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.

Comments (19)

by Ross on August 21, 2013


A useful contribution but I'm not sure I agree with your last line. It is likely that all of our liberties will be curtailed because journos failed to do their job? Put another way, do you really think the PM and his acolytes would have abandoned this bill had journos performed better?

by Anne Salmond on August 21, 2013
Anne Salmond

Perhaps;.  If New Zealanders had been given a clear understanding of the bill before last weekend, the adamant opposition of the great majority of Kiwis to the sweeping powers it gives to the GCSB would have become obvious much earlier.  This might have made a critical difference.

by Lee Churchman on August 21, 2013
Lee Churchman

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I seem to remember that many New Zealand journalists demonstrated unusual vigour when it came to Labour's electoral finance bill, which was supposedly an imminent threat to democracy and a free press.

by Gilbert on August 21, 2013

Right on the button again  Anne - thankyou! You can be sure that the perfidious Mr Key is destitute of rational argument when he yet again resorts to his ad hominem attacking regime. In your case he cunningly & deviously gets one of his blindly obedient henchmen to dismiss you as being from the "high & mighty brigade". Why do the journalists never comment on this despicable cowardly behaviour ?

by Anne Salmond on August 21, 2013
Anne Salmond

Dear Colleagues

Perhaps there was some telepathy going on here.  I had no idea when I wrote this that I was the next victim being lined up for slaughter.  Various people told me tonight that I was viciously attacked in Parliament, along with the Law Society, Rodney Harrison QC and Sir Geoffrey Palmer for opposing the GCSB bill.  No doubt we will all be sent to a labour camp for 're-education?' :-)  Apparently I was called 'shrill' and 'unprofessional.'  My fellow Fellows in the National Academy of Sciences in the US and the British Academy would find this surprising.  It would be funny if it wasn't so incredibly sad.  

by Tim Watkin on August 21, 2013
Tim Watkin

Anne thanks for that. I don't think journalists have covered themselves in glory on this issue either, but I'm not sure you're being particularly fair. It seems that every time something isn't reported the way someone would like it, it's that damned media's fault.

Some times that's fair enough, but I challenge anyone to do their job in the public eye the way journalists do. Would every accountant, lecturer, plumber etc cut the mustard if every task and word and detail scrutinised in the same way the media is?

And so I'm going to earn the ire of most and, like someone trying to say used car dealers aren't that bad, offer another view on the journalists you're damning. It's what I do, in the hope that people might retain some faith in our media, might even stop to put themselves in a journalist's shoes.

As I say, not our finest hour. But... For example, you say the coverage has been terrible – except for three of our main papers and our only primetime daily news show. In New Zealand, that's a fair proportion doing it quite well; I'm aware of numerous radio interviews on the subject as well. Many of the facts you mention I'm only aware of because I've seen them reported, however imperfectly. I know the name Thomas Beagle and know of Rodney Harrison's convictions etc only because I've seen them reported. (And because Thomas was kind enough to answer some of my questions here on Pundit).

And let's be fair – no journalist has Harrison's legal knowledge or Palmer's constitutional chops. That's why we interview people and not just our typewriters! And I don't imagine the campaign group that you have been part of can say they've lacked opportunities to make your case in the media, can you?

I'm not 100%, but I also suspect many of the questions you ask have been asked by journalists. The fact is that asking a question a) doesn't equate to getting an answer and b) doesn't equate to getting an answer you like. We all know that any politician will not tell us every reason for her/his policies.

I think sometimes people can expect journalists to be able to ask all questions, get all answers, and only do the stories that matter most to them, when with shrinking newsrooms, an indifferent audience and an immense array of stories to sift through and cover, it simply isn't possible. Perhaps you find the same when people look at history or academia from the outside and assume you should be able to get answers or achieve things that don't reflect your daily grind? If your work was pored over every day, would it stand up to the standards you're applying to these "terrible" and "superficial" journalists?

For example, I'm sure you know as well as I the PM's answer to your first question about hasty drafting. I've heard it asked more than once and he says it's not hasty, it's based on an extensive report, is only tidying up what the agencies have been doing for years etc. I've also heard Dunne and Key answer questions about the amendments

You may disagree with those answers, but journalists can only put them to the public, add as many facts as can be ascertained, and leave it for people to decide. It's not for most journalists to pick a side. Whether you like the PM's defence or not, he has the right to make his case without being unfairly filtered and for people to make up their own mind. You have to be willing to stand by that principle even if you think your opponents are getting things wrong/telling porkies, because you can be sure your opponents think the same about you. And in truth, none of us has all the truth and nothing but the truth.

(Having said that, of course he has more power than anyone in this situation and should be challenged harder than any other).

As for other questions, such as whether NSA spy systems will be used, there's simply no way you'd expect a PM to give details of how agencies spy. Clark wouldn't have let on, neither would Palmer. Other current party leaders may know the answer to some of your questions through their presence on the security committee, but not even Norman would break that trust. So you have to be reasonable about some expectations; that's the sort of information that will always require a whistle-blower. And there has always been the need for campaigners like yourself to give voice to concerns and make arguments that the media can report without fear or favour.

Finally, I'd add the all reporting of security issues is bloody hard; few people know much and even fewer will talk.

I understand your disappointment and share some of it. Perhaps in this case more than most you have a point. You might even say that journalists have to work to a higher standard than most, and that's just part of the job. I accept that in part. But please understand that it may not be as cut and dried as it appears from the bleachers.


by Richard on August 22, 2013

As for other questions, such as whether NSA spy systems will be used, there's simply no way you'd expect a PM to give details of how agencies spy.

Why not? Who do you think the PM is keeping the information secret from? And to what purpose?

You really do seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid over this issue Tim.

The intelligence agencies of other nations already know broadly what our capabilities are, either because they are our allies who supplied the technology we are using, or because they are busy doing something similar themselves, or because they are spying on our intelligence agencies. Despite all the howls of outrage from countries outside the 5 eyes alliance, no other country's intelligence agency is likely to be really very surprised at what the NSA/5 eyes has apparently been doing. After all, what else could the NSA/5 eyes be doing with all its employees and contractors and budget? Although, possibly the extent of the 5 eyes' domestic spying is a bit surprising.

The only reason to keep the NZ people in the dark about what our spy agencies are doing (and who funds them, etc) is because the NZ people would not approve if they did know. The PM is only trying to hide from the NZ people by his secrecy.

by stuart munro on August 22, 2013
stuart munro

As a protest, I recommend adding this postscript to all your emails:

Death to the tyrant John Key.

Think of it as a litmus test of your freedom of political expression.

by Anne Salmond on August 22, 2013
Anne Salmond

Tim, thanks for your thoughtful response.  You're right in what you say about the difficulties facing journalists, especially in covering security stories, and that needs to be acknowledged.  

Its just that in a small country, the tipping point between participatory democracy and authoritarian governance is finely balanced.  

Powers exercised in secret are readily abused, as we have seen at different times in our history.  In the case of the GCSB bill,  for these reasons, the quality of the press coverage really mattered. 

When a government plays brutal ad hominem politics in public, but asks us to trust them to show discretion and judgement with private information in secret, it doesn't inspire confidence.   

As for the balance of the debate, the Law Society, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Rodney Harrison QC, Sir Ted Thomas, the Human Rights Commission and the Privacy Commissioner have all criticised this law, saying that it is poorly drafted and breaches democratic rights in New Zealand.  

The Attorney General says that they are variously partisan, slow off the mark, misguided and wrong, and he is right about its legal merits.  Take your pick.


by Paul McGreal on August 22, 2013
Paul McGreal

Totally agree Ann.The press and TV seemed to miss some of the most salient points of this debate completely.

... Last century, many millions of sons died fighting despots who used exactly these sorts of wide ranging powers to spy on and imprison the people that they disliked, or the ones they wanted silenced. Out of those conflicts came the simply awareness that the integrity of an unchecked or balanced surveillance organisation simply depends on the moral base of the hand on the wheel. History has answered this query repeatedly, yet this most basic of points seemed to have been completely lost on the journalists involved in this debate. No one of them asked the most basic of questions such as would we trust Mugabe with these powers? Would we trust Pol Pot? Would we trust Slobodan Milošević? Would we trust Kim Jong-un? Would we trust Nixon? Would we trust Franco? Would we trust Ghadaffi? Would we trust Putin? Would we trust the encumbant Burmese, Chinese, Iranian or Syrian Govts (There are a a great many more that this of course. In fact the encircle the globe).
The last and most potent question of all that should have been asked is re the ally that has pushed this legislation onto our plate. Would we trust the US Govt who have now confessed (outed) to spying wholesale on their own people and almost everyone else in the world for the last ten years (at least), and now they want us to help them spy on New Zealanders?
I think that all the sons who gave their lives to stop totalitarianism in its tracks would be rolling in their graves at the indecent haste and antidemocratic nature of this bill and how it has been passed. Why the press never mentioned the blindlingly obvious trail of untrustwory despots throughout history is quite beyond me. After all, they are there for all of us to see clear as day. Very odd the lack of memory nowadays?

by Lee Churchman on August 22, 2013
Lee Churchman

You may disagree with those answers, but journalists can only put them to the public, add as many facts as can be ascertained, and leave it for people to decide. It's not for most journalists to pick a side.

I think this is an incorrect, and somewhat idealistic view of what journalists should do (full disclosure – I am teaching media ethics at the moment). There's more to journalism than simply reporting the facts and leaving people to decide – it's no accident that this is the motto of Fox News. The facts presented in a news report are, of necessity, a subset of those available, and they don't mean much in and of themselves. Each individual has to select and assemble the facts into a narrative, but it is the job of journalists to do this for us – at least partially – precisely because they are in a better epistemic position than we are. You are already filtering of necessity: the point is to do it well and honestly.

Hence, one of the things we want you to do, is to recognise and call out flagrant bullshit, and this also includes holding public figures to account on the questions they refuse to answer. Letting a politician make their case without any accountability is wrong. You have the right to demand genuine answers from public servants, because we have the right to demand genuine answers from public servants, and you are our proxy. 

Flagrant bullshit cannot be allowed to stand without comment and analysis from the people reporting it. This is not editorial proper, but part of the function of journalists to convey the truth as they honestly see it to the general public. We can then take or leave what you say. It's no use trying to claim that there is a strong distinction between reporting and editorial, because such a distinction can't be unproblematically drawn. Where there are differences in widely shared political principles, it's fair to leave it to the viewers, but honesty is a core value without which the others have no meaning, so it can't be left aside if the subject of a report is being economical with the truth. 

And if anyone is going to claim that there is no truth of the matter, and that all interpretations are valid, then that person shouldn't really be a journalist. Those sorts of concerns matter properly in academic philosophy and not really anywhere else (where they tend to be misused and misappropriated).

In this case, Key has manipulated the media quite effectively because he knows that they won't really call him on it. For example: his refusal to answer Russell Norman's question about foreign funding should be taken most reasonably as an admission when taken alongside known facts about the NSA funding other intelligence agencies.

by Tim Watkin on August 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

Richard, I'm asking questions. I thought the point of Anne's piece was that journalists should be asking more of those. Damned either way, eh?

Anyway, here's one for you. Name one PM of any party - indeed in any western democracy - who has given operational details about spy agencies.

by Tim Watkin on August 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

Anne, the points about dangers to a small country are well made. On the other hand, we have had much more authoritarian leaders and spy agencies with no law at all... and survived those.

You're right about the sides and style of the debate, but I note again that those people all got good voices in the media.

My concern about coverage was largely the lack of a few details drilled into... the breadth of the warrants and the inclusion of economic interests (which is of course at the heart of what our spies do, but needs to be very carefully defined), for example.

by Katharine Moody on August 22, 2013
Katharine Moody

Dear Anne, thank you for speaking out. I generally wonder whether academia has been shy of coming forward or whether the media generally have not been seeking out academia enough in the addressing the many examples of the abuse of executive power that we are seeing used more frequently in our democracy. I'd have thought the Law Society report would have been picked up by the media immediately on its release - and I'd have expected it to be 6 o'clock news - not just print media coverage. The arbitrary use of executive power has been going on for some time - academic research (McLeay et al. for example) provides the empirical basis pointing to a far greater use of urgency in the House by the Key coalition governments than any of the predecessor MMP coalitions. The opposition also needs to concentrate more of its efforts on holding the executive to account as opposed to political point scoring. It is their responsibility to take the theatre out of Parliament. I get really annoyed by all the questions in the House which start out with "does the Minister have confidence..". Ask the hard questions up front and Ministers have no excuse for being unprepared in having to address those questions. The Parliamentary press gallery will then start reporting the non-theatrical exchanges, i.e. the real news about a contest of democratic rights in holding our executive to account. Judith Collins' recent dismissal of the Electroal Commissions recommendations regards changes to MMP is another case in point. I voted no change in that referendum with the expectation that MMP on being reviewed would be further considered/improved according to those recommendations. I see David Shearer has just resigned. A good, honest man but the fish stunt is a perfect example of what I mean about what is wrong with Question Time. Let's hope whomever replaces him is less worried about "sound bites" and more worried about holding the executive to account.     

by Tim Watkin on August 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

Paul, for me your comments are the sort that only undermine the campaign Anne has led. Are you serious comparing this law reform to the oppression, murder and corruption of Mugabe or Ghadaffi?

We have had spy agencies spying on New Zealanders for decades with fewer checks and balances provided for in this bill. Please explain to me how this bill somehow equates the GCSB with the KGB. Just one example.

by stuart munro on August 22, 2013
stuart munro

@Tim - an example - the bill seeks to retrospectively justify an illegal act - the Dotcom surveillance. No charges have been laid because the perpetrator is almost certainly the PM. The tradition of non objectionable leaders is to provide oversight to intelligence activities. The Mugabes, Stalins, Nixons and Keys instead make active internal politicised use of the power - as in the investigation into the early release of the Kitteridge report. Muldoon was on that slippery slope in his day too, just not as far down it.

by Richard on August 23, 2013

Anyway, here's one for you. Name one PM of any party - indeed in any western democracy - who has given operational details about spy agencies.

Name a western democracy that gave women the vote before NZ. Name a country that declared itself nuclear free before NZ. Someone has to be first.

by Richard on August 23, 2013

We have had spy agencies spying on New Zealanders for decades with fewer checks and balances provided for in this bill.

But the new bill doesn't do this. It legalises currently illegal behavior, it expands the GCSB's powers, it creates ambiguity about what is and is not legal, and reduces effective oversight. The "extented" oversight merely amounts to a proliferation of rubberstamps.

by Philip Grimmett on September 29, 2013
Philip Grimmett

Anne,  you are exceptional. I really admire  the quality of your argument.   Pity about the media,  but really, what do you expect.  Keep up the great work!  Where is academia in calling out this travesty?  Academic freedom? Haha. Press dependence haha! 

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