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State Of It: Is The PM's 'Shoot The Messenger' Attack A Smokescreen?

State Of It: Is The PM's 'Shoot The Messenger' Attack A Smokescreen?

Opinion – By Selwyn Manning.

[Scoop note, 1/10/15: The NZDF statement referred to here has been the subject of a settlement between the NZDF and journalist Jon Stephenson. General Jones and the NZDF now accept that Mr Stephenson did in fact gain entry to the base and interviewed the CRU commander. See Agreed Statement Between NZDF And Jon Stephenson | Scoop News]

On Monday the Prime Minister John Key informed Parliament's press gallery journalists that there would be no independent inquiry into allegations that the NZ SAS handed over Afghani prisoners to US interrogation units and Afghanistan's security forces knowing that they were at risk of torture.

Then the Prime Minister attacked New Zealand's most awarded foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson saying he was not credible and adding that Stephenson had once impersonated TV broadcaster Duncan Garner to get Mr Key to call him.

The Prime Minister said: "I hung up on him because when people impersonate someone else I don't take them seriously," Mr Key said.

The Prime Minister added: "I just don't think he's credible. If you look at the assertions he's made in this article they're actually not supported by the investigation from the New Zealand Defence Force."

As the Prime Minister publicly attacked Jon Stephenson, Scoop subsequently went direct to Stephenson for his response.

Scoop can confirm that the attack by the Prime Minister - along with statements made by Rhys Jones, the chief of defence force - will possibly be the subject of legal action. Stephenson today confirmed he is seeking legal advice in that regard.

For the record: Jon Stephenson categorically rejects any suggestion that he impersonated 3News political editor Duncan Garner when Prime Minister Key returned his phone call. Stephenson says on answering, he identified himself immediately, and it seems he has a witness to that – notable political commentator Chris Trotter.

Jon Stephenson also categorically rejects the Prime Minister's claim that Stephenson contacted Key at 11pm. Stephenson says that statement is incorrect, and states his phone records can confirm this, as can Chris Trotter.

Finally, Stephenson categorically rejects Prime Minister John Key's claim that he hung up on Stephenson. Stephenson says they both had an amicable discussion that lasted for at least one minute - possibly two. He says there was no unpleasantry on either side. In fact, Stephenson says Key was “surprisingly friendly”.

Scoop understands that some time later the Prime Minister's press secretary Kevin Taylor filed a formal complaint with the Sunday Star-Times about the call where various allegations were made. The complaint – which Stephenson says was the first he had had as a journalist in more than a decade - was dismissed.

After Monday's post Cabinet press conference 'shoot the messenger' styled attack on Stephenson, press gallery journalists heard the Prime Minister dismiss as not credible the substance of the Metro Magazine investigation.

In Parliament on Tuesday (May 3 2011), New Zealand Defence Minister Dr Wayne Mapp replied to questions from Green Party MP Keith Locke: “ I am advised that people have been arrested by the crisis response unit on 24 occasions when New Zealand has been in support. I might note that the crisis response unit is accompanied by a prosecutor from the Afghan Attorney-General’s office, who actually authorises the arrests.”

Mapp added: “It is certainly acknowledged that there was mistreatment in 2002. That was complained of at the time by our senior officers present at the time. Subsequently over the years under the previous Government, which included the current Leader of the Opposition, procedures were improved on the part of the New Zealand Government in that regard. But essentially that is the responsibility of the United States Government, which realises of course that the events that occurred back then would not meet appropriate standards.”

And Mapp admitted that mistreating of Afghani prisoners was committed by United States personnel, stating: “Well, the mistreating authority was in fact the United States; surely the responsibility must lie with the United States, not New Zealand.”

These admissions match claims made in Stephenson's Metro Magazine report.

Certainly the public deserves to know the full facts underlying this situation.

This whole affair has now become an issue of both national and public interest. And as such it is a matter that ought to be beyond a lowly shooting the messenger attack.

Really (in media and political terms) that style of retaliation is the lowest form, the most unsophisticated, of governmental retaliation.

Since Monday we are left wondering:

    * What has the Prime Minister got to hide? Is the Prime Minister's position on this issue so thin he has to resort to insults of New Zealand's most awarded and recognised foreign correspondent in anattempt to gloss over this national interest issue?

    * Is this a case where the Prime Minister is too timid to allow an inquiry that would provide light onto this issue of national interest?

    From a fourth estate viewpoint, what this country needs is an independent inquiry that identifies the facts, and examines the decisions made by successive governments and defence officials.

    * This is vital, as New Zealand as a small independent liberal democracy, stands or falls on the strength of the morality of its argument. If the New Zealand Government has failed in this affair, then it has damaged this country's reputation, contaminated the essence of how New Zealand is perceived by other powerful states and institutions around the world.

    * By attacking Jon Stephenson, the motive behind the prime minister's communications strategy appears weak. Is it designed to erode confidence in the Metro report? Is the intention to mask what really went on?

Again, from a fourth estate point of view, all the Prime Minister's attacks do is exhaust the fourth estate's confidence in him as a prime minister. And besides that, shouldn't one give Governor General designate Jerry Mateparae the benefit of the doubt?

Certainly he ought to be given the opportunity to explain through a formal inquiry why he has not misinformed Parliament and the executive. As Governor General designate, Mateparae's values, honesty and credentials need to be beyond doubt.

There currently exists reasonable doubt surrounding this issue. The Prime Minister's insistence that he believes Mateparae's account and therefore we should trust him too, simply is not adequate. The population deserves to be assured of the facts founding this issue, after all facts are the foundation of public discourse.

It is simply appalling that the Prime Minister expects the thinking population to simply believe him; that all is ok, all the while he attempts to destroy the career of one of New Zealand's best journalists.

More information on the SAS prisoner operations will emerge from this affair.

Some say journalism is the first draft of history. If so, the Metro investigation is certainly a second draft of history. New Zealanders deserve to be assured that the third draft (that of the Government's account) is factual, truthful, and robust. With the Prime Minister refusing to allow an independent inquiry into this matter, the public cannot be assured whether our history is spin, fact or fiction.

Basically, the Prime Minister is saying, trust me because I trust the New Zealand Defence Force. Well, frankly no, it does not work like that.

In December it was revealed that official US Embassy files (leaked by Wikileaks) identified that the USA had a secret mole, a highly placed official, inside New Zealand Defence Force who was providing the United States with New Zealand Government, Cabinet, secret information. In mature democracies they call such people spies and traitors. On this issue, neither this government nor the New Zealand Defence Force publicly investigated this matter. Neither attempt publicly to identify the spy. It was wiped from our attention by the Christmas festive season.

Issues such as this, and the refusal to hold inquiries into such matters, cumulatively erode the public's confidence in both government and our Defence public servants.

If this is what is presented to us on the outside, what does it speak of the quality of governance on the inside?

Scoop can reveal that information emitting from inside the National Party, and its ACT bedfellow, is that John Key is tiring of being prime minister, he feels restricted by the Diplomatic Protection Squad (DPS) security presence surrounding him and the pressures of office; that he has considered an exit strategy, an option being to resign from politics two thirds of the way through the 2011-2014 term irrespective of whether he remains prime minister after the general election. With that in mind, and considering the future event once he leaves office, how will we as the public of New Zealand rate him as a prime minister? Will we draft history scripting that John Key was nothing more than a smiling, in-agile, and inept representative of the national and public interest?

In reality, the answers to such questions will be scripted by the Prime Minister's handling of matters of national and public interest. It may be worthwhile to remember, that the fourth estate, in reality, gets to have the last say.


ALSO: 95bFM Audio: Selwyn Manning & bFM's Kat Saunders – Is The PM's Muck-Raking Attack A Smokescreen?

  • 95bFM Audio:

    Selwyn Manning and 95bFM's Kat Saunders discuss whether the Prime Minister John Key's attack on investigative journalist Jon Stephenson is a 'shoot the messenger' smokescreen designed to redicule the journalist and discredit the Metro report that claims New Zealand's SAS combat unit handed over Afghani prisoners to US interrogation units and Afghanistan's security forces knowing they were at risk of being tortured.

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