Archive for ‘journalism’ Category

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.

This post started as a comment over at DPF’s place.

Reputation and precedent are important referents in the international security business. Israel has a reputation for using sayanim (“helpers” who are Jewish citizens of other states or Israeli travelers who provide information and do tasks for the Mossad in foreign countries out of loyalty to Israel), and are known to send young intelligence officers, often posing as male/female couples, on foreign training missions where they act like travelers. Israel also has a precedent for engaging in covert operations in NZ in the form of the 2004 attempted passport fraud in which there was at least one local “helper” facilitated the Australian-based sayanim’s procurement of a false NZ identity. It has a reputation for using “cloned” foreign passports when undertaking foreign intelligence missions (to include assassinations), and the NZ passport is known to be very valuable on the black market and intelligence circles because of its perceived neutrality. Thus, when 3 surviving Israelis left the country with unusual speed after the Feb 22 Christchurch earthquake, facilitated by the Israeli embassy, warning flags went up at the SIS.

The issue of multiple passports for one victim hinges on the number and the identities and nationalities on them. If there were just two (as the government maintains) for the deceased driver that would be understandable given that Israeli passports are refused in many places and dual citizens routinely use more than one travel document. Even a third passport in the same name is not unusual for someone who has been raised and lived in several countries. But if there was indeed five or six passports as has been alleged in the original Southland Times story, and these had multiple identities as well as nationalities, then things get suspicious. We may never learn the truth of the matter in this regard, but if there were in fact different names and the same photo on more than two passports, then their counter-intelligence value is significant.

The issue of the unauthorised USAR team has to do with the victims’ families desperate attempts to get a focused search going for their loved ones at a time when local SAR was stretched thin and things were chaotic in the quake zone. The families hired a private Israeli USAR team that had the last known locations of the victims as their search target, and this team did not obey diplomatic niceties in securing permission because they were on a very time sensitive private mission. The fact that at least one of the Israeli USAR crew had past military and intelligence ties is no surprise given Israeli conscription and its network of helpers, but means little in this context. As for the Israeli forensic team helping with victim ID–they would have had access to police and other public records as part of their assigned duties with regard to identifying the dead and wounded. If Netenyahu and Key spoke more than once about the quake that would be unusual, but more likely that was due to genuine Israeli concerns with quickly recovering the 3 deceased compatriots for proper burial (since Jews bury their dead quickly).

In any event, given precedent and reputation, the SIS launched an investigation triggered by the hasty exit of the three survivors while the cops did a forensic accounting of their data banks given the access of the Israeli forensic team. The unauthorised USAR team was made to leave, Israeli cultural sensitivities regarding their dead compatriots notwithstanding. The govt says nothing untoward was found by both investigations, and we have to take its word for it unless further revelations come out that contradict the official story. If the Israelis are innocent of any wrong-doing as the survivors claim, then they are just another reminder of how innocents can get caught up in international disputes due to the actions of their governments. They are, in other words, victims of reputation and precedent, not prejudice.

It was unfortunate that PM Key’s original statement on the matter was defensive and obfuscatory, since as Minister of Security and Intelligence he signed off on the SIS investigation and would/should have known the results prior to the story breaking. Had he just fronted on the facts as outlined above rather than clumsily dissemble, the story would have died quickly. But his comments just fueled the speculative fires for several hours until a crafted press release was issued, but by that time the conspiracy theorists and Israel-haters were in full flight.

I think that on this matter, the SIS is to be commended for flagging the hasty exit and moving to investigate the activities of the 6 Israelis leading up to their being in Christchurch on Feb 22, as well as coordinating with he Police with regards to the SAR and forensic teams. That is simply good counter-intelligence tradescraft. But let it also be clear that if the Israelis were on any sort of intelligence mission they would not have left evidence of such on their personal laptops and cell phones. Moreover, since they were unfamiliar with Christchruch, they would have had a local handler to facilitate their mission  much as was the case with the Auckland passport fraudsters. So even if the official response has put the story to rest, there remains enough in the way of reputation and precedent to keep alive in some circles the idea that perhaps there was more to the Israeli’s NZ visit than has been revealed.

On a tangental note, I was bemused by how the media treated my remarks on the story. In every interview I did on the day the story broke (about a dozen), I began by qualifying my remarks with the caveat “IF the story is true, then…”. Several reporters asked me to speculate on what the Israelis would be doing IF they were indeed on an intelligence mission, which is where I brought up the identify theft angle as the most likely possibility. At no time did I assert that I had concluded that they were spies, given that I could only go on the published news reports on the matter. Yet when I reviewed the coverage of the story in the following days, I saw that I had been repeatedly quoted as saying that the israelis “were probably on an identity theft mission” without any qualifiers or caveats attached to the statement. That is simply dishonest or lazy reporting, and led to some commentators claiming that I had jumped the gun with my remarks (including one regular KP commentator who made some silly remark elsewhere that I have a tendency to talk first before thinking. That says more about him then me). So, for the record, let it be clear that all of my comments on the matter were prefaced with the qualifier rather than made as bald assertions of fact.

A Film Worth Seeing.

datePosted on 14:44, May 30th, 2011 by Pablo

Now that I am back in NZ and have replaced elevator riding with wood chopping, I am starting to think “local” again. To that end I am pleased to inform readers who may not be aware that the documentary on the October 15, 2007 “Operation 8” raids and their aftermath (“Operation 8: Deep in the Forest”) will be playing in and around in Auckland in June. The film is an important examination of the abuses that occur when the State is given unbridled authority to define and prosecute national security threats unchecked by public or parliamentary accountability. Whatever one thinks about the Urewera 18 themselves, the film raises important questions about legitimate dissent, the manipulation of threats and the machinations of NZ government agencies and politicians in the post 9-11 era.

Go see it!

Auckland, Rialto – Newmarket – Starts 2 June
Auckland, Bridgeway – Northcote – Dates TBC
Auckland, Academy Cinema – Starts 16 June
Devonport, Picture Palace – Starts 16 June

Triangulating News Sources.

datePosted on 14:57, March 5th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the simple yet key concepts in intelligence gathering is triangulation: try to receive information from at least three independent sources about a given subject or target in order to avoid selection bias, erroneous reporting, disinformation or content manipulation. It is the mark of the intelligence professional that s/he avoids making value judgements or offering assessments until source triangulation has confirmed the accuracy or veracity of reporting from the field or in intelligence streams provided by informants, contract assets, liaison partners and open sources.

I write this not as a preamble to a discussion about how the NZSIS does not do this as a matter of course. Instead, I mention triangulation because it is a principle that seems to me to be a requirement for news-gathering in the present media context. Let me briefly explain why.

I am about to return permanently to NZ after a 3.5 year sojourn in a small SE Asian state. Although the country I am about to leave is authoritarian and places restrictions on freedoms of speech and association, it has a fairly lively media community that includes cable providers that offer a variety of news channels from around the world. As a result, I have had the luxury of watching news channels from Australia (ABC), Russia (RT), China (CCTV in English), the UK (BBC and Sky), the US (Fox and CNN), the Singapore-based Asia News Channel, and a host on Malaysian and Indonesian outlets (which I do not understand but whose images demonstrate their emphasis). I read the local paper (the Straits Times), which even if a government-supportive outlet has very good coverage of Asian news and offers insight into the mindset of the regime and society. I spend way too much time digesting a variety of on-line news providers, ranging from the NZ Herald, Stuff and Scoop to the NYT, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Buenos Aires Herald, La Prensa, Clarin (Argentina), A Folha do Sao Paulo (Brazil) , El Mercurio and La Segunda (Chile), Gramna (Cuba), The Guardian and Independent (UK), the International Herald Tribune, Economist, Christian Science Monitor and various sports outlets. The range is indicative of who I am and where my interests lie. The only major video outlet I cannot watch is al-Jazeera because it is prohibited in my country of residence over fears that it will incite the minority Malay population. So I link to it on-line via third parties.

The variety in representation of the same events is amazing. I often sit in utter wonder at the different takes RT, CCTV and al-Jazeera have on subjects such as the Middle East uprisings when compared to CNN, the BBC, Sky or the ranting chickenhawks on Faux News. Sometimes it is as if I am moving through parallel universes, and my only lament is that I cannot do a multiple split screen in real time to see all of the alternative takes simultaneously. What is unmentionable on US channels is front and centre for the Russians and al-Jazeera. The CCVT propaganda gets its counter in Channel News Asia. I am overwhelmed by choice when forming opinions about current events.

That brings me to my only concern in returning to NZ: the lack of variety in news provision. Although Stratos is an excellent provider of alternative views, as is Maori TV (I am not sure if Triangle TV is still on air), and there is plenty of the usual US and UK news channels on Sky cable, the hard fact is that in NZ there is a paucity of choice when it comes to news gathering. Although I can still use web surfing to access alternative sources of information, the problem of limited choice in news gathering is acute for those who do not have access to cable TV or computers with internet connections (i.e. the underclass). Couple this with the idiocy and vapid “human interest” stories that occupy a large part of NZ newscasts and you get a situation ripe for content manipulation by corporate broadcasters and government, whose line on a range of issues often dovetail in very neat ways. For example, little mainstream coverage has been devoted to the upcoming Urewera 18 trials (held in front of a judge rather than a jury and held in Auckland rather than closer to the site of the raids or the places where most of the defendants live, nearly 4 years after the raids were carried out), which follow one of the more outrageous abuses of anti-terrorism legislation and police authority in recent years. The story is highly important for anyone interested in civil liberties, due process, judicial independence, Maori sovereignty, social and political activism, and the nature of democracy itself. But it is nearly invisible in the corporate media.

That is why I return to NZ with my one concern: the difficulties in maintaining good triangulation in news gathering. It says a lot about NZ’s media culture that I have more choice here in the authoritarian red dot than I do in Aotearoa. Some might argue that is a function of market size, but the hard fact is that where I currently live has almost exactly the same population numbers as NZ in a much smaller land mass, with similar GDP and education levels, and equal if not more access to news sources even though all cable TV and internet provision is in the hands of two state-controlled monopolies. Hence the answer for the lack of choice in news-gathering in NZ either lies outside the market or rests on a particularly Kiwi media market dynamic that prefers ignorance over choice and spoon-feeding over triangulation. Which is it?

Solidarity with Brian Edwards.

datePosted on 16:20, February 11th, 2011 by Pablo

Brian Edwards is being threatened by the Sunday Start Times because he blogged about some questionable journalistic practices in that rag. The SST took offense and unleashed its lawyers. Given that they do not refute anything Mr. Edwards blogged about, that smacks of corporate bullying.

I am not a big fan of Mr. Edwards’ politics but on this one the call is easy: I stand in solidarity with him for daring to responsibly exercise his right to free expression by challenging the accepted narrative of a corporate media outlet. Not only does the SST hire sleazy “journalists” while exploiting other honest hacks and firing more reasoned commentators. It also takes a page out of the “new management” handbook and tries to lawyer up and threaten to legally outspend those in a relatively (financially) disadvantaged position regardless of the merits of their case (I saw this approach first hand in my dealing with Auckland University regarding my employment dispute). For that reason alone they need to be repudiated. As for the merits of the story that Mr. Edwards blogged about, you can judge for yourself by following this link to the original source.

Suggestions as to how to engage in counter-hegemonic direct action against the SST are welcome.

Embedded journalism, war correspondence and PR farce.

datePosted on 13:52, December 10th, 2010 by Pablo

I was invited to present a paper on embedded journalism to the Pacific Media Centre conference noted below in a previous post. Not being a journalist, if offered me an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of war correspondence in the post-Viet Nam era, especially since I had witnessed some trial runs of the “embed” concept while working in the Pentagon in the 1990s and could therefore speak to the history behind the current practice, as well some of the dilemmas it now poses for the US military.

The nice folk at Media 7 decided that the subject was worth covering in a show, especially since my talk at the conference was paired up with a presentation by independent journalist Jon Stephenson on how the conflict in Afghanistan is being spun for NZ audiences, with particular reference to the use of columnist Garth George as a PR flak for the NZDF.

This week on Media 7 Jon, Garth and I were invited to discuss with host Russell Brown the subjects of embedded journalism and journalistic integrity in war. In the first segment Russell and I briefly discuss the subject of embedded journalism (as much as you can when trying to provide a synopsis of a 6000 word essay–the essay is available via the PMC by writing Andrea or David at the addresses listed as contacts on the poster). In the second segment Jon and Garth offer their very differing opinions about journalistic integrity in the coverage of the NZDF mission in Afghanistan. The difference in their views is eye-opening but let us be clear about who is who: Jon is a bonafide war correspondent who works independently of military protection in some very dangerous conflict zones; Garth is a stay-at-home columnist with a sinecure (that word again!).

On a very different note, the show ends with a nice skewering of romance novel prose done impeccably by Sarah Daniell (starring herself as the heroine/narrator/interviewer). It is quite funny. Look for the Tony Blair quote.

You can find the show here.

Unattributed paraphrasing as unspoken flattery?

datePosted on 12:47, October 10th, 2010 by Pablo

From time to time I read bloggers who complain that there work is stolen by MSM “repeaters” and repackaged under the repeaters’ by-line or in a story under their name. This form of plagarism is hard to prove conclusively because unless the repeater uses phrases word for word, s/he can claim that fortuitous intellectual coincidence rather than malice was involved.

Then I read Kerre Woodham’s column in today’s HoS. The tone is similar to the thrust of my post earlier in the week about the rise and fall of Paul Henry. That’s OK, as a number of people have taken the view that TVNZ management is as much if not more responsible than Mr. Henry for the debacle that his “insensitive remarks” has turned into.

But what are the chances that she and I would both use the phrase “bullet proof” in paragraphs specifically referring to the moment at the Qantas Media Awards when Henry decided he was invulnerable? Since her version appears five days after mine did, is it a wonderful coincidence and example of great minds thinking alike or an example of the type of repeating that other bloggers have complained about? In other words, is this Kerre’s “Noelle moment” or am I reading too much into it and being too possessive of a widely used argument and phraseology?. Readers can compare both essays and decide for themselves.

Either way, I guess I should be flattered–except that she gets paid to write things that I dole up for free.

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