Hard News by Russell Brown


Fluency, ease of manner - and Norton Antivirus

If you are having trouble reconciling the Prime Minister who steamrolled John Campbell last night in an interview about the GCSB Bill with the Prime Minister who has previously spoken on the issue, you can forgive yourself. As far as I can recall, John Key has never previously demonstrated such fluency on the topic, or such a knowledge of the issues around the bill itself.

When he was required recently to chair the Parliamentary security committee that took submissions on the bill, he was dreadful. His questions tended towards "but what if there was a bomb and some people died?" and his statements might be summed up as "I know something you don't know". At one point he even proposed to a submitter that if people didn't want to be snooped on, they could just use encryption (not under his government's own Telecommunications Intercept Bill, they couldn't).

He didn't front in the House for the committee stages of the bill and he had Chris Finlayson do his talking at the second reading, and last weekend, under questioning  from Rebecca Wright, he insisted on talking about fish. So Campbell would have been understandably surprised by the PM who turned up last night. For that matter, he would have been surprised that the PM turned up at all. Key's office only confirmed the interview at about 4pm yesterday.

What happened was a study in media training. Key never let his interviewer settle into a question line. He rattled out well-briefed points -- some of them solid answers, others more in the nature of assertions -- and insisted ("we'll get back to that", "let me finish my last point") on finishing them even after Campbell had asked another question. Follow-up questions simply got lost as he moved on. He bridged expertly back to his talking points. 

When Campbell put it him that the only oversight built into the bill was the approval of either himself or a single official appointed by him, he flipped the question:

"Are you really seriously going to tell New Zealanders that the way the government is going to get around this is to corrupt a judge? Because that's a very serious allegation, and not correct."

"Prime Minister, wait a minute, you're putting words in my mouth."

Indeed, he was. Campbell could have done the same thing in putting the objections of the Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Sir Bruce Ferguson, the Law Society and the Privacy and Human Rights commissioners to Key. Instead of "Are you saying they're all wrong?" he could have said "Prime Minister, are you calling these people liars?" But he's not that kind of interviewer.

Other questions were reframed. When Campbell put it to Key that the GCSB's "information assurance" brief, the very basis on which it would be permitted to spy on New Zealanders and of who it can "assist", here or overseas, was so broad as to be "meaningless",  Key defined the question down.

"All they can do is protect you. So it's against malware or against a virus. No, let me finish, because it's really important that people understand this. On your computer at home home, you will almost certainly have Norton Antivirus or you will have some sort of anti-virus program that you've downloaded and paid money for. That is exactly what that is, at a much higher level."

To technically minded viewers, that analogy sounded risible. It might as well have been written in Comic Sans. But it was a very direct way past having to engage with the Law Society's nuanced qualms about the scope of the law.

And then there was the metadata question.

"Under the law, metadata's treated the same as content. Right? So there's no differentiation in the law. So to go and look at someone's email is the same as collecting their email. Right? So under the law the only way they can do that is providing assistance. And the only way they can do that is to those three agencies, mainly SIS, of which they did nine people per year over the last decade."

Close readers of the bill have actually taken a significantly different view of what  it says -- or doesn't say -- about metadata. They are firmly of the view that Section 14 does not offer protection in the case of metadata. The PM's assertion that "everything the GCSB does is legal" is quite beside the point.

Update: Thomas Beagle has identified the metadata issues quite concisely in comments here:

The clauses around the definition of communications and metadata have not changed since the 2003 GCSB Act. The Kitteridge Report revealed that the GCSB’s interpretation of this Act was that they could collect metadata without a warrant, she recommended that the law be changed to clarify this. This has not been done in the new bill. John Key’s assertions are not worth much when compared to the actual documented behaviour of the GCSB.

More to the point, the GCSB won’t have to. The ability for the GCSB to capture data for the purposes of cybersecurity (purpose 8A in the bill) is so wide that just a couple of access authorisations (signed by the PM and CSW) could give them access to everyone’s mobile and internet traffic.

You might say “Well, the PM says that they won’t be doing this” to which I respond with “If they don’t want to do that, let’s remove the ability to do it from the bill.”

And this, I think, is the problem. Unprecedented powers require unprecedented oversight and they warrant a long and careful conversation before they enter statute. Simply disagreeing with criticism -- or asserting that New Zealand does not do this kind of thing -- isn't actually good enough. Using urgency to pass such a bill isn't good enough and neither is loading in such significant changes after the select committee stage.

I can sympathise with John Campbell, who knew he was being run around and could barely contain his frustration at times. I've done a couple of interviews with media-drilled subjects in the past year and they're enormously frustrating. And they were at the lesser level of simply avoiding answering questions. Key did answer questions, and he controlled the interview well enough that his answer stood in lieu of any follow-up. That's much harder to do.

What we saw was the Prime Minister who often seems petulant, or just a doofus, demonstrating the ability that won praise for his  "fluency and ease of manner" in the Burnside High School debating team all those years ago. And fair enough: being able to carry an argument is a core competency of political leadership.

It is a competency that Key's chief political opponent, the Leader of the Opposition, seems to almost entirely lack. David Shearer has access to much the same kind of coaching as John Key, but even in an interview where he is under no pressure he will stumble and lose his train of thought. It's hard to see how he wouldn't be destroyed by Key in a one-on-one debate.

And if there is any thought that should be occupyng the minds of Labour Party MPs in the wake of last night's interview, it is that.

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