NZ Govt Memo: When caught out, shoot the messenger.

Helen Clark understood well the axiom that in politics the best defense is a good offense. She was a master of the art of character assassination and discrediting the opponent. This was particularly true when the opponent was not a politician but someone from outside of the partisan divide who pointed out a dubious policy decision or raised ethical questions about the behavior of her government. I know this first-hand, because I was the subject of one of her attacks (with regard to the role of former ambassador Richard Wood, then director of the SIS, in the Ahmed Zaoui case). She also knew the value of having everyone in her government play off of the same sheet of music when it comes to cover-ups, hence the “lying in unison” refrain. Love her or hate her, Ms. Clark knew how to play dirty.

When National came to office it argued that it was going to end the sort of practices Ms. Clark was so adept at. But as it turns out, it has done exactly the opposite and instead deepened the dark “art” of shooting the bearer of bad news. The latest instance of this is its treatment of independent war correspondent Jon Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is by all objective accounts a remarkably brave and serious journalist. He is also a thorn in the side of the NZDF. The reason is because he travels independently to conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed, foregoes the embedded journalist niceties that accrue to the likes of TV talking heads, and asks hard questions about the actions of Kiwi soldiers as well as the polices and rules of engagement under which they operate. That line of inquiry does not conform to the scripted narrative that the NZDF would prefer that NZ audiences consume, so it makes the Defence brass uncomfortable.  As a result some of the NZDF and Defence leadership are antagonistic towards Mr. Stephenson. The irony is that such antagonism does not extend down to the rank and file troops, many of who candidly share their views with Mr. Stephenson under conditions of anonymity. In fact, they are often the source of his insights into how the NZDF operates in combat environments. For his part Mr. Stephenson has repeatedly voiced his high regard for the integrity and professionalism of Kiwi soldiers, those in the SAS in particular. The animus, in other words, is not mutual.

In April Mr. Stephenson published an article in Metro magazine titled “Eyes Wide Shut.” In it he writes that in its previous and current deployments in Afghanistan the SAS transferred and continues to transfer prisoners to US and Afghan forces that have been implicated in abuses of the Geneva Convention. He makes very clear that the SAS does not abuse prisoners, although–contrary to the National government’s initial assertions–the SAS takes a lead role in counter-terrorism and search and destroy missions, kills adversaries as a matter of course (some of whom it turns out were not hostile but either misidentified or the victims of faulty intelligence), and detains and transfers prisoners to Afghan and US custody as part of its standard operating procedures. The trouble for the government is that after Labour withdrew the SAS from Afghanistan in 2005 in part because of concerns about the treatment of prisoners initially detained by the elite force, National turned around and re-deployed them in 2009 without getting ironclad assurances from either the US or the Karzai regime that prisoners detained by the SAS would be treated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention. The lack of such assurances are what have forced UK forces serving in Afghanistan to refuse to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government and played a part in the Danish decision to withdraw their special forces from ISAF, so the concerns are wide-spread and well known. Yet, rather than wrestle with the ethical dilemmas involved, it appears that the NZ government has repeatedly misrepresented what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan, and on at least one occasion has played loose with the truth when asked about that role, to include, specifically, whether the SAS leads combat missions and takes prisoners on its own.

Mr. Stephenson’s article raises all of these troublesome points. Its well researched account of incidents in 2002 and 2010 raises questions about what National agreed to in 2009 that Labour could not stomach in 2005. It specifically questions General Jerry Mateparae, former NZDF head, current GCSB director and Governor-General-designate over his statements to parliament in 2010 that the SAS does not detain prisoners and does not lead combat engagements. It is damning stuff that should be the subject of an independent inquiry.

The government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely. Prime Minister John Key, current head of the NZDF Lieutenant General Richard Rhys-Jones and Minister of Defense “Dr.” Wayne Mapp have all attacked Mr. Stephenson as being “non-credible” and of having an anti-NZDF bias. Military sycophants like Ron Smith of Waikato University (who is reported to have a personal connection to General Mateparae) have accused Mr. Stephenson of having a “hidden agenda,” with the insinuation that the agenda is pro-Taliban as well as anti-NZDF. Although General Rhys-Jones has disputed some facts in the Metro article, Mr. Mapp has been forced to admit under questioning in parliament that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring (worse yet, Mr. Mapp initially claimed that the NZ government has an arrangement with the Red Cross for the latter to monitor prisoners captured by NZDF forces once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the Red Cross denies any such agreement exists, among other things because it only signs agreements with the governments holding prisoners, not with those who may have initially captured them).  

The result of Mr. Stephenson’s reporting and its follow ups reveals that in effect, the National government re-committed the SAS either ignorant of what its operations would entail or fully cognizant of them, but then lied to the NZ public rather than admit the truth (or has the NZDF lie on its behalf). Either way it is not a good look.

Rather than own up to what was agreed to in 2009, the government is pursuing a campaign of character assassination against Mr. Stephenson. It cannot argue his facts so it is playing him instead. It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment. But it is unfortunate that the top military brass have joined in the campaign, regardless of whether or not they are simply trying to close ranks around General Mateparae. They of all people should know that the integrity of the force should come before politician’s political machinations.

If there are reasons of state behind the decision to commit the SAS back into Afghanistan under less than optimal ROEs (at least with regard to the treatment of prisoners), then they should be stated clearly and openly. It is quite possible that a majority of New Zealander’s would have no problem with the mistreatment of prisoners initially captured or detained by the SAS. However, if there are domestic political considerations behind the government’s apparently duplicitous approach to revealing the considerations involved and the terms under which the SAS was re-deployed, then the NZDF should not carry the water for it. Responsibility for the decision lies with the civilian command authority to which the uniformed crowd are ultimately subordinated, and if the NZDF has been asked to misrepresent the terms and conditions of the re-deployment, that is unethical as well as injurious to morale. Troops do not like to be pawns in some political game played by people with no experience in soldiering and no regard for their individual fate, which is why the NZDF leadership should come clean on what it has been asked to do and not do when it comes to its commitment of troops abroad.

In reporting on what the SAS does in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson was just doing his job, in the time-honoured fashion of war correspondents. In that he is a rare bird in NZ, where flak-jacketed and helmeted media figures “report” in hostile theaters from “sanitised” positions miles away from the action that are surrounded by layers of armed security (i.e. these journalistic poseurs are kept away from real harm and instead are the guests of government-orchestrated field trips in the proximity of battle zones). It is because he adopts the independent, non-scripted line that Mr. Stephenson is being attacked, and in the measure that a democracy is only as good as the free flow of information allows it to be, the actions of this government against him are not only despicable, but a clear sign of the ingrained authoritarian (some would say bullying) ethos that permeates the NZ political elite.

The Greens have called for an independent inquiry and sensing a chance to wound National, Labour has joined them (since it can now use its 2005 decision to not continue the SAS deployment and objection to the 2009 re-deployment as ammunition against the government). Mr. Key has refused to agree to the demands, insisting that he is satisfied with NZDF explanations about the incidents Mr. Stephenson has reported on. What he really means is that he is applying the first rule of bureaucracy when it comes to handling prickly issues: CYA (Cover Yer A**e).

As a political community we should not allow the government to get away with such a cynical response, nor allow its slander of Jon Stephenson to go unchallenged. After all, basic principles of democratic accountability and NZ’s international reputation as a defender of human rights are at stake, as is Mr. Stephenson’s career.

9 thoughts on “NZ Govt Memo: When caught out, shoot the messenger.

  1. Thank you, Pablo, for a much-needed defence of Jon Stephenson.

    The conduct of the National-led Government and the top-brass of the NZDF has indeed been disgraceful.

    As disgraceful, in fact, as the scandalous determination of the Press Gallery to avoid making any waves that might unsettle their prime [ministerial?] sources.

  2. Thanks Chris:

    I am not surprised by the govt’s behaviour or that the NZDF brass would attempt to defend Gen. Mateparae. What I am mystified about is why Gen, Mateparae misled parliament last year. Even if the NZDF recommended in favour of re-deployment fully knowing that there were ethical problems with prisoner transfers, the ultimate decision to send the SAS back to Afghanistan was made by the PM. He and the NZDF could have argued that it was needed to shore up the security relationship with the US (now codified in the Wellington Declaration of Nov 2010), or offered any number of raisons d’etat to justify the decision, and as I said in the post and given the PMs popularity, a majority of Kiwis would probably have accepted the decision on those terms. So Gen. Mateparae’s obfuscation was unnecessary unless, as the conspiracy-minded may believe, it was part of a larger quid pro quo.

    Lets hope not, and that Gen Mateparae was just careless in his sworn remarks (I presume they were sworn because my understanding is that he testified before a select committee).

  3. It is indeed the lack of serious challenge to the government by other journalists in relation to its scurrilous attack on Mr Stephenson that is most striking and disturbing about this case.

  4. Robert:

    As far as I can tell Dereck Cheng at the Herald, Anthony Hubbard at the SST, Selwyn Manning of Scoop , Gordon Campbell at Werewolf, and Anthony Beason at Pundit have directly or indirectly supported Mr. Stephenson in print. That leaves many others but at least there are some whose priority is the story rather than sucking up.

  5. I agree the attack on Mr Stevenson is abhorrent and some would say it is the nature of the job.

    However, the reality of the situation is the the NZDF and SAS are in a combat zone fighting a very determined, cunning and spirited enemy on his own turf.

    As Im sure we are all aware, nasty things happen in war and events and situations are not always amenable to the public back home.

    I feel this his is particulary true for the NZ public who as a nation state as in many ways never
    been exposed (recent times) to its nation being in a combat situation.

    As I have lived in a country that fought a war for 20 years and known the men who fought it I have somewhat been “enlightened” in my opnions when it comes to being a receipent of war related media content.

    The whole fluffy news reports and media statements about the NZ SAS doing a great job and helping the security in Afghansitan as certainly, in my mind at least, been a watered down, safe for the public consumption rhetoric.

    The NZ SAS are an elite fighting force trained and deployed to fight and kill. They are getting down and dirty with it and Im sure follow their orders to the letter. Some which would not sit well for a public back home that has been used to the Clean, Green & 100% pure NZ motto.

    It is a sad fact to admit, but the military is a branch of the government, It is seen as a tool of political will, whether to sway, stiffen or resolve international political relations. The deployment of NZDF troops to the Afghan theatre is part of a wider political will to strengthen our world standing either via trade, finance or influence in the wider scope of international relations. All of which prove most beneficial if the “means to an end” are not questioned.

    Here is where Mr Stephenson steps in. Throwing aside our mainstream media managed perceptions of our “boys over there” doing a splendid peace loving bit of work and showing us the boots on the ground reality.

    The NZ SAS are killing enemy combatants, they are planning and executing combat missions and finaly they are handing over prisoners of war to questionable 3rd world authorities. (the afghan government is not the only one receiving captured prisoners for torture).

    This is a reality that doesnt sit well with the NZ public, which is well know for it emotive voting style and ousting governments on lesser transgressions. All of this has lead the National Government to defend is chosen path and the long term, rarely publicly seen, benefits by all means necessary.

    Its journalists like Mr Stephenson that remind us that the world is not always what it seems on the 6 o’clock news. As this flys against most goverments wheeling and dealing worldwide its unfortunately a stark reminder that this type of journalistic behaviour will always attract negative goverment responses.

  6. Anton:

    You have pointed to the crux of the matter. National wanted to play both sides of the fence with regards to redeploying the SAS: please (appease) its ISAF (read US) allies while not revealing the hard truths of the mission itself because of the fear of public backlash.

    The irony is that I do not think that the NZ public would much care one way or another if they had been told the truth from the onset. Sure, the Greens and Amnesty International would bark a bit but even Labour would haved toed the line because when it is the government it plays the same way when it comes to security. And with local versions of Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Masterchef to occupy mass attention, how long would the issue stay in the news cycle anyway?

    Stephenson’s sin is to have called the government on its two-faced play. But now that the government has played dirty in response, the first rule of politics has been invoked: it is not the original sin that causes downfall, but the cover up that follows. Methinks someone will have to fall on his sword over this one–and it is not going to be Key, although he ultimately made the decision to deploy under publicly-stated false pretenses and to attack the messenger once found out.

  7. It’s odd I think that you criticise the Government for launching personal attacks, but laced through your article are remarks like “It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment.”

    Hypocrisy much?

  8. Bilbo: if you cannot tell the difference between me taking some editorial shots on a blog and the PM and Mapp lying about major policy issues and slandering a person in press conferences, you should not be working in parliament. Now go back to licking the boots of your duplicitous masters.

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