Hard News by Russell Brown


Playing the Man

We had not planned to invite Jon Stephenson to appear on Media7 again any time soon. Our feature show on his SAS story for Metro was, after all, fairly comprehensive. But he's back this week to discuss what appears to be a deliberate strategy on the part of the government to push back against his story by attacking him personally and questioning his credibility.

As Pablo has amply pointed out in a post on Kiwipolitico, "the government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely," even as Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has been acknowledging in the House "that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring."

Selwyn Manning covered the attacks too, noting that Stephenson has taken legal advice with respect to what has been said about him by both political leaders and Defence Force chief Rhys Jones.

Lieutenant General Jones' office is, we gather, hopping mad about our last show on the issue. We invited him to appear on this week's programme to discuss his claims about Stephenson, but he declined. But I'll be asking Jon to respond to the attacks on his credibility. And yes, I'll ask him about the Prime Minister and that phone call.

On Q+A, both Jon Johansson and John Pagani expressed the view that an inquiry into the issues raised by Jon Stephenson's story -- notably the questions it raised over the statements of our next governor general, Jerry Mataparae -- was essential, if not inevitable.

And David Beatson, writing on Pundit, further notes that Mapp has also presented a new line on the incident at the centre of Stephenson's story: the 2002 raid on the Afghan village of Band e Timur, telling Keith Lock in the House that: "It is certainly acknowledged that there was mistreatment in 2002. That was complained of at the time by our senior officers present at the time …"

As previously strongly-held positions flick over like this, it actually becomes difficult to tell what the government's stance on the questions is on any given day. An inquiry would at least offer the hope of an enduring account, rather than one that emerges piecemeal in response to political pressure.

We'll also be inviting Beatson on the show, to discuss the functions -- or dysfunctions -- of the Official Information Act. Media7 has made it known to Beatson that we have evidence that his OIA requests about New Zealand's role in Afghanistan were deliberately and systematically frustrated.

Jose Barbosa is also preparing a report which will incorporate No Right Turn's impressive survey of the performance of ministers, departments and public agencies in responding to OIA requests, beginning with public data on performance, then a rap for Trade and Climate Change minister Tim Groser on his office's terrible performance, and then the big table of ministerial performance, which is headed by Chris Finlayson (100% of requests served on time) and trailed by Gerry Brownlee (39.7%).

As David Farrar concluded in a post on the study: "Hopefully the sunlight will encourage more Ministers to meet the deadlines in future. They are a deadline – not a target."

No Right Turn's keeper, Idiot/Savant, is preparing another series of requests for June, so we'll see later in the year. Meanwhile, I/S offers the following observations:

The Act generally works well.  It's led to a massive opening up of government, and routine disclosure of material which would never be seen overseas (Cabinet documents etc).  I'm constantly amazed by the amount of material I can get back - for free - by sending a simple email.

Problems happen when Ministers get involved.  If you ask for anything politically controversial, they will stick their grubby little paws all over it and try and frustrate your request.  They will wilfully misinterpret to exclude interesting information, delay, redact, whatever it takes to protect their political hides.  And the public servants working in their offices are not in a position to say "sorry, Minister, but the law says you can't do that". 

The Ombudsman is incredibly helpful - and free.  If a response is late, filing a complaint results in someone getting a kick up the arse and a response appearing in short order.  If a withhold looks dodgy, you can look up their practice guidelines, find out how the law should be applied, and complain if it has been applied incorrectly.

The police are the worst department to deal with.  The staff are untrained and naturally secretive.  They do not believe in the public's right to know.  Some seem to view OIA requests as evidence of criminality (one request I made about police policy in Northland resulted in a phone call from the local police, who had been asked to "check up on me" by their friends up north).

Always include a phone number and invite responders to contact you with any queries.  This reduces misunderstandings, allows them to let you know of delays, and can result in some fascinating conversations about what information is available.

And with respect to the SAS story and Beatson's failure to obtain meaningful information under the Act, I/S says:

I've found anything to do with Defence an OIA nightmare.  They just don't seem to care.

And I don't think that's really good enough.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow's recording, we'll need you to come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15pm and 5.40. Try and drop me an email to let me know you're coming.

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