be willing to participate in an independent inquiry, if there was one?
As the relationships got stronger over time, there were actually discussions about this. Not asking them to or pushing them to, but it came up. And some of them would consider it, because through the process of discussion, fact checking and talking through the issues with repeatedly with some of them, they got more confident and more determined about the whole thing.

"It now becomes a public battle, fought out between political parties. It will be fought out by people writing and commentating, by more information coming out through the media. The fight begins rather than ends at this point.

I thought one of the interesting statements English made when he was discussing was that the chief of defence wasn't involved directly in the raid, so has a degree of independence from it. What are your thoughts on that?
What I would say is: spare me. Honestly. That is probably the dumbest thing that's been said in quite a while in the Beehive theatre. I know the journalists in the room were amazed he would say that. The government is always appointing independent reviews here, and QC reviews here. Because nobody thinks they [heads of department] are independent. Of course they're not independent. It was kind of a shamelessly outrageous thing to be saying.

Now they've taken a position and said there won't be an inquiry, it'll probably take a lot for them to back down on that. Do you have any hopes for what next steps might be?
Definitely they're not going to back down easily. They've made their decision and they will stick to it, at least for a while. But that doesn't mean in a country like ours that that's the end of it at all. It means that rather than doing it in a civilised, proper, independent way, it now becomes a public battle, fought out between political parties. It will be fought out by people writing and commentating, by more information coming out through the media. The fight begins rather than ends at this point. I feel confident that one way or another, they haven't closed it down. It will boil on, until it's dealt with.

This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity.

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