Hard News by Russell Brown

Meanwhile on Planet Whacko

I'm sorry, but this is getting silly. In Parliament yesterday Bill English accused all 35 chief executives of government departments - many of them appointed under the last National government - of corruption. They had, he claimed, colluded to prevent the release of a memo from State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham in the wake of the original Corngate allegations.

This is an extraordinary allegation, and one that ought not be made in pursuit of mere political mileage. I managed to get a copy of Wingtringham's memo, which is dated 4.18pm, July 12, 2002: two days after the launch of Nicky Hager's Seeds of Distrust and the accompanying TV3 broadcast, a day after a media conference in response to the book and several hours before the 1800 pages of internal documents relating to the Corngate events of November and December 2000 were publicly released as per the Prime Minister's undertaking.

Never mind whether it was suppressed as part of a conspiracy embracing the entire public service, it's actually hard to see how it could have been released along with all the other documents, given that at the time it was sent (let alone read), those documents had been collated and were actually being photocopied for that evening's release. When Steven Price made an OIA request four months later, for his Metro story, it was released.

Wintringham's memo concerned the previous day's media briefing, at which a number of senior civil servants spoke. Now, no one in Opposition parties or the media objected to that conference taking place. Quite the reverse - there was a clamour for people to front up.

But, said Wintringham, one public servant had been uneasy that the conference had taken place. He quoted the official's exact wording in an enquiry to his staff:

I understand that public servants have to be seen to be politically neutral and that this applies even more during an election campaign. Do you think it is ethical to have the current government request senior public servants to reject assertions in a book, when these assertions are damaging to the government? The appearance may be that that these public servants are no more than political puppets, especially since what they are now saying is different to what official papers at the time said.

In his memo, Wintringham further quoted "the substance of the reply" to the official's email, for the reference of his department heads. This is the part that Bill English, um, suppressed in Parliament yesterday, and it went as follows:

Explaining the work of Government departments is a normal role for senior Government officials. You are right that this needs to be handled with particular care in a pre-election period and you'll have seen that the State Services Commissioner provided the "umbrella" for yesterday's media conference. This was precisely to ensure that the briefing was limited to the provision of full and accurate, but non-political, information from the Public Service to to the media and other enqurirers (including interested political parties). The briefing did not include the participation of any politicians, nor did it defend or criticise any particular party policies. In addition, the Commissioner saw merit in providing a platform for officials to explain their own actions: the Hager book contains unfair and ill-founded criticisms of public servants.

Okay, so what does Steven Price, the journalist who actually requested and obtained the documents on which National is basing its conspiracy theory, think? I asked him this morning:

I wouldn't have expected the document to have been released. My interpretation of what the PM said was that all the information relating to Corngate from November-December 2000 and early 2001 would be released, even though she said "release everything." I got the rest of it because I specifically asked for documents relating to the handling of the issue when it emerged after the election. About half of the 184 documents released to me related to that period rather than 2000-2001, and many of those that related to 2000-2001 were drafts of documents that had been released and fairly inconsequential emails (though there were some very significant documents, I thought, including the memos to the PM, and some other things that have yet to be "released" by National.)

At least one public servant was uneasy about the media briefing, a possibility that, Steven points out, was flagged at the time by commentator Colin James. I still can't help but feel that had the officials not fronted for the media, people would have been crying "cover up!". Anyway, Steven says:

I think it's ridiculous to suggest that there was some collusion between all the departmental heads over this email. (I do note though, that none of the officials involved in any of the relevant departments were permitted to talk to me, including Ruth Wilkie, when I asked to interview them for my article. I can't help but think there was some coordination going on there.)

I think the government deserves to take a hit for the way it handled Corngate, including its blanket denials during the election, but National is suggesting wrongdoing on a galactic scale that just isn't supportable by the documentary evidence. It's really very clear from the documents what went on during Corngate. Incredibly, the political debate doesn't seem to be getting near it.

Last word?

The whole debate has spun off onto planet whacko.

Frankly, I'm with Trevor Mallard and the Public Service Association on this one. English's stunt yesterday was disgraceful.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we all depend on the rest of the media to report this stuff. Unmediated access to the documentation - a la the Hutton Inquiry website - would have helped a lot.

Speaking of which a - safely retired - intelligence official appears to have explicitly borne out the claims in Andrew Gilligan's original BBC story: intelligence officials were uncomfortable with the language in which the weapons dossier had been re-written, particularly that relating to the infamous 45 minutes claim. David Kelly would, he said, certainly have been aware of misgivings amongst intelligence staff.

Whatever games the BBC and Gilligan played subsequently - and Gilligan tipping off an MP as to the source of his colleague Susan Watts' report was incredibly unprofessional - the original report was not inaccurate.

Anyway, it appears that the New Zealand Army engineers in Southern Iraq will be depending on the competence of an amateur-hour "army" under the command of a couple of thousand Polish troops and featuring the noted military expertise of El Salvador and Mongolia. The Polish commander featured on BBC World last night seemed nonplussed, as well he might. This isn't a multinational peacekeeping force in any modern sense, it's playacting.

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland has a withering commentary on the Iraq adventure.

I clearly wasn't the only one to feel let down by Telecom's long-awaited announcement of its new JetStream products recently. An online petition asking that Telecom "provide New Zealanders with a more substantial and competitive service in the 'fast' (a.k.a. Broadband) Internet connection market" has attracted 2500 signatures. Paul Brislen has a story about it in Computerworld.

And, finally, I trust you're enjoying the speed of Public Address this morning: we're now on CactusLab's brand new server - dual Xeon 2.5GHz processors - and it's totally bitchin' …