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For Some of Our Media, Signing And Speeding Trump Spying

For Some of Our Media, Signing And Speeding Trump Spying

by Branko Marcetic

Given the magnitude of the latest GCSB revelations, it wasn’t surprising to see the Prime Minister liberally borrow from his own damage control playbook in order to shut the story down. The disclosures, reported by Nicky Hager and the Intercept, revealed a host of embarrassing and unpleasant truths about what our spy agencies get up to behind the curtain of national security-mandated secrecy: that the GCSB has been indiscriminately vacuuming up data about all residents in our friendly Pacific neighbours; that it has then been sending all of this data to the NSA; and that none of this appears even remotely to be aimed at combating terrorism.

What was more surprising – though perhaps should not have been – is how the Prime Minister’s minimisation of the significance of these revelations was assisted by some in the New Zealand media. A number of our more notable media entities’ editorial departments took pains to toe a remarkably similar line to Key; namely, insisting that the disclosures were a non-event, and that there is no problem with the mass trawling of innocent civilians’ data is.

The Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan urged Key to simply explain to the New Zealand public what the GCSB’s indiscriminate scooping up of data on any and all residents in the Pacific is really about. It was a perfect time to explain to the public the true nature of the perils the GCSB was busy facing down, and once this was explained, New Zealanders would surely pledge their unyielding support to the agency. Some of the imagined threats O’Sullivan suggested the wholesale collection of any and all data “may well be” about included money launderers, P-manufacturers, those plotting government overthrows, and of course, terrorists. “Key could save himself a great deal of angst if he explained simply to New Zealanders why this country participates in international security arrangements and what's at stake if it doesn't,” concluded O’Sullivan.

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This was very mild compared to the Listener’s 21 March editorial, which dismissed the leaked documents as “allegations” that were being “trotted out” to influence the Northland by-election. The magazine re-iterated the supposed irony of “using illicitly obtained data to accuse others of illicit data collection” – ignoring the wide gulf between leaking government documents that are in the public interest and stealing and storing a stranger’s emails – and wrote off Hager’s as “the minority view.” It concluded by stressing the importance of the GCSB’s efforts to New Zealand’s paternalistic duty to protect smaller countries from terrorism, and stated that only once evidence comes out that spies are misusing data would these leaks be worth listening to – despite the fact that the misuse and abuse of surveillance data by the NSA is already well-documented.

Finally, there was John Roughan, longtime Herald editorial writer and unofficial Key biographer. Roughan was scathing of Nicky Hager’s “campaign against our natural security alliance”, dismissing the revelations as having “no shock and awe. It was “hard to see that [the GCSB’s mass spying] is inherently wrong.” Hager’s outrage was misplaced, wrote Roughan, given that New Zealand had been passing intelligence about the pacific to western allies since at least the 1980s. Of course, the actual reports about the spying made this clear, explicitly noting that what was different about the GCSB’s actions since 2009 is the passing of wholesale information on to the Five Eyes network, rather than targeted communications as it had done in the past.

In reality, the latest disclosures from the Snowden documents are hugely significant. The fact that our spy service is indiscriminately hoovering up every bit of information, from phone calls and emails to metadata, about innocent people in friendly countries would be scandalous enough, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is also almost certainly indiscriminately hoovering up data on New Zealanders in those countries, too. This fact further throws into disrepute numerous claims by our Prime Minister that we don’t conduct mass surveillance, words he had once promised to resign over and has now back-tracked on. It also calls into question our highly touted claim to an ‘independent foreign policy’, given that the GCSB is effectively acting as an outpost of the NSA, sending all of the data it scoops up directly to the US spy agency.

It’s also worth noting that the idea that any spying we do on friendly countries is unquestionably morally sound is rather disingenuous. We would be justifiably resentful if we found out an ally or nation we had friendly relations with had been secretly collecting data on our political leadership and innocent civilians – for proof of this, one need only think back to the outrage generated in 2011 when it was widely alleged that Israeli spies had hacked into the police national computer.

In fact, if we go even further back, we can remind ourselves about just the kind of matters our media does consider vitally important, newsworthy political disclosures. It’s particularly notable to compare this relative indifference by some in the media – as well as the apparent lack of interest among the public – to some of the scandals which plagued the previous government. When Helen Clark was in power, there seemed to be no limit to the number of – often trivial – scandals that would morph into national obsessions. When Clark’s motorcade was caught speeding in 2004 in order to arrive on time to a Bledisloe Cup test match, there was breathless debate about just how much Clark did and didn’t know about the speed she was travelling – could she see the speedometer? Was she really sitting in the backseat working, or was she more aware of her surroundings? Clark’s political opponents also used the incident to question her leadership.

The results were similar a few years before, when it came out that Clark had signed her name on a number of paintings she hadn’t painted in order to help them sell at a charity auction. The story dominated the news, with breathless headlines talking about “art fraud” and the Prime Minister’s “art forgeries.” Then-leader of the National Party Bill English, trailing in the polls, seized on the event to express his utter shock and criticise Clark for her “slithering dishonesty.” John Roughan, today unconcerned about the GCSB’s actions and Key’s misleading of the public, was just as appalled at Clark’s actions, writing two editorials on the subject. “It really was a shocker,” he wrote. He complained about New Zealand’s “compliant” media not being tough enough on Clark, and believed the episode was illustrative of not simply dishonesty, but worse, “a deeply ingrained, all-pervasive cynicism.” He elaborated:

Cynicism is dangerous in a Prime Minister, particularly an absolutist leader like this one, not so much because it is unattractive but because it breeds assumptions that can lead the Government astray.

It’s a markedly different tone to that which greeted some of the Key government’s more high-profile slip-ups, from the GCSB disclosures to the Dirty Politics saga, which tend to be dismissed by commentators like Roughan as irrelevant distractions. It’s a state of affairs that parallels the way in which National and its supporters were all in favour of Nicky Hager and John Campbell ‘ambushing’ Helen Clark in 2002 with what would come to be known as “Corngate”, but suddenly saw it as election-season meddling and character assassination when he did the same to Key last year.

This is not to say that these Clark-era scandals were entirely insignificant and deserved to be ignored. But did they deserve more outrage and sustained media attention than issues such as our government’s spying on innocent civilians, its repeated obfuscation and misleading statements about the actions of our spy agencies, or the nature of our foreign policy? Looking at the contrast in the way these stories have been treated, it would appear so. Those hoping that dirty politics, lying to the public or illegal spying will spell the end for Key are optimistic - if anything leads to his downfall, it’s more likely to be parking tickets he uses his prime ministerial privilege to make disappear.


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