The Hollow Men

January 30, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Posted in Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

By now The Hollow Men by Nicky Hager has been well commented on in the media. In fact, you may be thinking that the book is already old-hat. There is some truth to this; certainly, the book is written for the moment and as we know, a lot has changed even since the November 2006 publication (notably, the resignation of Don Brash as leader and MP of the National Party). In spite of this, twenty-six people are in the holds queue to read the book from Dunedin Public Libraries. Why bother reading Hager’s book in 2007 – or beyond? Here are some thoughts on lasting lessons from Hager’s work, concentrating on the two main types of sources he uses.

Firstly, e-mail can be dangerous. As we know, Hager relied on dozens, probably hundreds, of “leaked” e-mails between National Party MPs and their advisers. Whether one views these e-mails as “damaging” or not, the documents reveal numerous draft speeches and internal comments that were definitely
not meant for public consumption. National’s problem was not the leak, but rather the fact that the e-mails existed in the first place. IT experts have said for years that e-mail is no more private than a postcard. Imagine if Hager had attempted to write a similar book before the invention of e-mail. It is possible that information in the form of faxes or memos could have been leaked instead. But often the most interesting e-mails Hager cites were just a few lines long. Before e-mail, this information probably would have been conveyed by telephone – and, short of tapping mobile phones, would have been therefore much harder to leak. National has learnt the hard way that e-mail is not a secure form of communication.

Secondly, Hager has demonstrated the power of electronic databases for this sort of investigative research. As seen in the copious endnotes Hager provides, The New Zealand Herald and Fairfax newspapers The Dominion-Post and The Press were key sources which provided Hager with the crucial “public side” of the narrative. Nothing unusual in this? Perhaps not – except that Hager has provided a first-class demonstration of how to harness the power of the Newztext database, part of “Knowledge Basket”. This subscription database – available free to DPL members – provides full-text searching of the Herald and INL/Fairfax newspapers (amongst many others) from as early as 1995. Throughout The Hollow Men, Hager uses Newztext to support his argument, turning up, for instance, a 1996 Sunday News article where the phrase “political correctness” is mentioned. Hager also digs up information on names (often unfamiliar) he finds in the leaked e-mails, thereby building up a mini-biography on each individual based on what has been published in the papers over the years.

Yet despite the obvious power of the database, Newztext has two shortcomings. First, like the internet in general, life begins in 1995 – at the earliest. Second, only sources that contribute to Newztext are used. There are references to the Nelson Mail and the Southland Times in Hager’s book – but not a single one to the much larger Otago Daily Times – which does not feed its stories to Newztext. For that, you can try using DPL’s own Southern Regional News Index, or subscribe to the ODT’s Digital Edition, which has the full-text of every ODT published since 2004. For researchers, Newztext is indeed powerful – but it is important to remember what it does not cover.

Of course, for all this, most people want to read The Hollow Men because of the information contained in the leaked e-mails – and it is certainly a fascinating read.


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