Archive for ‘Media’ Category
Although it has been shamefully underreported by major media outlets in NZ, war correspondent Jon Stephenson has won his defamation case against the NZDF by forcing a settlement that involves significant compensation and an admission by the military that its defamatory statements about Mr. Stephenson were indeed untrue. It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will do the same, since he opined at the time the controversy erupted over Mr. Stephenson’s internationally recognised article “Eyes Wide Shut” in Metro Magazine (May 2011) that Mr. Stephenson was, to paraphrase closely, “unstable” as well as “unreliable.” That has been proven to be false and Mr. Key knew at the time he uttered his comments that they were untrue. Let us be clear: Mr. Stephenson may be driven, but unlike his main accusers when it comes to reporting on the NZDF he is by no means unreliable or a liar.
I wrote the following as a comment over at The Standard but feel that it is worth sharing here:
“I suspect that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unethical behaviour of the NZDF and political leadership in this affair. Remember that there is a MoD involved and the respective ministers then and now (Coleman and Brownlee). There are more officers involved than retired generals Rhys Jones and Mateparae, some who currently hold senior positions within the NZDF. There is the behaviour of Crown Law to consider. There is the slander on Jon’s character uttered by the PM.
I can only hope that the terms of the settlement do not prevent Jon from publishing more details of his case, including the way in which the legal process unfolded, the obstacles to discovery encountered, and the extra-curriculars surrounding them.
Whatever happens, for once in a long time one of the genuine good guys won. Were it that other members of the press corps (Nicky Hager excepted) had the integrity and courage exhibited by Jon both in the field as well as on the home front.
Kia kaha Jon!”
Beyond what I have written above, there are some other questions that arise from this saga.
For example, in 2013 Nicky Hager revealed that the NZDF electronically spied on Mr. Stephenson in 2012 using NSA, GCSB and SIS assets while he was in Afghanistan. At the same time an internal Defense manual was leaked to the media that identified “certain investigative journalists” as hostile subversion threats requiring counteraction because they might obtain politically sensitive information (one does not have to have much imagination in order to figure out who they are referring to). In parallel, reports emerged that NZDF officials were sharing their views of Mr. Stephenson with Afghan counterparts, referring to him in the same derogatory terms and implying that his work was traitorous or treasonous.
Taken together, both the spying on Mr. Stephenson and the characterisation of him passed on to NZDF Afghan allies can be seen as a means of counteracting his reporting. But if so, what national security threat did he really pose? Is politically sensitive information necessarily a threat to national security or is merely a threat to the political actors being reported on? Is intimidation part of what the NZDF considers to be proper counteraction when it comes to journalists plying their trade in a war zone? And since any counteraction or counter-intelligence operations had to be cleared and authorised by the NZDF and political leadership, were both of the types used against Mr. Stephenson authorised by then NZDF Chief Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones and/or Mr. Key? They deny doing so but if that is true, who did and how was it passed down the chain of command to the field commanders in Afghanistan (because, at a minimum, the order to “counter” Mr. Stephenson could be construed as illegal and therefore challengeable–but it never was).
Leaving aside the legitimate role of independent journalism in a democracy in holding policy makers–including military leaders–to account, what does it say about the NZDF that it sees such work as subversive? More alarmingly, if the reports are true, what exactly did the NZDF leadership hope to accomplish by telling Afghans, while Mr. Stephenson was in Afghanistan, that he was a threat to them?
Then there is the issue of the lie. General Rhys Jones claimed that, contrary to what was written in his story, Mr. Stephenson never visited the base in which the Crisis Response Unit (to which NZ SAS were attached) was located and did not talk to its commander. That was a direct challenge to Mr. Stephenson’s journalistic integrity. Mr. Stephenson sued for defamation and during the first trial (which bizarrely ended in a hung jury) the NZDF and Rhys Jones himself admitted that Mr. Stephenson’s version was true.
So why didn’t the trial stop right there? The moment the truth of Mr. Stephenson’s story was admitted by Rhys Jones, it was supposed to be game, set and match to the journalist. But instead the Crown spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars continuing to litigate in that trial and then the follow-up court process that was ended by the recently announced settlement. Why so?
The answer to the last questions seems to be that, like in the Zaoui and Urewera 18 case, the Crown prefers to bleed its adversaries emotionally and financially even when it knows that it can not win. This death by a thousand cuts approach, courtesy of the taxpayers largesse, is as unethical as it is cynical and undermines the belief that justice in New Zealand is blind and universal.
There are many other questions that need to be answered about the treatment of Mr. Stephenson. Is it true that media outlets were pressured to not accept his work on penalty of getting the cold shoulder from the government? Did NZDF officials physically threaten Mr. Stephenson in New Zealand? Did the intelligence services spy on Mr. Stephenson above and beyond what was reported by Mr. Hager, both at home and abroad, and are they doing so now, and on what grounds if so? Did NZDF and/or MoD and/or PMDC and/or Crown Law officials conspire, either solely or together, to cover up, obstruct, alter, destroy or otherwise impede the release of evidence to Mr. Stephenson’s lawyers at any point in the legal proceedings?
My sincere hope is that the settlement agreed to by Mr. Stephenson and NZDF does not preclude the former from writing about his experiences with the NZDF, both in Afghanistan and during the trials. Hopefully he will be able to answer some of the questions I have posed above. I say this because something stinks about the way this affair has been handled at the highest levels of government, which is not only a stain on the individuals involved but a direct affront to basic tenets of liberal democracy.
For all the talk about bias and dumbassery in NZ’s media, no one seems to be doing anything about it. In fact, some of those who should know better seem hell bent on aggravating the problem. Proof of this is the announcement that the new Backbencher’s temporary replacement co-host will be a blond snow bunny and rugby WAG turned dancer and sports show hostess. Apparently she is doing an undergrad degree in Politics, which therefore qualifies her for the job.
There are many politically astute thinking women in NZ. Heck, there are former politicians, sharp media commentators, activists, diplomats and even a few politics lecturers that are female, all of whom could have handled the job with credibility and insight. But noooooooo. The blond bubbly lass got the nod. Judging from his comments on FB Wallace Chapman is chuffed with the selection.
I realise that Backbenchers is not exactly a serious political show. Adding this particular female may just be in line with its off-kilter approach, or perhaps the decision was dictated by the network that she is contracted with and which airs the show. But I doubt very much that Mr. Chapman or Damien Christie, the co-host being replaced in this instance, consider themselves to be jokesters or eye candy. So why introduce one now when there are plenty of better options available?
Perhaps it is a ratings grab of some sort, aimed at a particular demographic. Hopefully it will be nothing but a silly one-off, never to be repeated or remembered again. But as it stands, and at the risk of being called a party pooper, it strikes me that not only is this appointment an insult to every serious and informed woman in the country. It is also irrefutable evidence that the NZ media is in a state of terminal decay, no matter how pretty it is dressed up. And if the episode with the blonde turns out to be a success, it is further proof that NZ civilisation has gone terminal late Roman in nature.
So this was the headline that greeted me when I opened the Herald on line: “Chris Cairn’s wife accuses Marc Ellis of harassment.” Now, I am not a fan of either Chris Cairn Cairns or Marc Ellis, so wish a pox on both of them. But what galls me about this particular headline is that, once again, some fool copy or sub editor has decided that the female who is the subject of the story should be reduced to the status of someone’s wife. In the article she complains of being mistreated as a senior business woman in Ellis’s ad agency, so it is not as if she is some teeny bopper that Cairns hooked up with in order to bolster his self-image. But in the eyes of the Herald editorial staff, she is just the female appendage of a dodgy ex-jock filing court papers against another ex-jock celebrity. Surely they can do better.
The really sad part of this particular episode is that it seems to be reflective of the casual sexism and misogyny that permeates NZ. For all the women who have achieved high positions in politics, academia, arts and law (not so much the corporate world), there appears to be this ingrained backward gender weirdness on the part of a significant number of the male population. Come to think of it, sexism and misogyny are the flip side of the coin known as bloke culture–the latter cannot exist without the former.
One interesting aspect of the story is that she was appointed by Ellis to work for his ad agency in the first place. How did that happen? Was she the best qualified person for the job or did the hire have something to do with the fact that she IS Mrs. Cairns? That would add another layer of provincial small mindedness to the equation. The article also mentions that Ellis is the director and sole shareholder of the ad agency, which has as its client Toyota.
Toyota? How did one of the largest vehicle manufacturers on earth happen to award a contract to what is by all appearances a boutique ad firm with no proven track record? Was it because Ellis is seen as representative of the NZ sales demographic that Toyota is targeting? And is that demographic the blokes? That is the only explanation that makes sense to me, but if that is the case then Toyota needs to think harder about that target demographic because Ellis is certainly not representative of it (after all, his blokey larrikin ute-driving days supposedly ended a while ago and he is now portrayed as a responsible businessman, although Mrs. Cairns complaint would suggest otherwise). And if it is the blokes that Toyota is sales targeting, has it not paused to think of the female role in bloke culture? Or does it assume that all women associated with blokes are content with their status as appendages or side kicks to the alpha individual and share his tastes and interests? If so, it has not done enough due diligence with its market research (as well as on Mr. Ellis).
In any event, the headline sucks even though the sexism, nepotism, cronyism, harassment and dubious business practice implicit in the story may well prove true.
I had the opportunity some time go to be interviewed by the one of the director/producers of the documentary “Operation 8″ for a forthcoming film about the GCSB and its role in the 5 Eyes signal intelligence network. These good people are part of the grassroots network that attempts to keep those in power accountable to the folk they supposedly serve, and while I may not agree with them on a number of issues I have no doubts about their sincerity, commitment and interest in the common good.
In order to finish the new documentary, titled “The 5th Eye,” there is a crowdsourcing effort underway that is well worth supporting. The details are here. Besides information about donating, there is a short video trailer included on the page as well as updates and other valuable information. By all means check it out and help this film on its way to fruition.
If you support truly independent film-making in Aotearoa, this is an excellent opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.
Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.
Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.
Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.
Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:
Is he still steering by the real?
Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.
The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis. As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.
What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.
That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.
I had the opportunity to do a long interview with Olivier Jutel, host of the Dunedin Radio One show “The revolution will not be televised.” It is a rare occasion when one gets to converse at length about a variety of subjects on radio or television, so this was a nice opportunity to air my views on a number of issues, to include the conflict with the Islamic state, New Zealand’s potential role in it, fear mongering as a political strategy, the impact of social media on political behaviour, etc.
The podcast can be found here.
It has been fun watching National and its minions duck for cover, throw up smokescreens, attempt diversions and resort to slander and defamation in response to Nicky Hager’s book. I am not sure that the revelations will have an impact outside of political circles and a media that has heretofore treaded carefully around the Prime Minister and his key lieutenants, so am not confident that they will sway the upcoming election even if more unsavoury news comes out about how National plays dirty. Perhaps as the first in a one-two punch that has Glen Greenwald’s presentation on New Zealand’s spying activities on Sept 17 as the follow up, Hager’s revelations will stir voters from their complacency and undermine public confidence in John Key’s leadership.
That remains to be seen, especially since the All Blacks have started their season.
What I do think is that staff members of agencies mentioned in the book and assorted hangers-on and wanna-be’s who are part of or have links to the network of informants and dirt-mongerers that underpin National’s dirty tricks operations are bound to be running pretty scared. As such, they are the Achilles Heel of National’s dirty tricks operations now that they risk being exposed. Imagine if you are a staffer for a Minister or a corporate executive that exchanged information or money with Slater in return for favourable coverage or smears on opponents? Would you not see that the ugly head of plausible deniability would likely rest on blaming someone in a subordinate position who can be sacrificed in order to save the ship? Would it not by prudent to bail out early rather than be the sacrificial lamb?
Imagine if you are a local Tory candidate or some other useful blogging fool who fed information to Whaleoil’s network on the personal affairs of opponents in order to discredit or blackmail them in the hope of Slater giving you a positive plug, and now realise that your communications are in Hager’s hands (because it is pretty clear from Nicky’s comments that there is more in his possession than what is in the book). Would you not be scrambling through your email and other communications records with the dirty tricks network to see what damage could be headed your way? Would you not be concerned about your career or livelihood once the dishonesty and depths to which you stooped are revealed? Aaron Bhatnagar, Kathryn Rich and some minor Rightwing bloggers come to mind, but there are plenty of others.
Of course, it is the corporate executives and politicians that work with Whaleoil who have the most to lose, but before they do they can take down many others with them. Thus the rational thing to do is for the rats to abandon the sinking ship rather than go down with it. Assuming that the media does its job and delves into the revelations and implications of Hager’s book, the rats will be flushed out. That is why I anticipate much more amusement to come.
One postscript: What Left-leaning blogs do in NZ is no way comparable to what Slater does, nor is what he does politics as usual in a civilised democracy. Lefties may gossip obliquely about Righties’ private lives and may say nasty things about them in their blogs, but none that I know of, including those that are strident and hysterical in nature, resort to trawling the opposition gutter in search of salacious or embarrassing personal details, publishing privileged information, printing interest group press releases under false pretences and colluding with public officials and private firms to denigrate and smear perceived opponents. It is one thing to openly accept union money or to have party members blogging under pseudonyms in support of Left parties or causes; it is quite another to under-handedly pollute the political blogosphere in order to destroy people.
The irony is delicious. After years of Slatering the weak, the vulnerable, the defenceless and occasionally those who deserve it, Whaleoil himself has been Slatered. After all, Nicky got his information in a Slater type of way. But unlike the original, Nicky Hager’s Slatering of Whaleoil’s network was done simply by using their own words rather than secret tip lines, unethically provided (de)classified government information, private back channels and gossip columnist innuendo.
It could not have happened to a more deserving crowd.
PPS: Slater is now playing the victim, saying that he is getting threats and that his private stuff was stolen (irony alert). David Farrar (who may be hyper partisan but is is nothing akin to Slater in my opinion) is doing a bit of the latter as well. Slater is also saying that the emails from Collins and Ede were on gmail accounts so could have been from anybody. As I said above, the denials and diversions are in full swing. Can shifting blame and finger pointing be far behind? People who are subordinate to or associated with the key players in this scandal might do well to get out while their reputations are still intact.
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.
Does there not seem something odd about the coverage of the little white girl found with a Roma (gypsy) family in Greece? From what I have seen the coverage has focused on her supposed abduction and the search for her birth mother (who, as it may turn out, is a Bulgarian gypsy with eight children living in squalid conditions who gave the child away to the Greek Roma family. If so, the “stolen” girl is the lucky child given the relative circumstances of her adopted and birth parents). But little coverage has been devoted to why the Greek police decided to seize the girl from her Roma guardians, who may well have been her legitimate adoptive parents if the story about her Bulgarian mother turns out to be true.
What prompted their suspicions? A tip-off about drugs in the Greek gypsy camp has been offered as the official reason, but why would that prompt suspicion about the child? Was it the that she looked different from the Roma parents? Or was it that the people involved were Roma and have a (largely mythological) reputation for abducting and selling children? Could it be that the Greek cops acted out of prejudice rather than legitimate concern, and the press followed their lead?
Given the virulent racism and intense hatred of Roma in Greece, what exactly prompted the Greek police to decide to intervene given that the girl appears to love her adopted parents and seemed happy with them? Would they have done so if the parents were white and the child was black?
The general Greek attitude was inadvertently summarised by a local sociologist who studies Roma, who expressed surprise because, according to him, Roma were known to act as intermediaries for illegal adoptions by childless Greek couples but where not known to adopt a non-Roma child as one of their own (this said before the identity of the Bulgarian gypsy mother was confirmed).
More tellingly, why the focus on the little white gypsy girl when there are thousands of non-white children being abducted, sold and traded every year, including in Greece? Why has the story not been used to highlight child trafficking in general, rather than as a window on Roma and their reputed criminal proclivities?
It could well be that there was something sinister in the placement of this particular girl with that particular Greek Roma family. But it is equally possible that she was adopted in accordance with Roma culture and received the love and care of a natural-born child. So why, exactly, the fuss about her when so many other children suffer far worse fates?
It is hard not to come away with the impression that what matters is that she is white and was being raised by “swarthy” people whose culture does not accord with the Western mainstream. If so, it tells us much more about the imbued or latent racism of the media coverage rather than the merits of the case. Worse yet, it leaves the fate of thousands of non-white children largely ignored by the same press that is so keen to follow this story.
If we backdrop this case against the incessant coverage of the Madeleine McCann case and the endless coverage of missing white kids in Europe, the US and elsewhere, then it becomes hard to escape the view that some missing kids matter more than others, and they matter only because of the colour of their skin as opposed to the circumstances of their disappearance.
I hate to say it and do not mean to go all soft on this particular subject, but if that is so then the media coverage stinks.
(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)
Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.
Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.
Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.
But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.
Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.
And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:
There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)
The Identity Agenda
So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.
But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.