Hard News by Russell Brown

Man of Mystery?

The news that one of the sources for the Sunday Star Times' SIS scoop is international man of mystery - and apparent fabulist - Jack Sanders certainly casts a new light on the story.

The Sanders story appears in this morning's Herald, whose journalists presumably pricked up their ears when they heard Whititera Kaihau describe how he had thought he was emailing Nauru's embassy in Beijing, only to discover, courtesy of the Star Times' reporters, that his emails were in fact going to two men in Hamilton.

Kaihua also claimed he had been invited by his mystery man to supply passports for misuse, and yesterday said, improbably, that the spies monitoring him had somehow hacked a book order he placed over the Internet and deleted a British law book from it.

A Herald backgrounder this morning notes that Sanders was last year "involved in a series of bitter claims and counter-claims over the alleged sale of illegal Nauruan passports," and made claims about the activities of Israeli spy Zev Barkan that were not borne out.

The Herald came across Sanders in May 2003, when he was officially charge d'affaires of the Beijing Embassy of Nauru, and peddling a startling story about the embassy being used as part of a secret plan to smuggle North Korean defectors to the West.

He was "said to be a representative of the American government" in another Herald story in August last year. In a story from The Australian last November, Sanders popped again up as "ostensibly an employee of US think tank the Hudson Institute," with an influential position within the Bush administration

I'm in no position to venture on the merits of other aspects of the SST story, but the emergence of Sanders as a source does seem to damage its credibility.

PA reader Gregor Ronald also provided an observation on the apparent bugging of Tariana Turia's phone before she left the Labour Party:

Why hasn't someone pointed out to Tariana Turia that when the SIS bug her phone they'd do it at the local Telecom exchange? The person who fiddled with the wiring on her household phone and caused noise to come through the radio was probably just someone in her household trying to get the thing to work. Or someone who selected a bad channel on her cordless handset. Or another Maori political competitor who's not very clever with the screwdriver... Think cockup before conspiracy, and you'll usually be right.

Tony Cochrane, chair of V8 race promoter Avesco, should pull his head in. His insulting comments since three independent commissioners rejected Auckland's proposed V8 race yesterday are just a bit too rich. Ditto for councillor Scott Milne.

If they really wanted Auckland to host the racing they shouldn't have proposed such a manifestly stupid site for it: a site that straddled some of the most vulnerable points in the city's transport infrastructure and, among other things, ran within a few metres of many residential properties and encircled a major New Zealand Post depot.

The fact that the old council, with all its resources and the manic support of the mayor, couldn't put together a credible proposal for the management of traffic and other issues rather clearly indicates that the idea was not sound in the first place. The fact that they made the original planning application without Transit NZ or the North Shore City Council on board only made it sillier. If anything sends a "bad message" to international promoters, it's the council's ineptitude in the first place.

Let's be clear about this: the council wanted to become a joint promoter in a race that would have imposed a substantial burden of cost and inconvenience on both residents and business who had nothing to gain from it. Are the race boosters really saying they had no rights?

The commissioners' report notes the heavy reliance in the proposal on "traffic suppression" (ie: telling Aucklanders not to use their cars) and "the lack of any form of contingency plan" should the promised level of suppression not be achieved. It noted a "distinct prospect of gridlock" around several points on the circuit (which touches access roads from three motorways), and found that residents as far away as the motorway feeder roads on the North Shore were likely to be affected, possibly seriously. And it described advice for residents to "pack up and leave town" as "an extraordinary means of mitigating the adverse effects of an event and simply not acceptable in the context of this application."

Readers may also be interested in Crikey's story last month about the politics and cock-ups around racing on Australia's Gold Coast, where the mayor was adamantly opposed. The annual race carnival attracted a record 309,000 spectators, but the state government, which subsidises the event to the tune of $11 million, refused to reveal the evidence for its claim that it provided $50 million in economic benefit for the state. Cochrane was spraying abuse at local authorities again.

Even an editorial on the local pro-V8 racing site V8fastalk in September declared that Cochrane "badly needs some tuition in the New Zealand character. The type of teaching that would inform him that New Zealanders do not respond well to threats, empty or otherwise, especially when they come from overseas." It continued:

The initial thumbs-down from planning commissioners spoke volumes of the lack of work by the race promoters. Undoubtedly, they have a marvellous product on their hands, one that would breathe life into the inner-city area. But it is still yet to be shown that feasible alternative transport can be arranged, and that the race will deliver significant economic benefit.

Despite some inflated claims by the Auckland City Council, that benefit now appears to be just $2.7 million to $4.1 million. Yet Mr Cochrane continues to portray Avesco as a kind of misunderstood benefactor. Why, he asks, cannot Auckland just accept this "gift". In reality, the company wants the race to be held in Auckland, and, whatever the threats, would be reluctant to go elsewhere. The city council package, including a $3.5 million interest-free loan, is undoubtedly highly attractive. As is the factor of New Zealanders' appreciation of, and participation in, this Australian event. The reception for V8 Supercars would be nowhere near as fulsome in Dubai or Cape Town. The loss if the event were to go to another city would not, as Mr Cochrane, suggests, be New Zealand's alone. Just as surely, it would be Avesco's.

Righto: that's my lot. I have a Wire show to prepare for, and - more challengingly - the second Flying Nun Pub Quiz tonight. As a team captain, I guess I face the potential for embarrassment if my recall of Nun trivia proves to be inadequate. And after being robbed on account of our star player's poor diction last time, we really need to stand up and dish it out.

But I'm sure it'll be a laugh again. It's at the King's Arms in Auckland, at 8pm tonight, and it's free. Y'all should come on down. You might even win a Christmas ham …