Dobbing In, Via Smart Phone
In the beginning there was the word. In the end there will be the video. Inbetween there is the smart phone. First, though, let’s clear away one of the big questions: why do we need state surveillance when we have neighbours?
One of the most depressing revelations, as this anti-coronavirus lockdown turns out to be everything it was cracked down to be, is the enthusiasm for dobbing in people suspected of flouting the so-called rules.
For the media, “flouting” has overtaken freedom camping, legless drinking and begging as the most newsworthy morally reprehensible behaviour du jour.
Ambiguity and confusion in the so-called rules has allowed dobbing-in to go freestyle, open to all amateur snitches with a phone.
Spot your local MP’s campaign van parked near the start of a mountain bike trail? Thanks to modern communications technology you don’t have to use your phone to call your local Australian-owned daily news organ and wait for them to send out a photographer and a reporter. Use the phone as a camera — some new models have as many as five cameras such is the degree of choice in a consumer society — and then use the phone’s connection to the internet to transmit the pic or video to your local Stasi, er, Stuff office.
The picture of the MP’s campaign van — in a remote carpark as in the opening scene of a Nordic Noir series about a refugee smuggling ring — can then be transmitted to the phone of the prime minister for comment.
On its own, a picture or video of an MP’s van in a remote carpark would not warrant publication, unless the MP had gone missing, been murdered or was the Minister of Health in the middle of an anti-coronavirus lockdown. That the van had been driven 2km to the carpark could not, in itself, even on a slow news day, be considered an especially egregious example of rule-flouting.
Riding a mountain bike over exactly the terrain for which it’s designed might seem to be riskier than riding it on a road or footpath. If there are statistics showing the numbers of cycling deaths and injuries on off-road trails compared to city streets, they are surprisingly hard to find. But, on the same day that the Health Minister drove his van 2km to ride his bike on a bush trail: a cyclist was killed on the road near his home in North Canterbury, reported to have been hit from behind by a van; another cyclist was injured in a collision with a train in Napier; and an elderly former senior news executive, reported to have been riding on the wrong side of the road in Greytown in the Wairarapa, suffered a serious head injury when he fell and hit his head on the curb, received mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from bubble-bursting passers-by and was choppered to hospital in Wellington.
The Health Minister, however, had risked more than being injured and causing downstream bubble bursting and putting further pressure on emergency services and his own health system. He had exposed the government to allegations of hypocrisy by failing to observe the same standards and rules as it was imposing on the population.
Among calls for the minister’s resignation, NewstalkZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan, in a commentary paradoxically titled “Perspective”, said that, although Clark’s actions should not cost him his job, the prime minister should nevertheless fire him because he had broken a rule.
In fact, Ardern’s health minister had actually been following her guidance almost to the letter. Rejecting calls from du Plessis-Allan and others wanting to see the minister’s head roll, the PM said: ”It's my expectation that ministers set the standards we are asking New Zealanders to follow.
"People can go outside to get fresh air and drive short distances if needed, but we have asked people to avoid activities where there is a higher risk of injury, and the minister should have followed that guidance."
Out in the country, where most New Zealanders live, 2km is a short distance and 20km is how far many people have to drive to get to the nearest supermarket. That was also the distance that the Health Minister travelled when, on the fourth day of the lockdown and four days before his bike ride, he drove his family out to the beautiful beach at Doctor’s Point in Blueskin Bay, near Waitati, about 20km north of Dunedin.
This time he dobbed himself in, coming clean about his outdoor activities when briefing the prime minister on the night before his appearance before the Epidemic Response Committee on Tuesday 7 April.
The trip to Doctor’s Point had been “a clear breach of the lockdown principles of staying local and not driving long distances to reach recreation spots,” the minister said in a statement.
Leaving aside the question as to whether 20km is a long distance in a car, the government’s Covid-19 guidelines also say “You can leave your house to access essential services, like buying groceries, or going to a bank or pharmacy, or to go for a walk, exercise and enjoy nature.”
Where better to enjoy nature than a beach? What better place to self-isolate and maintain your bubble?
“Make the lockdown journey your own” suggested the headline on a double-page spread in the Sunday Star-Times Escape magazine of 29 March. “Head to your local park, riverbank, beach, forest or farm, to enjoy some botany, bird-spotting, cloud-watching, or maybe a jolly good roll in the hay”. Maybe not; “social distance” guidelines and all that.
His offer to resign rejected by his prime minister, Clark proceeded to take self-abasement to a whole new level. “As the Health Minister it’s my responsibility to not only follow the rules but set an example to other New Zealanders,” he said.
“At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I’ve let the team down. I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me.”
Probably not. Outside the bubble known as Wellington, the furore over the wayward health minister quickly became just another of the many bizarre anomalies thrown up by the government’s Covid-19 lockdown.