Posts Tagged ‘Police’

Cannabis bust news coverage bingo

datePosted on 17:57, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a fun game. Watch tonight’s TV news (either channel) and count the following tropes.

Update: I did this — both channels, since they were conveniently on at separate times, and was pleasantly surprised by reasonably sober tone of coverage. Comments in italics.

  • Gratuitous display of cannabis leaf or other marijuana iconography
    Four times on One and thrice on 3. Mostly in the display of the “Switched On Gardener” signage.
  • Gratuitous display of drug porn (huge quantities of plants, or egregiously sticky buds, etc.)
    5 times each. TV3 used this as their studio backdrop, otherwise it was the same stock footage throughout, obviously supplied by the police. A distinct lack of additional file footage and High Times-style images of the sort which are usually stock-in-trade for this sort of coverage.
  • Police casually destroying huge quantities of same
    None! Only some police confiscating computers, other equipment in the TV3 footage.
  • Tenuous linkages of marijuana with other drugs, violence or terrorism
    None! Some passing mentions and image of other drugs, firearms and references to organised crime, but nothing tenuous or unjustified.
  • File footage of a shadowy person smoking a joint — None!
  • If it’s clear despite anonymisation that the person is brown-skinned
    None of these either.
  • Footage of people being arrested or detained
    No images of people being arrested. One shot of an unidentified (white) person walking down the street as the voiceover informed us that those arrested were appearing in court.
  • Footage of supposedly ill-gotten gains: flash cars, etc.
    Twice each, references to property being seized under proceeds of crime legislation. Nothing major.
  • Smug, serious middle-aged white people expressing deep concern.
    The only examples of this in both cases were press conference shots of the senior police officer.
  • Triumphal statements that this has broken the back of the cannabis industry, with no supporting evidence
    Again, just what the police told us. Reporters stuck generally to the facts.
  • Reporter looking smug and saying words to the effect of “we can’t reveal which garden centre at the moment …” with the clear implication that it’ll all become clear pretty soon, and anyone who’s anyone already knows
    Well, although National Radio didn’t report (and the police refused to say on-air) which gardening shop chain it was, it was no secret, so none of this.
  • Breathless revelations that people who aren’t beneficiaries or gang members are involved in cannabis production and consumption
    Mentioned twice on One and once (but more extensively) on 3 — the fact that “managers and directors” of the company were among those arrested. But in general, not a big deal made of this fact.
  • Implication that schoolchildren might have been in danger
    Not mentioned or implied at all.
  • No mention of the fact that alcohol causes orders of magnitude more harm by almost every indicator
    Not mentioned or implied either, but on both channels, the booze story took precedence, occupied considerably more screen time, and was covered in much more depth.

So, all in all, nothing much to separate the coverage on One and 3 news. Both items were characterised by a heavy (almost total) reliance on official source material and footage — although both did a field cross, TVNZ’s was the usual pointless live cross, while TV3’s reporter didn’t even make the screen, with the field shots showing police hauling stuff out of a building. Both used similar (probably supplied) footage and images as background, and emphasised the length of the investigation, the number of people involved, and the impact the bust would have on the cannabis industry. Neither report was journalist-centric, with both reporters essentially relaying facts with a minimum of editorialisation. Both reports showed a distinct lack of sensationalised narrative, imagery or suggestion, lacking the usual devices employed to propagandise and pad out this sort of topic matter.

So: well done One and 3 News :)

L

An Armed Crowd is a Polite Crowd.

datePosted on 17:51, April 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

I heard this phrase when living on a ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border in the early 1990s. It was prompted by my asking a bartender at a local saloon if she felt threatened by the crowd of drunken, armed cowboys in the establishment one evening.  In that environment, it made perfect sense (in fact, Arizona has just legislated that a person can carry a concealed firearm without a permit, loosening the laws in force during my time in the state which allowed for the open carrying of firearms without a permit but which required a concealed weapons permit). In fact, on repeated visits to that watering hole I never once saw anyone raise their voice in serious anger.

I mention this because statistics have recently been released that show that the incidence of violent crime in NZ has increased exponentially in the last five years. That has led to the National government talking about “getting tough” on crime along the lines frequently barked by its ACT closet authoritarian partners.

But what does it mean to “get tough” on crime? More incarcerations? Longer sentences? More arrests? More convictions? More confiscations of property? More severe punishments? Reinstitution of the death penalty for heinous crimes? More tasering? Arming the community constables? Expanding the armed offenders squads? Increasing liquor bans in public places?  Having the police using more armed force when dealing with crowd control, gang and other collective disturbances? Increasing youth sentences?

I mention this because “getting tough” on crime, at least when phrased in the above terms, does not address the causal mechanisms behind the upsurge in violent crime (which I agree has increased and now become a serious pathology in NZ civil society). One can seek explanations for causes in many places: exposure to media-provided violence at a young age, dysfunctional familities, bullying culture, the pervasive influence of alcohol, the long-standing tradition of civil disobedience and passive resistance practiced by some communities and individuals, now taken to new extremes, the degeneration of popular and civic culture into venal self-absorption–the list of possible causes is long.  But what does “getting tough” have to do with any of these possible causes? Unless a more draconian criminal system is seen as a deterrent to violent crime (and there is much dispute about the deterrent value of things such as capital punishment), how exactly is “getting tough” on crime going to solve the problem?

I must confess to being of two minds, because as an immigrant from the US I have always felt that punishment for serious offenses was a bit of a joke in NZ and that there are not enough resources dedicated to crime-fighting  (in fact, I still believe that NZ is a country where one can literally get away with murder if cunning and meticulous). But I also know that the “tougher” US approach to crime also has done little to nothing to drive down crime rates (in fact, the “broken windows” approach to petty crime adopted in New York City in the 1990s, and in which worked marvels in lowering the overall crime rate in that city, was focused on early intervention at the lower end of criminality rather than on increased punishment for more serious offenses). Instead, US violent crimes rates, not surprisingly, lowered as the economy expanded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, not surprisngly, have increased since the recession began to bite hard in 2008. Which is to say, although the violence of socio and psychopaths is unaffected by economic cycles, much of the residual acts of violence tend to overlap with economic downturns when unmitigated by early intervention or causal prevention schemes.

Which brings back the cause-effect–response syllogism mentioned earlier. There is a reason why that crowd in the border town saloon was armed. At the time there were only 2 sherriff’s deputies avaliable to patrol over 1000 square miles of national forest and ranchland strung along the border and extending some 20-50 miles northward. Besides the various stinging and biting small critters and large predators (bears, big cats) that stalked the Sonoran high plateau and mountain ranges in which our properties were located, there were human dangers emanating from across the border as well as from within Arizona itself (organised crime drug smuggling and survivalist militas, respectively). Absent the protection of the state in such remote locales, people actually practiced the concept of self-defense because to not do so invited serious victimisation, often of a terminal sort. As the saying goes, the best home insurance policy one can have in such a personal threat environment is the sound of a pump action shotgun chambering a buckshot round. The point being, that armed crowd had reason to be so given the causal mechanisms at play in that particular crime environment (which I must say, remains one of the most beautiful landscapes I have had the pleasure to experience first hand). Unfortunately, perhaps, things changed after 9/11 and the region is now swarming with Border Patrol, National Guard, roadblocks, fences, audiovisual sensors and motion detectors as well as increased numbers of north-bound migrants, to the point that many long-term residents have moved away in search of solitude and workable land. It turns out, at least in that regard, I left just in the nick of time.

That brings me back to NZ, my adopted home since 1997 and in which I have seen a steady decline in civility during the last decade that is now confirmed by crime statistics. Not being a criminologist or a social welfare expert, I cannot offer any concrete prescriptions, much less a panacea for the upsurge in criminal violence now afflicting Aotearoa. But what I can say is that it does no good to play the role of chickenhawk or attack poodle by fulminating about getting tough on crime without linking the thirst for punishment to an understanding of what drives violence and insecurity in the first place. In fact, until the latter is identified, addressed and ameloirated, then the former is just another way of pouring salt into a gaping wound.

What not to say

datePosted on 09:55, February 26th, 2010 by Lew

NZ Herald website’s lead story:

Telecom spokesman Mark Watts says this morning’s 111 emergency calls system failure “shouldn’t have happened” and is “a bad look” after the company’s recent repeated XT failures.

My emphasis. This illustrates that Telecom views the failure of an essential service — the only genuinely essential service they provide — as an image problem rather than a matter of public safety. Don’t get me wrong — it is an image problem, and a colossal one at that, and the fact that this fault was apparently unrelated to the ongoing XT failures underlines the brittleness of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure and undermines Telecom’s brand even more than it already has been. But treating it as an image problem for the company rather than a real problem for the country is the surest way of turning it into an even more serious image problem. You see what people are made of when they come under prolonged duress. Telecom’s senior staff are starting to crack.

Not that NZ Police communications are much better, with Inspector Karen Wilson saying that the Police were “unaware” of any cases where the need for emergency services had gone unmet. Well, they would be unaware, wouldn’t they? Given that the system for making them aware was nonfunctional.

This line (“Police are unaware …”) has become the NatRad bulletin lead, which means Telecom’s PR failure is reflecting on the Police, who bear no blame here. (Though, in fairness to Inspector Wilson, her remarks were a response to a suitably incensed Philippa Tolley, who first used the word “unaware”.) Still, better for the Police to more strongly emphasise the fact that they would be unaware due to Telecom’s failure, but that coping regardless was their responsibility.

It might be worth turning this into an ongoing series. There’s no shortage of material.

Update: By Checkpoint time, Mark Watts had changed his establishing point to “not a good thing”, which is much better, for just one word different. But his talking points were clearly thus:

  • The system works close to 100% of the time (therefore: don’t complain when it doesn’t.) This is a somewhat specious argument, but very necessary given Telecom’s situation, and it’d fly if the general position taken was one of contrition and regret.
  • Nobody was left hanging; everyone who made a call got called back to make sure they were ok. This is good; unfortunately, he refused to answer Mary Wilson’s repeated questions as to how long it took for people to get called back. That leaves the response a bit hollow. He also gets a bit arsey about it.
  • “The systems worked as intended.” WTF? This would be a plausible position if the Police had been informed, but they weren’t, and Telecom has no explanation for why not.

For their part, the Police have their act a bit more together, with Superintendent Andy McGregor emphasising the importance of public confidence in the system and Telecom’s failure to ensure it.

L

Legal Utu in a Colonial Court?

datePosted on 21:30, November 6th, 2009 by Pablo

A little over two years ago the so-called ” anti-terrorism” raids were carried out by the Police against activists in Ruatoki, Wellington and Auckland. The media frenzy that immediately followed focused on reports of “paramilitary” training camps, where, according to Helen Clark, “napalm” bombs were being made, weapons training was ongoing and plots were being hatched against a  variety of political figures, among them George W. Bush. Police affidavits were leaked to the press that detailed the “evidence” collected by covert means, and profiles of the more flamboyant of the defendants were splashed over the tabloids, radio and television. Almost immediately, multiple charges were laid under the Firearms Act 1983, but a few weeks after the raid the Solicitor General decided against laying charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) because he deemed the TSA to be “unworkable.” This was a blow to the government’s case because much of the surveillance done in the build-up to the raids was authorised under provisions of the TSA. Even so, the government pressed ahead and in the months that followed arrested 3 more people and (a year after the raids) charged five of the original defendants with the additional count of  “participation in a criminal gang” (Tame Iti, Rangi Kemara, Tuhoe Lambert, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer). What all of the defendants have in common is that they are well-known and often outspoken critics of the NZ state, the US and capitalism in general. Beyond that they are a mixture of anarchist, environmental and indigenous sovereignty advocates (and at least one unhinged individual) united by their common disdain of the status quo. For background on the events and immediate response to the raids, see the trilogy I wrote for Scoop in the weeks that followed: here, here, and here.

With no terrorism angle to report on, the media lost interest and the story died. But what has become of the Urewera 18? (2 of the arrested have been discharged without conviction or had charges dismissed). Here I shall provide a brief update and make note of some ironies.

The Urewera 18 are represented by 14 barristers and numerous solicitors, with Rodney Harrison QC (of Zaoui case fame) recognised as lead counsel and Annette Sykes given special status by the Court with respect to the tikanga of Tuhoe and implied license. Proceedings have dragged on for more than two years, and like the Zaoui case, it is likely that they will continue for at least another year (reports are that the first available trial date is in 2011). Given the numbers of defendants and legal counsel involved, this means that the taxpayer bill for the prosecution of the case will dwarf the NZ$2 million spent in the futile attempt to refuse Ahmed Zauoi political refuge. The cost for the defendants, emotional as well as material, is similarly high.

As for the substance of the case against the Urewera 18, let us begin with the charges. Other than the criminal gang accusation and a common charge of possession of restricted weapons (presumably related to incendiary devices), all else fall under the Firearms Act of 1983. After some legal wrangling, the charges have been bundled together as ‘representative’ charges so as to make the number of charges more manageable. In other words, in early depositions each defendant was charged with possession of each gun at each camp, resulting in hundreds of charges. That has now been amended to a single charge for possession at each camp (.i.e. each individual visit to the Ruatoki bush camp resulted in one firearms charge). As an example, when arrested one defendant originally faced 3 charges, then at depositions the number of charges  rose to 13, but now has returned to the original 3 charges. Even so, the number of individual charges is in the dozens.

With regard to bail. Remember that in their original statements the Police were opposed to bail for the accused, citing the imminent threat they posed to the community. That has all changed. The most onerous bail conditions have been lifted and travel restrictions relaxed although not completely removed. It is my understanding that Tame Iti will again travel to Europe this summer to perform more Shakespeare (Iti was allowed to travel abroad earlier this year in order to participate in theatrical productions in Europe) and Urs Singer has been allowed to visit his ailing parents in Europe as well (the irony of Tame Iti doing Shakespeare in European theaters–as a sort of cultural ambassador, if you will–while on trial in NZ is not lost on me, but I shall avoid mentioning that in my summation below simply because there are other ironies worth noting. But it does point to how serious a threat to the security of Aotearoa he is considered to be by the government).

Then there is the issue of the means by which the case was constructed, to wit, the human and electronic surveillance and wiretaps used to monitor the accused. The Solicitor General’s decision to not invoke the TSA proved to be problematic for the government’s case, since much of the means by which the activists were tracked and evidence gathered were only allowable under the TSA. With no TSA charges on the menu, the admissibility of the evidence collected under its provisions was open to legal challenge. That soon came.

In August, applications  were made by the defense that all search warrants, in-person covert surveillance (conducted by the Police Special Tactics Group) and stationary covert cameras were illegal. By and large, the defendants won that part of the argument. In September the presiding judge declared at least 6 of 9 warrants illegal, specifically declaring illegal all in-person covert surveillance and stationary cameras. The latter was deemed illegal because the police trespassed onto private land in order to install the cameras (it is not currently possible to get a warrant for surveillance cameras on private property in NZ). The Police Special Intelligence Group tried to justify its actions by claiming in retrospect that they sought judicial oversight in doing so (presumably with reference to the TSA). In reality, they knew at the time that they couldn’t get warrants for such activity without the TSA, but did so anyway. Now that evidence is inadmissible. Even so, the government won on excluding text messages, and it remains to be seen whether the defense will challenge that ruling in the Court of Appeal. (A good summary of the decision is available here).

 The second stage of this application was heard in September and a decision is still pending. Under Sec 30 of the Evidence Act, in order for evidence to be ruled inadmissable, it must be found to be both illegal and unreasonable. This differs greatly from the US where it follows quite logically that activity which is illegal is by nature unreasonable, but the police in NZ are given a much greater benefit of the doubt on this matter. This is an important distinction, because that means that even if the evidence is deemed to have been illegally obtained, it still can be ruled admissible in a NZ Court if it is deemed “reasonable.” QC Harrison has consequently made submissions about why inclusion of this evidence was unreasonable. The main thrust of his argument is that the police’s trespass was sustained, deliberate and knowing. It happened over a period of nearly a year on land that was clearly private property. The judgement is still pending on this part of the defense motion. Whoever loses is very likely to appeal because the case could well hinge on the disputed evidence.

In the last weeks  the defense has making an application for a stay of the proceedings based on pre-trial publicity. In essence, that the case has been so prejudiced that the Urewera 18 cannot get a fair trial. Interestingly, the most recent  precedent for such an application was made by the same two lawyers on behalf of the two suspected Mossad agents who
were arrested for attempting to procure false passports in 2005.

The defendants are next due to appear in court in Auckland in mid-December. For those interested, the hearings are open to the public but those attending should expect increased security measures and the possibility of Crown objections to their presence if it is considered injurious to their case (the Crown has already objected to filming of the hearings for documentary purposes).

So what are the ironies of the case so far? Well, for starters there is the parallel with the Zaoui case. In both instances the government began by throwing out unfounded accusations of “terrorism,” only to see their case for it crumble under legal scrutiny.  For all the talk of terrorism, it was the Police Special Tactics Group, not the counter-terrorism component of the NZSAS or the specifically-trained Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG) who conducted the surveillance and led the raids (which indicates that the government did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough to justify use of the forces designated for that role). The money spent on the prosecution and legal defense of both cases is also on a par, if not more in the latter instance.

Another irony is that the arms dealer who (allegedly) supplied information to some of the defendants about how to construct silencers, on how to modify a starter’s pistol into a real weapon, and who allegedly provided instruction on how to convert flare grenade launchers into the real thing, has not been charged with a single offense (reportedly due to his being a Police informant).

For its part, rather than strengthen criminal law to deal with politically-motivated criminal conspiracies in light of the “unworkability” of the TSA (thereby avoiding the authoritarian penchant to create a different category of “political” crimes labeled as “terroristic”), National has re-introduced a Search and Surveillance Bill first proposed by Labour last year in which powers of search and surveillance would be expanded dramatically (to include warrantless searches, eavesdropping and tapping of computers and phones) by a broader range of government agencies–including local administrative authorities! The irony is that, rather than use the Urewera case as an example of how NOT to conduct a criminal investigation against political dissidents, the government has instead moved to relax legal restrictions governing covert monitoring of suspects, including on private property (i.e., the exact practices that were deemed illegal in September by the presiding judge in this case).

But the ultimate irony may be this. According to defendant Omar Hamed, “October 15 was a reminder that the state is not our friend. It is a violent, colonial, racist institution that serves the interests of the corporations and the ruling class. Well organised, anti-statist, defiant communities pose a threat to the state and colonial capitalism…” (taken from a passage included in the exhibition catalogue for the Arts auction “Explosive Expression” held to raise funds for the Urewera 18 on October 16, 2009 in Wellington). And yet it is this purported colonial, racist and corporate justice system that has allowed the Urewera 18 to formulate and fund a defense that has successfully challenged the case against them so far. It would seem that, at least in this case, utu  (as both justice and revenge) does in fact come in colonial garb.

My view is that by the end of the process a majority of the defendants will be acquitted and only a handful will be convicted of minor firearms violations. It will be left for the NZ public to decide whether the entire affair was worth the effort, and whether indeed, if ever, there were the makings of a terrorist plot percolating in the Ureweras.

PS: I have some inquiries out at the moment that might allow me to update the status of the case. If so, I shall do so post haste and append a notification at the end of this post.

PPS: This post has been updated to reflect my remembering of another irony regarding the government response to its failures in this case (see irony #3 above) as well some fine points regarding the charges.

From this morning’s DomPost

Nineteen young women have been sexually assaulted after partying in Wellington’s central city this year, with most too drunk to remember what happened.

Police say the number of attacks on drunk young women is growing. “They are binge-drinking, make poor choices and can’t keep themselves safe,” Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Borrell said. “That’s a worry and that’s the preventable part of it.”

I won’t even try to compete with Queen of Thorns ability to express (out)rage, so this is after several deep breaths.

Is Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Borrell seriously intending to say that women are responsible when someone sexually assaults them? And that addressing rapists’ behaviour is not the way to prevent rape?

To be fair to him, he does go on to say that

“It’s up to friends of victims and potential offenders to do something about it. In my view, if something does happen, all of us have failed that person.”

So apparently it’s not entirely the young victim’s fault, it’s also the responsibility of her friends and (yay) the rapist’s friends, oh and pretty much everyone except the rapist (whose behaviour is apparently unpreventable).

I’ll leave the final words to Helen Sullivan, Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation general manager, who says what the Police should have

“Why should the whole responsibility for a situation be put on women? The bottom line is we should be able to walk down the street or do anything without the threat of sexual violence.”

Drifting toward a surveillance culture

datePosted on 10:27, July 9th, 2009 by Lew

As a propaganda geek, I’m concerned (some might say paranoid) about surveillance and its growing use as a means of social control, or as a tool to gather information used to justify and enact other social control mechanisms. Surveillance is the flipside of propaganda, and propaganda systems of social control can’t function properly without the feedback which surveillance provides; effectively, without surveillance, the controller is blind. This encompasses both the hard kind (cameras, enforced ID checking, enhanced search and detention rights) and the soft kind (data mining and data matching, consumer profiling, and so on). For this reason I don’t have a Facebook account, or a Fly Buys card, and I don’t use my gmail account for anything much other than website registrations as a spamtrap; and everything into or out of my webserver in Texas is encrypted. Although since they decided that registration wasn’t mandatory I do have a Snapper card (I wrote about potential surveillance problems with Snapper a bit over a year ago). I feed it with cash. Note: I’m not paranoid about hiding my identity; I’m paranoid about what other information might be matched to it and how an interested party might use that information to target me for use as part of their agenda.

Anyway. Surveillance is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, as people trade off privacy against security, but the problem is that the trade-off is implicitly framed as a matter of who you choose to trust – the ‘crims’ (those with something to hide and therefore something to fear), or those who maintain that security (and who necessarily have greater powers to put that information to use).

I’m working on a project at present which involves reviewing a great deal of media coverage about antisocial behaviour in Western Australia, and surveillance appears widely regarded as the key to cracking the (apparently endemic) problems they have over there. These include:

  • Cameras in streets, cameras in parking lots, cameras on nightclub doors; cameras above dance floors, cameras everywhere, in many cases mandated by liquor licensing regulators
  • Rights for police and other authorities to access footage in real time
  • Fingerprint scanners on club doors
  • The requirement to ‘sign in’ to clubs by giving over your ID as a condition of entry
  • Systems by which one club can (must? not sure about this) immediately share its patron database with other clubs in the area, so if a patron is ejected from one club they are barred from them all
  • Powers for police and licensing regulators to ban ‘problem patrons’ from every single licensed premise in the state for a period of up to five years, without them having been found guilty of any offence

ID cards have worked well in Europe beforeFrankly, it’d be enough to put me off going to the pub. The culture there has become so accepting of surveillance that this is generally unquestioned by those in authority, and the electorate demands nothing more of its representatives. Perhaps even worse is the UK, whose national ID card scheme was the subject of an excellent but unsuccessful counter-propaganda campaign.

While we have some surveillance cameras (most notably in Queen Street and central Christchurch) and a reliance on RFIDs (in passports, for instance), and we have a police culture of aggressive surveillance and with strong authoritarian tendencies, things aren’t so bad in New Zealand. So it is with some dismay that I read yesterday’s op-ed by Chapman Tripp solicitors Simon Peart and Richard May on the NZ Herald website which warns of the alarming powers of surveillance and social control which could be exercised by regulatory bodies including the Commerce Commission, the Reserve Bank (!) and MAF under the newly (and quietly)-introduced Search and Surveillance Bill. They really are quite alarming – the right to covertly surveil ordinary citizens in their own homes, the extention of enforcement powers normally the preserve of the police to other regulatory bodies, the right to infiltrate and surveil computer networks and to secure premises against their legitimate owners, and, frighteningly, the nullification of legal privilege in some communications. Read the article. Read the bill if you can spare the time (it’s 196 exhausting and obfuscatory pages).

As I said, this comes down to trust. The problem is that, even though I generally trust governments, I don’t trust their regulatory and social control agencies which are not subject to electoral veto. That’s the problem with this bill – it seeks to remove the matters of surveillance and investigation from the political sphere where it belongs and create a new surveillance culture norm in NZ.

Edit: I have somehow missed the Gordon Campbell’s excellent piece on the same topic. Read that, too.

L

Convincing the Police we have a right to protest

datePosted on 13:01, July 4th, 2009 by Anita

It is good to see that – after a 12 year battle – the right to protest in Parliament grounds is finally being reaffirmed. The short version is that in 1997 the then speaker Doug Kidd authorised the arrest of 75 people protesting against education reforms in Parliament grounds and later trespassed them all. It has taken 12 years for the speaker’s office and the Police to finally agree to apologise and pay compensation.

It is frustrating that in a supposedly open democratic society there are so many example of the Police and authorities trying to stifle dissent, and that it takes many years and many costly lawyer hours to get to a point the courts finally make them back down. Recent examples that spring to mind are people being arrested and prosecuted for writing in chalk on a footpath, using a loud hailer and blowing a whistle again on a public footpath, and burning a NZ flag (which required a High Court appeal). If you’re interested in more examples I found this article while I was checking I remembered the chalk incident correctly.

In theory the Police are there to protect our rights, including our right to participate in democratic protest, but it frequently feels like their main goal is to protect the dominance of the current power elite. It was interesting to see this scenario appear in the ethics training material the Police have developed since the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct (driven by the Police rape trials)

Ethical dilemma example 7
I would like to imagine this is a sign of a turning tide, and the Police will now be protecting our right to protest, but recent examples of deliberate and exploitative infiltration of protest groups, and the use of defenders of torturers like Mark Lowenthal by the Police for training and advice is hardly a good sign. Do these recent examples pass their own test?

NZ Police SELF test

How well did the media do on the Napier siege?

datePosted on 23:59, May 12th, 2009 by Lew

Ethical Martini asked the question on Sunday. Out of largely professional interest I watched, read and listened to the coverage on the two main TV newses, National Radio, Stuff, the Herald online and their various dead-tree editions from Thursday to Monday so perhaps I’m too close to it, but I’ve been pondering the question since, unsure how to answer because it comes down to one’s assumptions about what the media is supposed to do in such a case. That’s a tricky question.

If it’s supposed to maximise value for its shareholders, then it sure as hell did that, with garish wall-to-wall coverage and plenty of breathless speculation, really hitting the spectacle out of the park in such a way as to ensure that the name of Jan Molenaar will long be remembered as shorthand for `paranoid survivalist with guns, dope and death-wish’; our own little Ruby Ridge (but without all that annoying moral/ethical/legal equivocation).

If it’s supposed to perform a civil defence or public order function, keeping those in immediate need of information informed for the purpose of ensuring their safety, security, peace of mind, etc, then I would have thought they did a pretty decent job – from Wellington, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what was going on, despite not ever having been to the place in question or in such a situation. Comments from those in the local area, however, are mixed on this count – and those who know Napier express some frustration at the constant mangling of street names, landmarks, etc.

If it’s supposed to be keeping the wider public informed on a matter of national significance, then I think the media did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and updated with massive amounts of information, although with the proviso that much of that information was speculative at best.

If it’s supposed to act as a communication medium from authority to gunman in the sense of megaphone diplomacy, then I think it failed miserably. Although this was largely down to police command not using it in such a way, the media also framed coverage of Molenaar in the third person and spoke to his family members in othering ways, hardly making it possible to reach out to him. I think the first broadcast message I heard which addressed him directly was on Friday night.

If it’s supposed to act as a balm for a shocked nation, then I think it did a pretty good job of that as well, bolstering public confidence in the Police by portraying them as calm and disciplined rather than vengeful and reactive, and local businesses, charities, schools, Civil Defence and local government as united in solidarity, working well together for the public good, as we might hope they would in what I hope it isn’t too churlish to term `a proper emergency’.

If it’s supposed to tell us who to cheer for and who to boo at, once again it did a cracking job. You know you’re dealing with a real villain when all the people who can’t go home for their own safety are classified as `victims’ and even the people who make cups of tea for them are `heroes’.

If it’s supposed to stimulate and inform public debate on the wider political and social issues which are germane to the case – drug law, gun law, alienation, the role of the coercive arm of the state in private affairs, police doctrine and posture, the complexities of entrenched tactical operations – then it gets a bit more complicated.

On the one hand, I’m inclined to think it did an execrable job. If I may cram a whole lot of mixed metaphors in here: the lobby groups, armchair experts and those with an axe to grind on such matters have played the media like a fiddle, and the media has tuned itself up and rosined the bow to allow it. We’re going to get an awful lot of heat and precious little light. Instantly we have people calling for more guns, less guns, more guns but only for some people, guns to be licensed like cars rather than owners being licensed, the absurd notion I heard on NatRad this morning that all privately-owned firearms should be stored at a central, secure facility and be checked out and back in again. The battle of the slogans is well underway – `if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ counterposed against `when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws have guns’, for a start. And then there’s the debate about marijuana, with the frankly idiotic counterfactual that if the police didn’t prosecute minor drug crime then they wouldn’t have been in this sorry mess at all – possibly true, but only until something else brought the red mist down on Jan Molenaar.

On the other hand, the free flow of information around this case – the fact that every idiot on Your Views and talkback radio gets to listen to the so-called experts and decide what to think – should mean in principle that we have the basis for a good fact-based debate. Is not free expression via the media, with everyone putting their arguments up to be judged in a market of information, the most efficient means of determining which views have merit and which are bogus? If not, by what other means should we determine the relative merits of conflicting views and arguments?

I’m still no closer to an overall answer to the question Martin posed. I think it’s pollyanna-ish to say that the coverage did what it needed to do because everyone got a say, we all got our little reality TV fix and all the experts got a chance to climb up on their hind legs and argue the world to rights, but I think it’s curmudgeonly to decry the whole affair as a lurid farce.

What do you reckon?

L

Agenda setting

datePosted on 14:43, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?

Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.

Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.

Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.

The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.

(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)

Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.

There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.

L

Shame on who?

datePosted on 15:07, April 2nd, 2009 by Lew

This image is attached to the Stuff story on the death of a protester during the G20 protests in London:

shame-crop

(Screenshot)

I know I’m not alone in noticing that since Stuff remodeled itself on the SMH that they’ve cranked up the alarm-o-meter somewhat, and this is an excellent example. A few facts are clear from the linked story, and a rudimentary bit of reading around reflects some others, to wit:

  1. The person who died during the protest was a man, not a pretty woman who happened to pose for the camera at the time. The shot was chosen purely because it’s a good image.
  2. The man apparently died of natural causes, not a bleeding head wound.
  3. The unstated `you’ in the headline of this image is the riot police. However the man who died was not killed by police or as any consequence of violence in the protest; in fact, protesters pelted police with bottles as they tried to resuscitate him.

This should serve as one more bit of evidence that the media are not intrinsically biased for or against anyone in particular – they follow the story, and in some cases they lead it, for their own purposes rather than those of their masters in transnational capital.

Edit: My mum points out that the composition evokes Brian Brake’s famous Monsoon Girl.

Edit 20090408: Commenter Rich has linked to footage of police attacking Ian Tomlinson just before he died, here. If it’s real and legitimate, and there’s no reason to assume it isn’t, then it more or less invalidates my objections 2 and 3 above. Objection 1 stands, for what little that’s worth.

L

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