The GCSB Bill and press freedom

With a few exceptions, much of the GCSB media coverage has been superficial, and complicit in personal attacks and dismissive denials. Media had a vital role to play in answering the many questions around this Bill, and failed.

By and large, the New Zealand media have done a terrible job of reporting on the GCSB bill, despite its fundamental implications for democratic rights and freedoms in New Zealand – including, ironically, the freedom of the press.

Many commentators were seduced by style, failing to dig below surface appearances in order to test the accuracy of slick assurances or denials. Others have been mesmerised by spin, chasing after a succession of red herrings (or snapper) dangled to distract them.

Much of the coverage has been unforgivably superficial. Until Rob Hosking’s article in the National Business Review and the Sunday Star Times editorial last weekend, and Andrea Vance’s article yesterday, no journalist showed a close understanding of the provisions of the legislation.

Far from speaking truth to power, the press has provided a largely uncritical platform for leading politicians to misrepresent the extent of public opposition to the GCSB bill, make unfounded statements and assurances about it, and smear those who opposed it.

And yet in many cases, these people have been doing the journalists’ job for them. Those critics included the Law Society, which delivered a sobering report to the United Nations on a series of recent breaches of human rights by the government and a powerful submission on the defects of the GCSB legislation; and the Human Rights Commission and the Privacy Commissioner, who pointed out flaws in the bill that threaten fundamental human rights in New Zealand.

There were also experts who analysed the legislation and its defects on a principled, voluntary basis. Thomas Beagle of Tech-liberty, for instance, worked tirelessly to inform Kiwis about current surveillance technologies, and how the provisions of the GCSB bill would operate in that context.

Rodney Harrison QC investigated the legal intricacies of the bill, and took every opportunity to explain to his fellow citizens the kinds of rights they will lose if the legislation is passed. Sir Geoffrey Palmer explored its constitutional implications.

Although the press largely neglected to carry out its proper investigative role, once substantive questions were asked by others, one might have hoped that journalists would demand truthful answers on behalf of the public.

Instead, major questions about the bill were met with flat denials or airy assurances that the legal powers given to the GCSB will not be used; and these denials and assurances have not been rigorously tested.

Worse, those who raised substantive concerns about the legislation were demeaned and attacked via the media, for example the Human Rights Commission, the Law Society and Rodney Harrison QC. The Prime Minister’s rudely dismissive exchange with Rebecca Wright from Campbell Live at the National Party conference was another lamentable example.

Instead of challenging these abuses, journalists often seemed complicit. Much of the coverage of the Prime Minister’s interview on Campbell Live, for example - the one programme that worked hard to investigate the GCSB bill - was sycophantic.

Even senior and experienced press commentators like Brian Edwards hailed this as a masterly performance, dazzled by the Prime Minister’s quick ripostes, his attacks on the programme and its host, and his ability to elude direct questions on matters of public importance.

In the process, they failed to test the truth of assurances that were given during the interview – that the content of private communications would not be available to the GCSB, and that the Bill did not allow for wholesale surveillance of New Zealanders.

It was left to one reporter, Audrey Young of the New Zealand Herald, and to Thomas Beagle and Rodney Harrison, to show that these statements were unfounded, and devoid of legal substance.

The New Zealand Herald also urged the government to adopt stronger protections in the bill, and published a series of Viewpoint articles that explained the provisions of the legislation and their implications for democratic rights and freedoms.

On a day in which the GCSB bill might be passed into law, New Zealanders are still left with many unanswered questions. What inspired the hasty drafting of this legislation? What links exist between the NSA in America and the GCSB, and how will they work under the agency’s sweeping new powers?

Will NSA spy systems be used to carry out mass surveillance on New Zealanders? How will we know whether this is happening? If unwarranted surveillance is carried out in secret, how can it be challenged?

Why is there so much resistance by the government to non-partisan oversight of the GCSB? Given the illegal activities of this agency, and related blunders in the Prime Minister’s Office, how can a partisan political arrangement be trusted to supervise an agency with such open-ended powers?

Why is the GCSB bill being rammed through Parliament, in the face of overwhelming public opposition and in defiance of proper democratic process?

How can we respect a bill that deals with New Zealanders’ fundamental democratic rights, but is passed by a one-vote majority? In the case of that one vote, what was exchanged between the ‘willing seller’ and the ‘willing buyer’ in respect to this legislation?

What are the implications of the GCSB bill for the IT industry in New Zealand? What are its links with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated in secret? If New Zealand binds itself more closely to the United States through these arrangements, what does this do to our trade and diplomatic relationships with China, and Russia, and India, for example?

So many questions, so few answers. On this occasion, when journalists had a vital role to play in defending the rights and freedoms of all New Zealanders, they largely failed. As a result, it is likely that all of our liberties will be curtailed.