Hard News by Russell Brown


A Work of Advocacy

Operation 8: Deep in the Forest, the documentary that tells the story of those charged after the 2007 "terror raids", is intelligent, articulate and surprisingly funny. It's also flawed and selective and I wouldn't have been comfortable with a juror seeing it.

Several interviews in the film unabashedly invite the audience to suspect a police agent provocateur in the ranks of the activists, or the fabrication of evidence, on the basis of past police actions. But the police, too, will argue propensity when they get their turn in court. Their case, too, will be selective.

I'm talking to the directors Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones on Media7 this week and one of the topics will be extent to which sub judice matters can be discussed in public so close to a trial. The boundaries are stretched in this film.

But the Dominion Post's crazy magnification of what is probably idle piss-talk caught on tape into assassination horror-headlines would have been hugely prejudicial, had it not been so long ago. (With the trials approaching, it's quite different now: we had to take out things the Prime Minister said on the 6pm news in 2007 when we looked at the story earlier this year.)

The best of quite a cast of commentators is Nicky Hager, who coolly explains how the police might make a shallow case look bigger by making it wider, layering on charges, casting ever-wider nets for evidence. At one point in the film, disclosure reveals that one thick folder of police evidence consists mainly of the entire script of the Vincent Ward film, The Rain of the Children, on which defendant Rongomai Bailey worked. Seriously?

I think the film crosses a line at quite a pivotal point. We see and hear Solicitor General David Collins say there is insufficient evidence for charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act and instruct the news media to take care in reporting the case. We do not hear him complain that the incoherent drafting of the law made it difficult for him to approve charges, or say "I wish also to stress that the police have successfully brought to an end what were very disturbing activities," and pay tribute to their "professionalism and integrity". These things are literally edited out of his statement.

This matters, because Collins is presented as almost the only honest broker in the Establishment. Wright quoted him approvingly in the Q&A session after last night's screening in Auckland, telling the audience Collins had declared the charges "a load of crap". Collins simply did not say that, even in lawyer-language.

Collins appears again in a really, really great sequence from the Dominion Post's contempt hearing, with the Solicitor General on his feet. It makes you realise how much drama we miss under standard TV video rules for courtroom coverage (which may, in general, be a good thing).

The film strongly implies that the Dom Post in particular was prodigiously leaked to by the police. Which it almost certainly was, and we should be very concerned about that. And yet, the copy of the leaked police affidavit still floating around on the internet (yes, I was surprised, no I'm not telling you where) was very probably leaked by defendant Jamie Lockett, who, ironically, tried to bring contempt action against the Dom Post for reporting the same leaked material.

Those charged, especially Urs Signer and Valerie Morse, come across as decent and likeable (Morse, remarkably, is an interviewer as well as interviewee in the film). We learn a bit about who they are and where they come from. But although Lockett is interviewed sympathetically about his ordeal at the hands of the law, we don't learn anything of his past, which is assuredly not that of a high-minded activist. Whiri Kemara, who will be the focus of a good deal of police evidence, does not appear.

So, you get the picture. It's a work of advocacy, not journalism. At its best, it makes us question why we have a Terrorism Suppression Act, why it is policed the way it is and whether we let ourselves be spooked by the rhetoric of the post-9/11 years. It is persuasive in contending that the sprawling police investigation reached into lives of some people who were really no more than principled political activists, or just ordinary people. It made me think about a few other things that will not be proper to discuss until after the trial. And really, it just made me think. A documentary should aspire to that.


As I noted, this week's Media7 will feature an interview with the Operation 8 directors. I'll also talk to media lawyer Tracey Walker, who will discuss sub judice (the comprehensively-covered Scott Guy murder case will be another point of reference), and also last week's file-sharing bill.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow evening's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria St entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.

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