Dirty tactics, or just politics at play?

One of the enduring impressions of Jason Ede, the National staffer at the centre of Nicky Hager's dirty politics claims, is of him crouching amid cigarette butts to take pictures of the aftermath of a press gallery party.

The pictures ended up on the WhaleOil blog, rumbling Ede - a senior adviser on a likely six figure salary - as the main conduit between the prime minister's office and blogger Cameron Slater.

But most journalists had figured that already given the frequency with which both complaints and spin from the Beehive's ninth floor were replicated on Slater's blog.

So for those of us frantically skimming through Hager's book before deadline Wednesday, its revelations seemed less surprising than they may to the rest of the public.

By the time Hager's book came out Ede had already been moved to the National leader's payroll, then to National Party headquarters, where his activities are beyond the scope of the Official Information Act. It is not a stretch to imagine that these moves were a response to stories that had already been published about Ede's murky role feeding bloggers like WhaleOil.

Dirty Politics helps make that relationship more explicit.

Key's explanation has been to shrug his shoulders and label it the "modern world".

He may be right. But Hager's book raises legitimate questions about whether people like Ede and Slater are a response to the modern world, or a tool to reshape the modern world to better suit a government's political ends.

Key, for instance, claims Ede's job is to brief journalists as much as bloggers. He may do, but of the six journalists in the Fairfax press gallery office, none have had a call from Ede in years. Many - though not all - press gallery journalists would say the same.

That may be because his stock in trade is unpublishable by most mainstream media. There is a saying that journalists often hear - "no fingerprints". It means "I'm giving you this story on the understanding it is never traced back to me."

Feeding a story through a partisan blog, rather than a journalist, is a further level of protection. There are also much better odds of it reflecting the spin that has been put on it.

We saw another example of the modern world in action when Key was asked to respond to Hager's allegations after the book was dropped on Wednesday evening.

Key waited till the next morning, which was probably fair given the book was dropped at 6pm and copies were hard to come by (though it is hard to believe Key's office did not send a staffer down to the book launch to grab a copy).

But the following morning Key then gave his one and only interview to a music station with a comparatively small audience and it was another five hours before he fronted the rest of the media to be challenged on Hager's allegations of dirty and underhand behaviour.

Hager's Corngate expose on genetic engineering, which derailed the 2002 election campaign, had a bigger impact than it might have because of the way it was used to blindside former Prime Minister Helen Clark on national television.

Much of the Key Government's media strategy is built around avoiding those sort of moments. Even so, Key's eventual response at his media stand-up in Dunedin was every bit as raw and visceral as Clark's 2002 Corngate interview. It was Key as we rarely see him - white hot with anger.

Hager's view of the world of politics often seems to be of the spaghetti western variety - there are good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. You are either on one side or the other. That is how Hager can justify using hacked emails from Slater's private computer, while also strongly believing that for his opponents to do the same would be the worst case of dirty tricks. It is a world view that shapes the tribalism shared by many Nats and Labour-ites.

But for the rest of us there is no such bright line. On all sides of Parliament there are good people and bad people, nice people and others who treat their staff and junior colleagues appallingly. Some are motivated by self-interest, others are genuinely motivated to do good. That is why we often focus on personalities in politics - it goes to character.

The problem journalists have weighing up Hager's book is whether these carry enough weight to even come close to directly implicating the Government in some of the more tawdry allegations.

Key, however, has failed to deny one of the central allegations - that Ede joined Slater in fossicking around Labour Party computers to extract politically damaging information is illuminating.

The defence seems to be that Labour exposed itself to such tactics due to a flaw in its operating system which effectively opened a door to anyone doing what Slater and Ede did.

That may be the legal defence taken care of but Key is clearly of the view that also covers any questions about the morality of them doing so.

The attitude is overwhelmingly that all is fair in love, war and politics. That is probably a statement on politics generally and there is no reason to think National's opponents have a different view. No matter his intention, the fallout from Hager's book is likely to be an escalation in such tactics on both sides, not less.