We're not at the bottom of this story yet, but I can't help but wonder if those of us in the media need to have a good hard look at ourselves

The blur of revelations around Andrea Vance, the Henry inquiry's investigations into her movements and the government's whole attitude to information, privacy and spying can make it hard to know which are the most telling points in this saga and exactly when we should be surprised and appalled.

I have serious reservations about governments passing what amount to retrospective laws to justify past failings and intrusions into the lives of New Zealanders that aren't justified by genuine threats (even if there are New Zealanders who hav trained with Al Qaeda!). I don't like the use of fear for political purposes but I do like oversight. On the other hand I'm not sure how bothered I should be about the SIS being able to contract the GCSB to do some of its domestic work if the GCSB has the right kit and expertise.

Similarly I look at the email tabled by the Prime Minister yesterday to much bluster and outrage and can see how both sides can interpret it differently. Yes, "any contact between" the listed ministers and Vance opens the door to spying on the Fairfax journalist, but I can also understand how someone could write that sentence meaning just contact FROM ministers TO Vance. And the email reply the next day expliciting saying the info from Vance's phone records wasn't requested or read suggests the latter meaning.

Further more, I can't look at this debate and pretend that politicians and journalists haven't always been at odds, that politicians have often disrespected what journalists do (and vice versa) and that politicians haven't always been driven first and foremost by power. And, as I've written before, I'm not surprised that the certain looseness that defines Key's modus operandi is again creating problems for National.

But what does appall and (largely) surprise me is that all those historic tensions can turn into the abusive actions we've learnt about in recent days. It's one thing to call a journalist "a little creep" or a "knucklehead", quite another for the entire 'system' to be willing to look into a journalist's movements and phone records.

Andrea Vance has every right to be mad as hell about her treatment - and all New Zealanders should be mad along side her. As Matt Nippert tweeted the other day #Iamandreavance.

The "intrusive and outrageous" inquiry, as Vance calls it, initiated by John Key and conducted by David Henry clearly got out of control. It was an inquiry of limited importance into a report that was to be made public anyway, but boundaries were crossed in trying to find the leaker at all costs. Like Vance I'd be worried that the data was stored for so long even after an inquiry person had said they didn't want it. Like her I'd be dubious of assertions that it was all under wraps and under control. And most of all, I'd also be concerned about what this means for press freedoms. Can we trust politicians and the public service to understand the importance of those freedoms?

But as I say, contempt for the press and obfuscation is nothing new in politics. So the question I'm asking is what's changed? How has the rivalry and even contempt turned into this kind of intrusion and abuse of power?

Two reasons leap to mind. First, we live in a time when principle is little discussed. Issues are most often presented and debated in the light of how they impact on me and my family, not in a wider social or principled sense. For example, we debate the GCSB bill in the context that "if you've got nothing to hide then you've got nothing to fear". I suspect polling would show most New Zealanders see the issue from that viewpoint. It's too hard to think about the principles of privacy and the rights of others and more complicated civil liberties. We aren't as willing to engage as much in debate about what this says about our tolerance level as a country. Most people are just too busy and tired to think through those big hoary Thomas Paine-type arguments.

The other, related, reason is that journalists have slipped down the credibility ladder. Press freedoms aren't valued by non-journalists because journalism isn't as valued by them. If we're just purveyors of gossip and outrage, why do we need special privileges? Some might say we even get what we deserve; a bit of our own medicine.

The court of public opinion just doesn't have the same power these days, in part because of the kind of news we report, the way we present it, the fragmentation of the market and the shrinking newsrooms that can no longer do the sort of stories that earned public respect.

And when we do, the interest isn't what it was. 3rd Degree ran an important story last night about Teina Pora, in prison for 20 years for a crime he likely didn't commit. Not unreasonably it was argued this is the worst miscarriage of justice in New Zealand history. The police shrugged off the flaws exposed in this case, the concerns from their experts and peers, the leading questioning that they took to amount to a confession... Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess simply said it had gone to court twice, juries had convicted, end of story.

What about the evidence the juries didn't see? The flaws in the police work? Again, shrugged off. And Burgess can get away with that because not enough people care.

Three times as many New Zealanders chose to watch The Big Bang Theory over 3rd Degree. It's depressing, but it's also indicative of how and why some public servants and politicians have lost sight of some of the core principles of democracy and decent accountability.

The public doesn't have the same appetite for eternal vigilence that they used to. Modern lifestyles don't allow for it, other alternatives are more appealing and the media has in part given in and played along. So we must take our share of the blame.

So when Vance complains about weakening press freedoms, we as her colleagues must look at our own role in that and the way journalism has changed in the past generation.

Hopefully this might be a teaching moment, when we can stress again some of the reasons for the principles we as journalists are trying to uphold. The profession and the whole country could probably do with a reminder.

Comments (34)

by Tim Watkin on August 01, 2013
Tim Watkin

Supporting evidence: 43% of NZ respondents to Transparency International think the NZ media is corrupt or extremely corrupt. I mean, really? But no wonder they don't care about our freedoms.

by Bruce Thorpe on August 01, 2013
Bruce Thorpe

I do not think public attitudes in this country on political freedom and civil liberties have gone throughsignificant change over the years.

As a grammar boy , I have memories of the 1951 waterfront strike, the registration of all printing presses, and the criminalising of those who gave food to the strikers' families. Such stuff was promoted over all media and accepted by a significant and confident majority.

At our family meal times, we heard talk of the destruction of the Tamaki marae before the Queen's tour, and how Massey's Cossacks had attacked striking workers and saw ourselves as entering a darl time, with Micky Savage's photo was on the mantlepiece.

What I carried from those days was the certainty that we who loved freedom and justice for all, shared this country with a possibly larger number who put personal income ahead of another person's rights, and who delighted in the leadership of bullies.

And if you look at the reigns of our various prime ministers over that 75 years, there are a good share of bullies, prone to use overseas terrorist propaganda with little credibilty but fodder to the ever present jingoistic kiwi provincials.

We do however have a strong tradition of freedom lovers too, so I keep hoping ....

 

by Tim Watkin on August 01, 2013
Tim Watkin

Interesting perspective Bruce, I take your point. Maybe it was always thus. On the other hand, might it have swung our way a little in the Watergate era when journalism was seen as more heroic and now be swinging back?

by Graeme Edgeler on August 01, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

3rd Degree ran an important story last night about Teina Pora, in prison for 20 years for a crime he likely didn't commit. Not unreasonably it was argued this is the worst miscarriage of justice in New Zealand history.

You know we have executed people whom we have subsequently pardoned, right?

by Tim Watkin on August 01, 2013
Tim Watkin

No Graeme. Of whom do you speak?

by Graeme Edgeler on August 01, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

No Graeme. Of whom do you speak?

Five soldiers we executed during World War, now understood to have been suffering "shell shock".

by Graeme Edgeler on August 01, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Sorry - that was "World War One".

by william blake on August 01, 2013
william blake

@ Grame, "shell shock"? That's the politically correct, namby pamby term for Lack of Moral Fibre, isn't it?

Different generations are like different cultures and their laws are unto themselves. It's the times of elision, like now perhaps,with the GCSB bill and tightening of protest laws,that are interesting and contentious, the contractions from civic and conservative to liberal and humane and vice-versa; or are you suggesting some kind of moral absolute?

by Nick Gibbs on August 01, 2013
Nick Gibbs

I try to follow the political soap opera and like to think of myself as well informed, but the whole GCSB thing has esaped me. What is actually in this bill that is so bad? No one has articulated this clearly. It seems politics par for the course - National puts forward a bill - Lab/Greens oppose it. Does it extend the powers of the govt unreasonably? or just tidy things up? I don't know.

And while the whole inquiry / leak  saga is incredibily embarassing to the govt, it's a pure beltway issue at the end of the day. Latest poll National up to 51%, so Joe Public just doesn't care.

by stuart munro on August 02, 2013
stuart munro

@ Nick - the whole thing is about John Key. That's not what the GCSB is for, which is defence against inimical foreigners. The power has gone to his head.

It's not supposed to be a sinecure for his mates. It's not supposed to be used against New Zealanders like Dotcom, or to have its powers used to cover things up, as Bill English did. There is no urgency to reforming the GCSB - the urgency for Gnats is to retrospectively approve John Key's interference with the GCSB. The use of GCSB staff to chase leaks around parliament is a particularly flagrant abuse.

Key should give up the GCSB. Spymaster is not his job. But he is not rational on the subject - he is very much the wrong guy to have in intelligence - James Bond he's not.

by william blake on August 02, 2013
william blake

@Nick. Unwarranted trawling of all domestic data and metadata by a government department may have long term cultural implications of constraining free speech, engendering a less permissive society. There is no need for a government agent to put a case to a judge to obtain a warrant spy on that person, so in some ways we are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even if we have nothing to hide we will know we are being watched; creepy bully tactics from a government afraid of its citizens.

by Tim Watkin on August 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

I'd be interested in your answers to Nick... The main concerns have been that it justifies past illegalities where the GCSB spied on NZers when it wasn't allowed to (although they thought they were), extends reach of spy agencies beyond even powers under US Patriot Act, lack of oversight for those powers, whether those powers are necessary given level of threat NZ lives under...

But as I wrote, on the other hand, if the oversight's there and it amounts to little more than the GCSB sub-contracting for the others... 

by Nick Gibbs on August 02, 2013
Nick Gibbs

Ok. From my very brief research on this bill - yes I just googled it- it seems simply to allow the GCSB to keep doing what they were doing before. Namely intercepting the communications of NZ's for other agencies. I don't have a problem with this, as I accept as entirely plausible, the idea that some NZ's are up to no good, in contact with terrorist groups etc...

As far as I know the Bill doesn't extend anyones powers beyond what was in place before and allowing the police, SIS to use GCSB equip is better and duplicating the whole set up.

If there isn't sufficient oversight of SIS, Police, GCSB it's seems to have been going on for quite a while with nary a peep from anyone. Nor has anyone established this lack of oversight as a fact. It has all the signs of a political beat up designed not to protect NZ but to promote Labour/Greens NZ First.

 

by Pete George on August 02, 2013
Pete George

You can't just look at the bill and judge it. The committee has reported back with a number of changes. Peter Dunne's negotiated changes will be introduced next week via Supplementart Order Papers - these improve oversight, introduce a full review in 2015 and 5-7 years thereafter and make it much harder to add departments to those that the GCSB can help - it will now have to be done via legislation.

Key has also promised clarifications, but I don't know if that means just explanations or further tweaks.

Until this is all put together there isn't a clear picture of what the end result will be.

In the meantime most of the protest is based on the original loose version, or more often on ignorance or deliberate overstatement of the powers being unleashed.

I am yet to see where it will allow mass surveillance and retention of data for an unlimited time - often claimed, never proven as far as I known. It only allows surveillance under a very specific warrant.

And - if the GCSB was not allowed to do it the SIS (who already spy on New Zealanders) and police (who already do surveillance and undercover investigations) will do it themselves - if they have a warrant.

by stuart munro on August 02, 2013
stuart munro

@ nick

I'm pretty sure if I led an armed helicopter raid on someone's house I'd spend about a decade in prison. So there's a bit more going on than 'just a political beat-up'.

by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

@ Pete - your support for Peter Dunne is touching. But the extension of surveillance power to levels not considered when the GCSB was first set up in the 1970s, increases the power of the State for no appreciable gain.

 

Except for phantom terrorists, WMDs, and other inventions from Key's spin doctors, we have no reason to need such increased surveillance.

 

If anything, the spying on Jon Stevenson and privacy breeches on Andrea Vance show that the State's powers need to  be reduced, not increased.

 

@ Tim - I think your comment here is apt;

The public doesn't have the same appetite for eternal vigilence that they used to. Modern lifestyles don't allow for it, other alternatives are more appealing and the media has in part given in and played along. So we must take our share of the blame.

I agree. There has been a subtle - but massive shift in the collective psyche of this nation. Compare the public response to the GCSB and TCIB legislation to that of decades past.

 

@ Nick -

" From my very brief research on this bill - yes I just googled it- it seems simply to allow the GCSB to keep doing what they were doing before."



So, if I take your comment; if a government department breaks the law, then that law-breaking can be justified by simply changing the law?!

Convenient. I'd love to apply the same technique to my own past, younger days. It would be very convenient to be able to chanbge the law at whim, to suit myself.

"As far as I know the Bill doesn't extend anyones powers beyond what was in place before and allowing the police..." 

Say whut?!

You've either looked at the wrong Bill, or you're being disingenuous.

by Nick Gibbs on August 02, 2013
Nick Gibbs

@Frank -But the extension of surveillance power to levels not considered when the GCSB was first set up in the 1970s, increases the power of the State for no appreciable gain.

Are they being extended? I haven't heard despite trying to follow the saga (this was my orginal point). You have asserted it but not demonstrated it. Reference please.

by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

Nick, I refer your attention to Section 15B of the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill;

15BInvolvement of Commissioner of Security Warrants
  • (1) An application for, and issue of, an interception warrant or access authorisation under section 15A must be made jointly to, and issued jointly by, the Minister and the Commissioner of Security Warrants if anything that may be done under the warrant or authorisation is for the purpose of intercepting the private communications of a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand under—

Source: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/government/2013/0109/13.0/DLM5177754...

Currently, under Section 14 of the

14Interceptions not to target domestic communications
  • Neither the Director, nor an employee of the Bureau, nor a person acting on behalf of the Bureau may authorise or take any action for the purpose of intercepting the communications of a person (not being a foreign organisation or a foreign person) who is a New Zealand citizen or a permanent resident.

Source: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2003/0009/latest/DLM187841.htm...

And Section 25 allows for "incidental" information to be collected and retained,

25When incidentally obtained intelligence may be retained and communicated to other persons
  • (1) Despite section 23, the Director may—

    • (a) retain incidentally obtained intelligence that comes into the possession of the Bureau for 1 or more of the purposes specified in subsection (2); and

    • (b) communicate that intelligence to the persons specified in subsection (3).

    (2) The purposes are—

    • (a) preventing or detecting serious crime in New Zealand or any other country:

    • (b) preventing or responding to threats to human life in New Zealand or any other country:

    • (c) identifying, preventing, or responding to threats or potential threats to the national security of New Zealand or any other country.

    (3) The persons are—

    • (a) any employee of the New Zealand Police:

    • (b) any member of the New Zealand Defence Force:

    • (c) the Director of Security under the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969:

    • (d) any other person that the Director thinks fit to receive the information.

Source: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/government/2013/0109/13.0/DLM5177773...

I trust that answers your questions.



by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

By the way, note that section 25 includes,

(3) The persons are—

  • (a) any employee of the New Zealand Police:

  • (b) any member of the New Zealand Defence Force:

  • (c) the Director of Security under the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969:

  • (d) any other person that the Director thinks fit to receive the information.

"...any other person that the Director thinks fit to receive the information.

That is wide enough to encompass anyone. Politicians. Party bosses. Your employer. Anyone.


by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

Note: "Section 14 of the" should read,

Section 14 of theGovernment Communications Security Bureau Act 2003.

by Nick Gibbs on August 02, 2013
Nick Gibbs

@ Frank - Thanks for your reply. I still don't think there is an extension of powers as the GCSB Bill of 2003 section 25 states

Prevention or detection of serious crime
  • Despite section 23, the Director, for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime in New Zealand or in any other country, may retain any information that comes into the possession of the Bureau and may communicate that information to employees of the New Zealand Police or to any other persons, and in any manner, that the Director thinks fit. (Italics mine)

Although I agree this seems very board.

See : http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2003/0009/latest/DLM187855.html

 

by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

It is an extension, Nick.

The current Bill expressly forbids spying on New Zealand citizens/permanenrt residents (section 14).

The proposed Bill will now allow it (section 15B). Plus retaining of "incidental" information (section 25B).

That, by definition, is an extension of powers.

This is a response to your comment above,

it seems simply to allow the GCSB to keep doing what they were doing before. Namely intercepting the communications of NZ's for other agencies.

What "they were doing before" was illegal.

 

by Frank Macskasy on August 02, 2013
Frank Macskasy

"The current Bill expressly forbids spying on New Zealand citizens/permanenrt residents (section 14)."

 

Should read,

 

"The current Act expressly forbids spying on New Zealand citizens/permanenrt residents (section 14)."

by Tim Watkin on August 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

Frank and Nick – Andrew and others will be clearer on this, but I take it that previously the GCSB were expressly forbidden from using their extensive technology to spy on New Zealanders. But the Inspector-General had said it was OK for them work with for the SIS, police etc to spy on others. Some now think the I-G was generous with his interpretations, but even more than that the GCSB under the new bill will be able to do their own thing on New Zealanders.That about right? And that does amount to an extension.

One of the main complaints about this bill as there hasn't been sufficient explanation of why that's necessary.

Key tried the Al Qaeda link in one of the clummsiest bit of politics I've ever seen from him, but it isn't anywhere near sufficient explanation.

And I'm not convinced the Dunne oversight provisions go far enough in terms of the independence and scepticism of the overseers.

by Tim Watkin on August 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

Oh and Frank, I know it's a typo, but love the image of Vance's "privacy breeches". Is she hiding her sources in her pants?!

by Pete George on August 03, 2013
Pete George

The Intelligence and Scurity committee haas recommended a number of changes that affect the quotes by Frank in previous comments - those quotes are from the original version, now out of date.

See http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/government/2013/0109/latest/whole.html#DLM5177706

As I said, it's difficult to judge until we see the final form of the legislation including the Dunne SOPs which haven't been published yet..

 

by stuart munro on August 04, 2013
stuart munro

Beg to differ Pete.

Intelligence is the use of extraordinary powers. It behooves those holding them to behave extraordinarily scrupulously. The evidence to date is of routine unscrupulous use - which doesn't make a persuasive case for extending powers.

The legal parallel (wait for Andrew or Graeme to jump on me) might be entrapment - a technique available to law enforcement but requiring scrupulous use.

by Bruce Thorpe on August 04, 2013
Bruce Thorpe

Voter outrage did not destroy Richard Nixon's political viability, he was a popular president until the "secret tapes" became public.

The Watergate legend certainly inspired the next generation of journalists but the man's career was undone by exposure of his too human frailties.

Polls will not swing because a security bill is passed, but policies, political and public services careers, the culture of government change under such pressures.

I see the Greens are up in the polls.

by Ross on August 04, 2013
Ross

I'm not sure I entirely understand why this bill is essential. Doesn't the SIS have existing powers to spy on NZers?

If I were cynical, I might suggest that National wants to make it easier to control and monitor its critics! There is a precedent in the US which was McCarthyism. I'm not suggesting that John Key et al should be compared to the Senator for Wisconsin. But Key's desperation to have this bill passed into law does raise some questions about his motivation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism

by Nick Gibbs on August 05, 2013
Nick Gibbs

The SIS can already spy on NZer's which is why this isn't an extension of govt powers. But the SIS can't legally borrow the GCSB's flash spy kit. So National is changing the law to allow this.Otherwise they'd have to buy the SIS their own bat mobile and National don't want to waste the money.

I note that in the polls: National are down, Labour the same and Greens up. The only conclusion is that the true blue farmers have seen the light and have moved over to the Greens. No doubt this presages a rout by the Left in 2014.

 

 

 

 

by william blake on August 05, 2013
william blake

Everybody seems pretty relaxed about this bill; taking a leaf out of Mr Keys book perhaps?

After the third reading and the bill being passed, we will all know that we are being monitored quite legitimately by the state.

To share an opinion I think this defines the current administration as old school or paleo-conservative, rather than neo-conservative, whom, while being socially bankrupt, at least care that people are free thinking and creative, rather than oppressed and obedient.

by Lee Churchman on August 06, 2013
Lee Churchman

"We aren't as willing to engage as much in debate about what this says about our tolerance level as a country. Most people are just too busy and tired to think through those big hoary Thomas Paine-type arguments."

While that's true to a degree, it doesn't seem from my experience to be the whole story. One of the jobs I periodically do is to teach ethics and the trend I have noticed is that while students still take quite a keen interest in ethical issues concerning matters of personal choices and freedoms such as euthanasia, abortion, surrogacy, and censorship, society wide issues such as distributive justice and gender have dropped almost completely off the radar for the majority. It's not like the latter issues have gone away – it's just that students have little or no interest in them. It sucks for me, because I find the latter issues more interesting, but I guess it's just the way things are now. No idea why that is.

by stuart munro on August 06, 2013
stuart munro

@William Blake - up to a point. Traditional paleocons didn't practice disaster capitalism - the wrecking and selling of state adjuncts - their nationalism also produced a loyalty to local interests that protected vulnerable economies like NZ's.  The neocon counter-Keynesian trend is responsible for the end of the post-war boom. Up until the 1970s, the legacy of development created unprecendented global wealth. Banking and government reforms have now put a stop to that. Austerity rules, at least until the current despots are despatched.

by Tim Watkin on August 06, 2013
Tim Watkin

Thanks Lee. Here's hoping younger people have more of an interest in principles as any debate seems to go into the too hard basket for the rest of us.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.