The PM says there is no basis for an inquiry into the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, yet editorial opinion in the media overwhelmingly backs one. Has the meaning of book Hit & Run been obscured by all the claims and counter-claims in the media?
Three weeks have passed since Hit & Run co-authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson accused the New Zealand Defence Force of covering up the consequences of raids in Afghanistan.
The book says our SAS soldiers failed to kill the insurgents they were after and civilians died instead. Hit & Run provides names, faces, and some evidence. It says the SAS failed to help the wounded, destroyed houses and a prisoner was beaten and handed over to Afghan forces that are known for torture.
But according to some commentators, it was the PR skills of Nicky Hager that propelled the book into the headlines.
In an editorial calling for an inquiry into the book's findings, The Listener said it was “released with the usual array of manipulative PR tricks to achieve massive and uncritical initial media coverage”.
The authors held a book launch in a book shop, issued a press release and held a press conference later. Everything the authors want people to know is laid on in the pages of their book. It's hard to see what is "manipulative" about all that.
A few copies of the book were made available to a handful of journalists a short time before the initial release. Some pundits criticised the authors for handpicking friendly reporters for a heads-up, while Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod reckoned not giving out more books beforehand was media manipulation.
"Some books are released to media in advance of publication, giving the opportunity to follow up allegations. This book was not - a guarantee that it would receive saturation coverage while anyone who doubted its claims would look as if they were trying to hide something," she wrote.
Online outlet Vice asked Nicky Hager this week if the release of Hit & Run was an exercise in spin.
"Part of the job is making sure it gets noticed," he replied.
"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," Mr Hager told Vice.
Follow the leader?
"Nicky Hager knows how to play the media, which laps up his every utterance," Rosemary McLeod concluded in the Dominion Post.
Not quite. Hit & Run closes with claims that the SAS - though only a small elite unit - has become too influential within the NZDF. Lines of authority and command need to be urgently reviewed, the book warns.
Coverage of the book has overlooked that angle. Indeed, some in the media dismiss what Mr Hager says just because it is him saying it.
After the book's release, Newstalk ZB weekend host Andrew Dickens wrote that fellow hosts Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith had said they did not like Mr Hager and therefore did not believe him. Talkback callers followed suit, he noted.
"Despite having never read the 120-page book, the majority of callers were prepared to dismiss it just because Hager had written it," said Mr Dickens.
The day the NZDF broke its silence with a dense briefing for the press that was streamed live by several news outlets online, Defence Force head Lieutenant General Tim Keating conceded there may have been civilian casualties during the raid. He insisted the “central premise” of the book was incorrect and there were “major inaccuracies" - most notably, the location of the SAS-led raids described in Hit and Run.
Hager and Stephenson insisted that did not change the story in any significant way. The Defence Force briefing had not explained the deaths and injuries suffered by people who were obviously not insurgents, they said.
Houses destroyed, the lack of assistance to the wounded and mistreatment of a prisoner described in the book were also not addressed in the briefing, along with claims of a cover-up.
The New Zealand Herald’s David Fisher reported an SAS soldier confirmed civilians were killed in 2010. The soldier said that was widely known among elite soldiers.
"I'll stack my evidence up against Tim Keating's any day of the week. I'll meet him any place, any time," Jon Stephenson responded bullishly on the AM show the next morning.
The case of the casings
Nicky Hager accused the Defence Force of trying to sow doubts about the rest of the book by highlighting minor discrepancies, but they weren’t the only ones.
On Friday, 31 March, the New Zealand Herald published a story trailed like this:
Exclusive! Another shadow has been cast over the accuracy of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's book Hit & Run.
Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper said a caption under one of the book’s many photos showed bullet cartridges that Hit & Run's authors claimed were fired by SAS snipers.
A weapons expert told The Herald those cartridges were too big to be fired by soldier's guns and they probably came from a US helicopter.
Was this a smoking gun that shot down Hit & Run? Not quite. The story disappeared from The Herald's website when Mr Hager complained to the editor and pointed out that another photo in the book had identified the same cartridges as ones likely to be from a from a helicopter’s gun.
Mr Hager also noted he could have pointed that out to The Herald - had they contacted him before publishing that "exclusive".
The Herald’s story went back up online again later in the day with Mr Hager’s explanations and objections awkwardly bolted on at the bottom.
But Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper stuck to his guns in an opinion piece for the ZB website, in which he said the caption on that picture of cartridges, coupled with the earlier discrepancy over the location of the raid, undermined the book.
"There was only one attack in the valley on the night and the book's account of it is virtually the same as the military's, but any chink in the book's armour - unfortunately - weakens their argument," wrote Soper.
The Dominion Post seemed to agree. In its weekly 'Below the Beltway' list of what’s going up and down in politics, The Dominion Post said General Keating was on the up.
“His rebuttal of some key information in Hit & Run seems to have staved off a government inquiry,” said the paper, though this was far from clear at that point.
Meanwhile, Hager and Stephenson were going down:
“Some basic errors in Hit & Run have weakened their case for an inquiry,” it said, but the paper did not say what these "basic errors" were.
On the same page of the paper, columnist Martin Van Beynen - a senior Christchurch-based journalist - asked this question:
Can New Zealanders trust Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson?
His answer was - essentially - yes, but he was not so sure about the NZDF because it had moved from its 2010 position that reports of civilian casualties were “unfounded.”
‘‘Unfounded’’ is one of those weasel words useful to spin merchants. It suggests that no civilian casualties occurred when, in fact, it could simply mean no evidence of civilian casualties has emerged because no-one has looked for it," said Martin Van Beynen.
"The word’s use suggests very strongly that the army has something to hide," he added.
While Van Beynen was not sure about the need for a commission of inquiry, he thought Hit & Run's authors "aimed too high by suggesting the operation may have resulted in war crimes."
"Even if all they say is true, it seems more likely the perpetrators made mistakes rather than being reckless or homicidal," he wrote, even though Hit & Run's authors have said all along they were leaving the possibility of war crimes questions to the experts.
In this week’s Listener, Bill Ralston said he was sure the SAS did not commit war crimes.
"The words “war crimes” imply an atrocity, a deliberate act of murder of unarmed civilians rather than inadvertent deaths that occurred as a result of fire exchanged during a conflict. Even Hager and Stephenson do not allege the SAS deliberately lined up civilians and shot them," he wrote in The Listener.
Indeed they did not, but war crimes are not synonymous with cold-blooded murder.
On The Spinoff website, Mr Hager’s lawyer Felix Geiringer pointed out it can be a war crime merely to destroy the property of an adversary.
"The fact that the homes belonged to an insurgent cannot itself be an excuse to destroy them. The requirement that the destruction 'be imperatively demanded by the necessities of the conflict' is a very high test. Receiving some peripheral military advantage could never satisfy this test," he wrote.
In The Listener, Ralston - a former head of news at TVNZ turned media trainer and pundit - went on to compare the claims and counter-claims to a traffic accident.
"If you interviewed a dozen witnesses several years after the event, you would probably have a dozen differing accounts. So it is with the Hit & Run story," he said.
But witnesses to routine road accidents do not carry high-end military gear with cameras and GPS, and they do not complete detailed post-mission reports for the record. Nor do they have in-house legal scrutiny on the case - as the NZDF said they did on the raids in question.
So far only Prime Minister Bill English has seen evidence the NZDF has shown to him.
"Many folk have seized on the issue to politically attack the government, via the military," Ralston wrote in The Listener.
He's not the only pundit to point out the media debate about all this has become political, but many people calling for transparency are not so concerned about the political consequences or even the conduct of our Defence Force.
Many just want to know if innocent people in Afghanistan have been harmed by our soldiers, and whether we are obliged to try to put things right.