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Dismissing Skullduggery.

datePosted on 11:16, March 1st, 2014 by Pablo

The latest Snowden leaks reveal that the British signals intelligence outfit GCHQ held a top secret conference in 2012 where it briefed its Five Eyes partners on an array of cyber “dirty tricks” that could be used against opponents. These included a range of hacking techniques, to include denial of service overloads, false on-line identities, “spoofing,” manipulation and alteration of on-line data and even the tried and true method of luring targets into so-called “honey traps” via social media.

The operative terms in such operations are encapsulated in the Four “D’s:” deny, disrupt, degrade and deceive.

Needless to say, there was the usual hue and cry when the news went public. Civil libertarians are incensed. Privacy advocates are outraged.

My reaction was “so what?” This is typical counter-intelligence, disinformation and psychological operations (pysops) taken to a new technological level (there is a positive side to psyops, something that is most commonly associated with so-called “hearts and minds” campaigns, but that is not the objective here). Instead, this program replicates what hackers already do on a regular basis and parallels similar programs run by the signals intelligence services of many countries. The conference just drew together the various aspects and strands of cyber naughtiness into a package made available to the Five Eyes members. The presentation (as provided by journalist Glenn Greenwald) is here: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/.

Needless to say, New Zealand’s signals organizations, the GCSB, as well as the SIS and perhaps other security/intelligence units such as those of the police, have been granted access to this program. Government denials of such are just another smokescreen designed to hide the full extent of what NZ spy agencies can (and) do.

I was interviewed on Radio Nw Zealand about this. I pretty much said what I have mentioned above and pointed out that the real damaging news is soon to come: revelations about who NZ spies on, which, if Snowden holds true to form, will include allies as well as trading partners and perhaps even the Chinese. The interview is here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2587171.

After my interview former GCSB director Bruce Ferguson was interviewed. What he said was remarkable. He claimed that he knew of no such programs and that as far as he knew the GCSB did not engage in illegal activities. He dismissed my views by saying that some people give too much credit to NZ spy agency capabilities. He also claimed that the Russians and Chinese engage in similar behavior.

Let’s deconstruct this. The “dirty tricks” conference was held in 2012 and Ferguson left the GCSB in 2009. Perhaps he was unaware of the conference and during his time no such “dirty tricks” programs were operated by the GCSB. During his tenure cyber espionage was not the priority focus that it is today, so perhaps that is true insofar as using hacking techniques on social media and other cyber targets is concerned.

He says that as far as he knows the GCSB has done nothing illegal. That flies in the face of the illegal spying on Kim Dotcom (even the government admits the tapping of Dotcom’s phones by the GCSB was in fact unlawful) and the revelations that the GCSB misled parliament in its most recent annual report as to the number of warrants and operations it was engaged in (which the government claims was a simple error rather a purposeful deception). This latest embarrassment occurs after the publication of the Kitteridge Report on GCSB failures and the appointment of a new director charged with addressing and correcting them (Kitteridge is now the director of the SIS).

So, contrary to Bruce Ferguson’s claims, the GCSB has committed at least a few illegal acts, but perhaps not during his tenure as director. I leave it for readers to make judgement on that.

Whatever the truth, I believe that we can safely assume that the GCSB employs aspects of the “dirty tricks” program against foreign and perhaps domestic targets (the SIS certainly does in the latter case). I see this as par for the course given the current state of Five Eyes signals intelligence collection. I am not particularly fussed by the revelations, perhaps because it is just a technological extension of what always has been the norm in the world of intelligence and espionage.

What I do believe, as I have said many times before, is that these latest revelations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NZ intelligence operations, and that Snowden, via his circle of investigative journalists, will publish far more damaging information about the role and extent of GCSB spying in the months to come.

It is time for the NZ government, if not the NZ public, to come to grips with that fact and prepare accordingly, because my suspicion is that the repercussions will be damaging and not necessarily confined to the diplomatic arena.

 

Trawling the depths and finding trouble.

datePosted on 10:05, December 2nd, 2013 by Pablo

The decision by a district court judge to deny a rightwing blogger the right to protect his sources because he is not a “news medium” under the definition of the Evidence Act has been greeted with glee by many on the Left but is utterly wrong. The judge clearly does not understand what blogging has become, and has failed to distinguish between freedom of the press and defamation.

There are many types of blogging, and some of it is clearly news-focused in nature. The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Foreign Policy blog and many others of that type are news outlets, sometimes with editorial content. Blogs like The Onion are clearly satirical and should be treated as such. Blogs like David Farrar’s are personal, partisan and cut and paste editorial in nature. Blogs like this one are personal and opinion focused, not news breaking. There are tons of personal, music, cinema, food and other types of blog that are not news mediums but it should be obvious that there are also many news-breaking and news focused blogs that fall well within the definition of “news medium.”

Blogs that are news focused can have a heavy editorial or partisan content. When evaluating stories on such outlets one has to distinguish whether the author wrote in a news breaking capacity or as an editorial or partisan opinion. That really is not that hard.

When considering either capacity, one should focus on whether what is said on a blog is a lie, untrue or otherwise deliberately false in nature. If what is said is injurious to another party, then it can be considered defamatory.

Although I am no fan of sociopathic bullying bigots with partisan agendas and populist delusions, I think that the particular blog in question can be rightly considered to be a news medium with overt editorial content. Much like Fox News or RT and the blogs they operate.

The plaintiff in the defamation case against the blogger in question only need demonstrate what parts of the blogposts authored by the defendant are untrue or deliberately misleading. I have not read the entire opinion but it seems to me that being called a “cocksmoker” may be insulting depending on one’s perspective, but not necessarily defamatory. Ascertaining the source of the leaks to the blogger is immaterial: either what was posted was false and deliberately written to harm the plaintiff or it was not. Seeking to identify the source only serves punitive purposes and does not assist in establishing malicious intent (which is what the plaintiff is claiming is his objective under discovery).

Given who the blogger is, malicious intent is pretty much a given. The question is: was what he wrote a lie or deliberately misleading so as to harm the reputation of the plaintiff?

The district court decision should be appealed and overruled. That is important because it protects the sources of that part of the electronic media, including social media, that has a news-generating orientation. Doing so in no way prevents defamation cases from being brought because the proof of such cases is what was deliberately said or written, not the source for what was said or written.

If the source was consciously involved in deliberately disseminating false and misleading content via the blogger, then the latter has to decide whether to reveal the source or shoulder sole responsibility. That should be enough to make even citizen journalists and news bloggers cautious.

The point is that with news source protection privileges comes the journalistic responsibility to ascertain that the information provided from a source is not deliberately false or malicious. If that responsibility is shirked, then the news outlet, be it a blog, newspaper, radio or television program can be held accountable for disseminating falsehoods that are defamatory or libelous. If the blogger in this case used material that he knew to be false and damaging, then he should be liable. If he did not know the information was false and damaging and published without verifying, he is liable anyway. Whether or not he choses to reveal his source, he ultimately is responsible for what was written on his blog and therefore accountable for what was written. That is how journalism operates.

The bottom line is that the district court judge’s decision is very poorly thought out and wrong. As many have mentioned, it establishes a dangerous precedent with a chilling effect on freedoms of speech and press in electronic media.

The Left should not be so gleeful because the silencing of one opens the door to the silencing of many.

 

Long and short of the NZDF spying scandal.

datePosted on 16:09, July 30th, 2013 by Pablo

Accusations that the NZDF may have been spying on journalist Jon Stephenson during or after he was in Afghanistan researching what turned into a series of very critical stories about the actuality of SAS operations in support of the elite Afghan counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) have sparked both public outrage and government backlash. Numerous media entities and civil libertarians have protested the alleged spying as an infringement on press freedom, with the story now picked up by the US press because Mr. Stephenson was working for a US based news service when the spying supposedly occurred, and the spying may have been carried out by US agencies.

It is early days yet in the development of the story, but there are numerous angles that if explored could lead to a can of worms being opened on the NZDF and NZ government as well as the US administration. More immediately, if what has been made public so far is accurate then there are some NZ-focused issues to ponder, which can be broadly divided into matters of short and long-term consequence.

The specific accusation is that NZDF obtained meta-data about Mr. Stephenson’s phone records from US intelligence sources while he was in Kabul. This meta-data included the phone numbers of those he contacted or who called him while in theater, which could be “mined” and subject to network analysis in order to create signal maps and flow charts of the patterns of communication between them as well as with Mr. Stephenson (what have been called signals meta-data “trees”).

Implicit in the original story by Nicky Hager is the possibility that the content of Mr. Stephenson’s conversations and possibly his emails were accessed by the NZDF, or at least by foreign partners who then shared that information with the NZDF.

This is the short aspect of the story. Mr. Hager believes that Mr. Stephenson was subject to an NSA signals trolling scheme akin to that done by the PRISM program, and that the NZDF may have requested that Mr. Stephenson be surveilled by the NSA as a result of Stephenson’s investigation but also because the NZDF could not spy on him directly. However, since the SIS and GCSB had officers on the ground in Kabul and shared workspace with NSA and CIA personnel, the possibility was raised that they were somehow involved in the electronic monitoring of Mr. Stephenson, either has initiators or recipients of the NSA meta-data mining of his communications.

This may or may not prove true. The government and NZDF flatly deny that any spying, whether by the NSA, GCSB or NZDF, was done on Mr. Stephenson. Mr. Hager claims to have evidence that NZDF personnel obtained Mr. Stephenson’s telephone meta-data (presumably he has at least been shown that data by the NZDF personnel who are his sources).

One of these versions is apparently false, although there may be a twist to the story that bridges the veracity gap between them.

Since Mr. Stephenson was in a declared conflict zone in which a multinational military coalition was engaged, he was inevitably subject to military intelligence collection. Military organizations and their various service branches maintain human and signals intelligence collection units that focus on tactical aspects of the conflict zone. That would, at a minimum, include canvassing local telephone and email networks for information on potential threats and contextual background. Such collection is designed to facilitate “actionable” intelligence: information that can be used to influence the political environment as well as the kinetic operations that occur within it.

It is possible that Mr. Stephenson’s phone records were collected by an ISAF military signals intelligence unit. It probably was that of a US military unit. That unit may have identified Mr. Stephenson as a New Zealander and passed his information on to one of the intelligence shops located at Bagram Air Force base or elsewhere for sharing with the NZDF as a professional courtesy and a “head’s up” on who Mr. Stephenson was involved with.

If this is true, then Mr. Hager’s NSA/PRISM/GCSB/NZDF spying scenario is wrong. However, the issue does not end there. The big questions are whether the NZDF requested that an allied military signals intelligence unit spy on Mr. Stephenson, or if not, what it did with the information about Mr. Stephenson volunteered to it by its ally.

If the latter is the case, then it is possible that the NZDF took no action because it either considered the information marginal to its intelligence concerns or improper for it to receive and use. That in turn could have led to the destruction of that meta-data after it was received.

On the other hand, if the NZDF requested said information about Mr. Stephenson from a military intelligence partner, that would make any subsequent meta-data record destruction an attempt to eliminate evidence of that request or the use to which the data-mining was put.

It should be noted that such spying in conflict zones is usual and to be expected by anyone operating with them, journalists and non-journalists alike. Moreover, it is perfectly legal as well as reasonable for the NZDF to share information with its military intelligence partners, even if it includes information about unaffiliated NZ citizens operating in conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed. Thus it would not have been unlawful for the NZDF to obtain Mr. Stephenson’s electronic meta-data whether it initiated its collection or merely received the results.

This extends to its use of the SIS or GCSB to assist in said collection, since the SIS is empowered to spy on NZ citizens and the GCSB was working in a foreign theater in which Mr. Stephenson was working for a “foreign entity” (McClatchy New Service), therefore making him a legitimate target under the 2003 GCSB Act. Whether one or both of these agencies was involved in the spying on Mr. Stephenson, should it have occurred, the eavesdropping could legally be conducted without warrant, again owing to situational circumstance.

However, just because something is legal does not make it right. This is where the long of the story comes into play.

Mr. Hager also revealed the existence of an NZDF operations manual, apparently drafted in 2003 and revised in 2005, that included at least “certain investigative journalists” along with hackers, foreign spy agencies, ideological extremists, disloyal employees, interest groups, and criminal organizations in the category of “subversive” threats (although it remains unclear as to when that particular passage was added to the text and who authored and authorized it). The definition of subversion was stretched to include those whose activities could undermine public morale or confidence in the government and NZDF. This included “political” activities deemed inimical to the NZDF image or reputation.

Whether it was included in the original version or added some time later (perhaps very recently), that definition of subversive threats is astounding. The language used borrows directly from the lexicon of the Pinochet dictatorship and Argentine Junta. It completely ignores the concept of press freedom in a democracy, which is premised on the autonomous separation of the media and the military as institutions. It lumps in so-defined subversive threats with physical threats to operational security in the field. That makes those identified as subversives enemies rather than adversaries, which allows them to be treated accordingly.

The wording of the passage about subversive threats in this manual says more about those who drafted it and the NZDF leadership that allowed it to become doctrine than it does about any real threat posed by journalists to the NZDF or government. Being embarrassed by critical reporting is not akin to being shot at. Even if written in the fevered years immediately after 9/11, the authors of that passage (and presumably others in the manual) display an authoritarian, anti-democratic mindset that is fundamentally inimical to democratic civil-military relations and, for that matter, democratic military professionalism.

Chris Trotter has noted that the NZDF, as a military organization, is authoritarian in nature and thus inherently un-, if not anti-democratic. I respect his view but disagree to an extent. Virtually all social organizations are hierarchical in nature–families, churches, private firms, unions, schools, bureaucracies, political parties and yes, the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. That makes the egalitarian bases of democratic political society unlike virtually all other forms of social organization.

In other words, we are socialized in a hierarchical world and it is democracy as a political form that is the unnatural outlier.

Even so, although hierarchy can and often does tend towards authoritarianism, in democracies social organizations that are hierarchically constructed bow to the egalitarian meta-logic that posits that in their political interactions they are bound by notions of mutual respect, independence, corporate autonomy and non-interference. That is, they practice at a meta-level what they do not at the macro or micro-levels: in their interactions with each other groups forgo the hierarchical disposition that characterizes their internal governance.

This is important because the NZDF field manual that Mr. Hager exposed and whose existence is now confirmed by the government displays an authoritarian mindset and operational perspective that transcends the necessary hierarchy of NZDF organization. The NZDF is not inherently authoritarian because it is hierarchical in nature, but because, if the spying allegations are correct in light of the manual’s language about threats requiring military countering, its leadership displays an authoritarian disposition when it comes to things it finds objectionable, including pesky reporters (I shall leave aside Mr. Trotter’s remarks about military allegiance to the Queen rather than government or citizenry, although I take his point as to where its loyalty is directed and the impact that has on its transparency and adherence to democratic norms).

In sum: Consider what the manual says with regards to subversive threats in light of the well-publicized NZDF attacks on Mr. Stephenson’s professional and personal integrity that resulted in the defamation trial recently concluded (attacks that could well fit within the “counter-intelligence operations” recommended in the manual). Add in the claims by Mr. Stephenson that a senior military officer uttered death threats against him (the subject of a police complaint in 2011 that was not actioned). Factor in the NZDF admission in the defamation trial that it tracked Mr. Stephenson’s movements along with the possibility that the NZDF did acquire and utilize Mr. Stephenson’s telephone communications records in a capacity other than to detect tactical threats to units in theater. Further include Mr. Hager’s findings in his book Other Peoples Wars, in which the NZDF was seen to disregard government instructions regarding its conduct in foreign theaters and collaborated extensively with US intelligence (both military and civilian) in places like Bamiyan in spite of its repeated denials that it was doing anything other than building schools and roads in that province.

The conclusion? In light of this sequence of events it is very possible that the NZDF  has systematically operated in an unprofessional and anti-democratic fashion for at least a decade, and particularly with regard to Mr. Stephenson.

This is a serious matter because it gives the impression that the NZDF has gone rogue (assuming that the governments of the day were, in fact, unaware of the language in the field manual or of the alleged spying). Rectifying this institutional anomaly is important. How to do so is critical.

It is not enough to blame the previous government and retired NZDF commanders for the manual, then excise the offending passage while maintaining that no NZDF records of spying on Mr. Stephenson exist. Instead, the NZDF leadership during this time period needs to be held accountable for allowing anti-democratic attitudes and practices to take root within it and, if need be, action needs to be taken against those who authorized the language of the manual and/or the spying if it happened. Only that way can confidence in NZDF accountability and commitment to democratic principles be restored.

In order for any of this to happen, yet another inquiry needs to be launched. Given the debates about the GCSB and TICS Bills and ongoing concerns about Police and SIS behaviour, that says something about the state of New Zealand’s security community at the moment.

 

 

What should I think about Dunne?

datePosted on 19:23, June 9th, 2013 by Anita

The thing that has struck me about the current Dunne based fuss is the number of times I end up saying “I just don’t know what I should think …”

1) Should Dunne have released the email content he received?

I started off thinking “it depends if they were sent in a professional or personal capacity”. If he had emails from a school principal talking about the effects on current special education funding on workloads, I feel like they should be released. If he had emails from the same principal about her frustrations with the RMA process and the townhouses being built which will shade out her garden, then they shouldn’t be released without her permission. Similarly, I think, if they are in a professional capacity but contain personal information about either the writer or, even more so, they should be withheld (for example principal talking about the effects on a particular student).

Then… does it matter that the emails were from a journalist? … I think so … both because she should have been more aware than most people who email a Minister about how the system works (so should have less expectation of privacy perhaps) and also because we rely on journalists to make things open which would otherwise be hidden from us (so, perhaps, should have more expectation of discretion).

So… I dunno :)

2) Couldn’t he have released the contents to David Henry based on an agreement that Henry wouldn’t further release them…

I think no. If the issue is privacy then no, showing them to Henry is unfair on the individual’s privacy. We’ve all seen situations in which a secret was told to “just one other person”, causing distress to the person whose secret it actually was.

On the other hand … if we’re talking about protecting how journalism needs to work to serve the public rather than protecting privacy … still probably no. The whole point of the Henry report was to find out how the leak occurred, if Vance wanted to contribute to that discussion (to rule out Dunne, for example) she is free to do that by releasing her emails – it is not up to Dunne to make that choice for her.

3) Should we be discussing Dunne’s motivations?

I think yes … but a little less salacious glee would be nice, and some care of other people’s privacy is required. Dunne is a public figure, who has admitted to doing a foolish thing in his public role – discussing the why is a reasonable thing. But … there is a point at which is just becomes prurience or schadenfreude. There is also a point at which is crosses a line into delving into other people’s lives way more than can be justified if we’re only interested in why one man did a foolish thing.

4) Should Vance’s role in all of this be up for discussion?

Um… no idea :) Discussing how journalists get their information seems up for discussion, unevidenced discussions of her personal life and ethics not so much. But… and this I am sure of … if someone wants her role to be up for discussion they should explicitly raise it “Vance did this thing here, and it is good/bad/ethical/unethical/whatever”, the problem at the moment is that no-one is actually saying that, they’re just all saying things about someone else and in passing accusing her of something left grey and unable to be responded to.

5) Is there a thread of sexism in here that we should be aware of?

I think so. When Peters says “there’s no fool like an old fool” he is explicitly calling on a stereotype about older men – and we can discuss whether it’s fair or accurate or relevant. But he is also implicitly reinforcing a stereotype about pretty young women who use their feminine wiles to further their careers – and we don’t seem to have room to debate that. I think that young women, working in politics, journalism, or anywhere else, could live without any more reinforcement of the view that it is blindingly obviously and completely normal they use sex to get ahead.

Disappointing.

datePosted on 13:54, May 15th, 2013 by Pablo

Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.

I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).

But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.

It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012,  the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).

The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.

While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.

There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.

Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.

The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.

Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.

I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.

Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.

I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.

Hence my disappointment.

 

Happy for Gilmore

datePosted on 19:56, May 9th, 2013 by Pablo

National has to be delighted about the coverage of their drunken bully boy last on the list MP, Aaron Gilmore. Coalition partner John Banks is in court on issues of political corruption. National is trying to ram through under urgency a gross expansion of domestic espionage courtesy of the amendments to the GCSB Act. What does the media focus on? Not-so-happy Gilmore. If I were the PM, I would milk the Gilmore story for all its worth, always looking chagrined.

There are very serious issues being discussed this week. US Attorney General Eric Holder is currently in the country. This is the person who authorized the FBI extradition pursuit of Kim Dotcom that resulted in the over the top raid on Dotcom’s home and subsequent legal debacle that is the case against him and which resulted in the Kitteridge report that recommended the organizational and legal changes now being proposed. As I allude to in the immediately previous post, the findings of a military inquiry about major failures in command and training in Afghan deployments have been released but not made public (huh?). The Green/Labour attempt to disrupt asset sales could be a watershed political moment.

Yet all of these take a back seat to the habitual escapades of a dolt working hard at being a lout.

Note to the media: although the salacious details of an inconsequential politician’s idiocy might seem worth mining, especially if it seems that he could wound the government, the real stories are dead and centre in front of you. Smelling shallow blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised.

Note to the PM and the media that take his ignorance or obfuscation at face value: the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment. The two things are quite different.

Contrary to what the government would hope and TVNZ would like to believe, Seven Sharp is an idiot echo chamber, not a news aggregator, and therefore should not be used as a model for selecting which stories deserve emphasis.

Time to get off of the shellacked curly-cued imp and onto the issues that actually matter.

Journalistic license.

datePosted on 11:30, April 12th, 2013 by Pablo

Over the years I have been repeatedly misidentified by NZ media types and others in the public domain as to what I am or have been. I have been called a Middle East expert, White House aide, CIA agent, Zionist agent, 9/11 conspirator, Nazi war criminal, anti-Muslim racist, security expert and assorted other niceties. The trouble with these characterizations is that they are all wrong. Worse yet, some of them have invited unwanted and unpleasant personal attention.

Imagine then my dismay to see Andrea Vance of Fairfax identify me as a “former US spy” in an article about the GCSB report. How did she get that label? I certainly made no such claim so it is difficult to understand why she felt that she could publish such a characterization, especially since it carries in some minds a very negative connotation. Shame on her.

The reality is that I simply am a former defense policy analyst and consultant to US security agencies who alternated government service with academia. My background is in international relations and comparative politics with emphasis on unconventional warfare, intelligence analysis, Latin American politics, regime dynamics and labor relations. Lots of field and documentary research, but no spying involved.

Bonus question: readers are invited to suggest who might be on the list of 88 people spied on by the GCSB. I imagine that the Urewera 18 were and that some in the NZ Muslim community may continue to be. The Zaoui defense team might be a good bet. Environmental, animal and anti-FTA activists could be targets. John Minto and Valerie Morse believe that they have been (Val, of course, was part of the Urewera crowd). Any other suggestions?

 

On “average”

datePosted on 20:44, May 25th, 2012 by Lew

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.

L

* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

Whining John.

datePosted on 15:28, May 15th, 2012 by Pablo

Late last year a friend of mine who works in the media said to me that the press had turned on John Key over the Teapot Tape affair. Key’s attempt to have the photographer prosecuted, following on his defamatory and/or contemptuous treatment of individual members of the press corps, was seen as the last straw. My friend noted that the press had generally been kind to Mr. Key during his first term and had avoided digging into a veritable trove of scandal and mischief simply because Mr. Key was riding high in the polls and they did not want to get off-side of a popular PM. That, my friend said, changed after the election, and the press would take a more critical stance with regard to Mr. Key and his government.

To my mind that was welcome news, because it seemed to me that Mr. Key had been treated with kid gloves during his first term and I felt that he needed to be pushed a bit on matters of National policy as well the behavior of some of his party entourage.

In the first quarter of 2012 a number of questions have been raised to Mr. Key that appear to support my friend’s prediction. None of these questions are particularly damaging by themselves, but a pattern has emerged in Mr. Key’s responses. Slowly but surely, as each new mini-scandal or crisis was revealed, Mr. Key began to drop his smile and wave optimism and replaced it with a surly, if not seething disdain for his questioners. Although he keeps his nice persona sharp for staged interviews on TV and radio, his guard drops when doing the impromptu stand-up Q&A with the press gallery. This was very evident when he was asked on one such occasion about the No Asset Sales hikoi, where he clearly struggled to reign in his contempt before saying that he did not concern himself with the opinion of 1000 people.

Now it appears he has had enough with the press in general and the NZH (and to a lesser extent the SST) in particular. He complained  to a rightwing talkback microphone jockey that the press was aggressive and sensationalistic and singled out the NZH as scandal-mongering in its treatment of him and his government in order to raise flagging sales of newsprint.

I do  not have any particular affection for the NZH, SST or the NZ MSM in general–in fact, just yesterday the TVNZ evening news borrowed without attribution a phrase I had used in a discussion about drones with Chris Laidlaw the day before(a phrase I did not coin or copyright but which I nevertheless introduced to the NZ discussion of the subject, which just happened to be the subject of the news item in the TVNZ One broadcast). Since such behavior is increasingly the norm in the NZ MSM, the standard of NZ journalistic training and ethics is, in my opinion, in the main less than optimal (needless to say there are some exceptions to the rule). But I find it ludicrous that Mr. Key is upset about the “aggressive” and “antagonistic” nature of the press approach towards him as of late. Shoot, he got the press equivalent of a free pass for the first three years in spite of often equivocal, deceptive or disingenuous answers to anything other than patsy questions. Why should he get upset when the questions begin to develop a harder edge? Does he not think such questioning comes with the job? Does he think that he is entitled to be treated differently than other politicians?

Of course, all politicians complain about their treatment in the media and past NZ prime ministers have not been above attacking the messenger or interrogator. But it seems to me that Mr. Key is being very rich when he complains about his recent treatment in the press. It may not be the solicitous if not supplicant posture of the first term, but the press approach to Mr. Key is also not anywhere close to the hostile negativity and contrariness of press corps in a wide range of democracies (I think of the partisan jousting that goes on in places like Argentina, the Philippines, the US, Spain, Taiwan and Italy, where the relationship between sections of the press corps and government executives is often very strained, if not toxic).

Thus I have come to the conclusion, following on previous posts about Mr. Key’s demeanor and attitude, that he is a pampered whiner with a royal’s sense of entitlement. He simply does not see himself as having to be accountable to a critical press, and as a result complains to the lapdog press that he is being treated unfairly. Not only is his accusation untrue. It is also politically stupid because it now has the media dissecting his complaint in public. If he thought he was going to win sympathy from anything other than his diehard base, he needs to think again.

Whatever calculus he may or may not be employing, I have one thing to say to him: harden up and do your friggin’ job, which includes fronting up to hard questions from time to time. After all, you do not get the big bucks just to smile and wave.

Supporting independent investigative journalism.

datePosted on 14:55, December 12th, 2011 by Pablo

There is a fund raiser for Jon Stephenson, the journalist, on Tuesday December 13 in Auckland. Jon is preparing to head back to Afghanistan to continue his work on the conflict and New Zealand’s role in it. He also has some other irons in the fire. In order to do this work he needs funding because the mainstream media outlets are too cheap or too scared of what he may bring back by way of reports. After all, look at how the government responded to his previous stories about NZDF involvement in the Afghan occupation–defamatory personal attacks coupled with a blacklisting from official sources of information even though, as it turns out, pretty much everything he has written has turned out to be true. The hard truth is that governments do not like being exposed and corporate media players do not like being off-side of governments, certainly not when the government is popular and recently re-elected. That means that the NZ MSM shy away from funding Jon’s projects (I could write an entire post on how the SST has handled Jon’s reports in the face of government threats and pressure, but the point about MSM timidity has been made).

Given the sad truth about NZ journalism and the logics that underpin it, a group of interested parties has decided to step in and organize a pub fund raiser for Jon that will allow him to return to Afghanistan. It will include entertainment and a silent auction (I am not involved in the organization of the event so am not completely up on the details). Because journalists of integrity and persistence such as Jon do not come along that often, I am going to break from my Waitakere cover and head into town to attend the event. Should Auckland-based readers be interested in attending, the details are as follows:

Gone by Christmas
6.30pm, Tuesday December 13
The Horse and Trap, 3 Enfield Street, Mt. Eden, Auckland
Tickets: $20 on the door or from Eventfinder.

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