OnPoint by Keith Ng


Beyond 'a bad look'

This is adapted from a speech made last Thursday at the Future of Journalism and Our Democracy event hosted by the Centre for NZ Progress and the NZ Fabian Society. Significant changes have been made from Thursday's version a) in response to comments, b) because this is a different audience and medium, and c) because I had time on the flight home and I felt like it.


After the election last year, I wrote this post on why the media failed over Dirty Politics. Not just because Key won the election, but also because Katherine Rich is still sitting on the Health Promotion Authority, because Jason Ede got swept under the carpet, and because Judith Collins didn't actually face any consequences for any of the things she did in Dirty Politics – she just got fired accidentally, over something which wasn't even in Dirty Politics.

The response I got was really interesting. Journalists said that it's not their job to change governments or influence politics, they're just there to report the facts. And it's a really compelling argument: After all, if they're trying to change governments, we'd accuse them of political bias, and lose trust their reporting. What this means in practice is that their job is to report the facts, but the outcome is up to the voters.

But there's a problem with this logic. Put it this way, let's say a hundred people are put on trial and none of them are convicted. Were the trials fair? Maybe. The answer is actually “we don't know”. We don't know if any of those people deserve to be convicted. But what we do have there is an idea of what “deserve to be convicted” means. It's an ideal of justice which relates to the outcome, and it allows us to question the processes.

If we assume that simply “reporting the facts” is living up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate, regardless of the outcome, we're conflating the processes with the ideals. This would leave us with no way of challenging the processes, or ask how the process ought to evolve to better serve those ideals.

What are those ideals? There's a role for journalism to provide information, to bear witness to human stories, to act as the first draft of history, but when we talk about the Fourth Estate, we're talking about a very specific aspect of journalism.

When we use terms like “speaking truth to power”, we don't mean speaking any old truths to nobody in particular. It means forcing the powerful to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and holding them to account. It's more than just saying it and walking away.

When we say the Fourth Estate is “vital to democracy”, we mean that it has a vital role to play in maintaining the checks and balances of power in a democratic state. That's not a role for a passive observer. Power needs to be exercised to keep another power in check, and the very act of keeping another power in check is an exercise of power.

These are the goals of the Fourth Estate, and the ideals it ought to be measured against.

When truth is spoken to power and the powerful evade, lie, and shrug with a “I'm pretty relaxed about that”; when we know vindictive ministers, industry lobbyists and finance company directors run black ops campaigns for fun and profit; when we know these things, it's not enough to ask whether it was fairly reported.

We need to ask, was truth spoken to power in a meaningful sense? Were they held accountable? Did the Fourth Estate act as a check against abuses of power?

And if these things didn't occur, but the reporting was fair, what does that say about the process of “fair reporting”?

The idea that objective reporting isn't objective at all is very well-trodden. Basically, nobody is in the business of only reporting facts. The process of selecting which facts to include and which to exclude, of deciding how to organise and present them, these are inherently subjective processes. We call them “stories” because they're not just a collection of facts, but a meaningful interpretation of facts.

I want to focus on the kind of interpretations made by many political journalists – not all, but many – who editorialise: Instead of saying “they've done a bad thing” and explaining why, they say it's “a bad look”. Every action is interpreted in terms of its political repercussions.

Sometimes they do it because they know the story is bullshit. It's meaningless political theatre and the only way to justify why it's newsworthy is to say “it's a bad look”. Sometimes it's the opposite. They do it because they feel strongly about a story and don't want to open themselves up to accusations of bias.

But this is precisely what makes their judgement so important to the story. We all feel that uneasy about political actors planting stories against each other in the media, and the role that the media play in facilitating their machinations. But whether running those stories is legitimate comes down to a journalist's judgement of why it ought to matter to the public.

It's not enough for journalists to assure us in the abstract that they make these judgements when Cameron Slater comes to them with a tip. Their rationale for why stories should matter to the public need to become a part of the output of journalism as well, both as a form of accountablity, and as a narrative device.

Saying “it's a bad look” cannot replace that. Who exactly is doing the looking? The Eye of Sauron? They're trying to fill a judgement-sized hole without actually making a judgement. Instead of speaking as a human being, they speak on behalf of the floating eye of a faceless voter. What does this faceless voter want?

The same thing any of us would want if we had our values, our interests, our faculty for moral judgement scooped out of our brains: We would want the the best politician. That apparently means “good political management”, it means politicians who have “momentum”, the one capable of “a good look”, the one capable of making their opponents have “a bad look”.

These are all words which describe the kind of media coverage a politician is getting. In other words, our political editorials describe politicians in terms of the coverage they're getting in political editorials. It's just a self-referential circle-jerk.

The other thing that they use as a replacement for their own judgement are proxies. They quote anyone who's willing to answer the phone and say “yeah that's a bad thing”, regardless of what the question is. There's the issue of false balance, which again is well-trodden territory. But I want to focus on the systemic weakness that it creates.

By refusing to put their own judgements as human beings into a story, they create a narrative vacuum, and then they fill that vacuum with people like Jordan Williams. There's an entire industry of people like him who set themselves up to fill that vacuum, so they can control the narrative for their own private gain, or for the private gain of the people they serve. And they're invited to do so by journalists.

Journalistic integrity is supposed to be about fairness and honesty. But here's the ironic thing: In their effort to demonstrate their fairness and honesty, they've decided to stop exercising their own narrative power, and to hand it over to everyone but themselves. To politicians, to pundits, to lobbyists, to straight up sociopaths. To people who have no loyalty to fairness or honesty.

But the even greater problem is that journalism doesn't think that it is its job to fix this problem. I think the cause is that they think of their role as carrying out the process of journalism, rather than serving its principles. But being wedded to those processes means that the tactics that Big Tobacco were using fifty goddamn years ago still work today. It means that we can see and know and understand what the spin industry does, but we still can't develop an immunity to it.

If journalism was about telling self-evident truths – i.e. Reporting the facts – trust wouldn't be need. But trust is needed because truths are often difficult, or complex, or contested, and these truths are told through the narrative. If the Fourth Estate is to speak truth to power, it needs to wrestle that narrative control back from the people who want to exploit it.

And if it doesn't, it ought to stop claiming to be the Fourth Estate.



Sometimes, you ought to judge a book by it's cover. It's kinda why they put a cover on it.

David Fisher notes that in one of Ian Fletcher's last speeches as the director of the GCSB, he quoted from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Fletcher described Hobbes' social contract as:

It is where you and I give up our private right to violence to the state in return for a framework of order.

At this point, I'd like to show you a picture of a leviathan:

Hobbes didn't name his book after a biblical sea monster because it's a nice treatise on social contracts signed over a cup of tea, but because it's an argument for an all-consuming *absolute* sovereign - a giant beast that will swallow us whole. i.e. This dude, lording Godzilla-like over us all:

Hobbes' logic was that:

  1. Being brutally murdered is the worst thing that can happen to you
  2. The state is the only thing that can stop you from from being brutally murdered (well, most of the time)

... therefore, we ought to be prepared give any and all rights (except for our lives) over to the state, so that it can protect us. That's not "the private right to violence", but everything. Everything we have, everything we can give, everything which makes us who we are. This is what is depicted on the cover of Leviathan.

The point here is not to gripe about the former GCSB director misinterpreting 17th century political philosophers, but to understand where Hobbes' logic led him, and where our current terrorists-under-the-bed logic leads us.

If we assign absolute priority to security as Hobbes does, then by definition we are prepared to give up everything for it, as Hobbes argued we should. Are we prepared to give up everything?

There's the old Ben Franklin quote:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Underneath the fiery give-me-freedom-or-give-me-death rhetoric, he left enough wiggle room to trade freedoms for safety, as long as the freedoms weren't essential or the safety more than temporary.

It's a pragmatic approach which recognised that safety is important, but not absolute, and that our freedoms are worth a lot. It's a trade-off, which seems far more reasonable than Hobbes' idea that we should cling to safety, whatever the cost.

So how do we decide which freedoms we are willing to trade for security? Hobbes' answer was that we already have. By entrusting the state with our security, we have implicitly asked it to take all steps necessary to provide us with security. i.e. We've written a blank cheque, and it's up to the state to decide which freedoms to take.

The Leviathan does not comment on security matters. It just does it.

Hobbes was describing an ideal absolute monarch, but that was where we were at, pre-Snowden. We entrusted the security apparatus with security, and they did whatever they deemed necessary. We had no say in deciding whether we are prepared to give up these freedoms, because we had no idea that we were giving them up in the first place.

But post-Snowden, we get to see the sum on blank cheque we signed.

Maybe the price isn't so high, because privacy of communications isn't really an "essential liberty". That seems to be a common sentiment. But consider how batshit that idea is in the context of the Cold War. Freedom from mass surveillance was one of the defining features of liberal democracies, a feature which set them apart from police states. It was important because it set clear boundaries on state power; beyond that boundary was the space where private citizens could go about their lives freely. The state had no business in our homes, in our communications, in our minds. That was what we meant by freedom.

What does it mean now?

We mythologise wars and the courage to die for freedom. Simultaneously, we are unfazed to give up those freedoms, because of the fear of terrorist attacks. Which one are we? What do we value?


Sunlight Resistance

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. It always seemed like a self-explanatory concept: Wrongdoing is exposed, wrongdoers scuttle back into the shadows.

But what happens when you crank up the sunlight, and the brightly-lit assholes just stand there staring back at you, giving you the fingers?


The score so far is grim.

Consider what we know about Judith Collins: Her facilitating (or maybe outright commissioning) of character assassination against a civil servant, her appointment of Slater's accomplice Aaron Bhatnagar, her "tip-line" contributions, her nonchalance at being told Slater was getting a piece of evidence by Police to discredit people who had charges against them dropped (quote: "Oh gosh, what a shock."), and of course, Oravida.

Keep all of that in mind, then consider this: She survived all of that.

Judith Collins resigned by accident, the day before Matt Nippert's piece on Mark Hotchin came out. Key believed (incorrectly, it turned out) that Nippert had evidence linking Collins to Hotchin's campaign, and pushed her before the story hit. This wasn't Key looking for an excuse to fire Collins over what was already known. Her resignation came because of what Key thought was coming.

If they waited another 24 hours to act, Collins would still be a minister right now. This was no victory for sunlight, just a fortuitous fuck-up.

Ede's departure is obviously a result of Dirty Politics, but he was just (to borrow a word) a henchman. He was the link between Key's office and Slater, and he managed to hide for the entirety of the campaign, having never said a word about how much Key knew.

That he has resigned is better than nothing, but it's not accountability in any substantive sense. The people who gave the orders were never held to account, and Ede's career isn't dead - he is simply metamorphosing into the next stage of his lifecycle, into something further away from the public eye, like Carrick Graham or Simon Lusk.


Journalists haven't been lazy this election, nor have they been biased. They hit Dirty Politics hard for weeks, and they're pretty indignant at people heaping scorn on them. I feel for you, guys, but you need to look at this from the outside. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant" is supposed to be a description of your job, your role in the democratic process.

And you have failed. It might not be your fault, but nonetheless, you have failed.

"Asking the hard questions" is a means, not an end. People hold up Guyon Espiner's interview with Key as a fantastic piece of political journalism. It was certainly engaging. But (to borrow a phrase) at the end of the day, it was just Espiner yelling at Key for not answering any goddamn questions. And while Key sounded like a dick, he won - no amount of yelling could make Key say anything apart from his scripted lines. Despite continual pressure over the following weeks, Key successfully avoided questions about how much he knew about Ede's involvement with Slater and delivered his lines to discredit Hager and distance himself from Slater.

"Key sounding evasive in an interview" is not meaningful success; but failing to get a single honest answer is meaningful, abject failure. We are so used to never getting a straight answer out of politicians, we don't even see it as the point of interviews anymore!

To get some perspective of how bad things are, we virtually considered it a victory when he declared Judith Collins to be "unwise". A minister who legislated against cyberbullying conspired to send a mob of cyberbullies towards a civil servant, lied about it then got found out. "Unwise." That was the closest journalism got to holding anyone accountable this election.

I appreciate that this isn't the fault of journalists. You asked tough questions. You reported the answers faithfully. It's not your job to swing elections...

...except it kinda is.

This goes to the heart of Key's line about Hager and Greenwald - that it is wrong for journalists make stories political issues during election time, that elections are times for politicians to speak, and the media's proper role is simply to report what they say. It sounds reasonable and straightforward, except it's at odds with the media's responsibility to hold politicians to account. The only leverage journalists have to do this is political, and that leverage is strongest during an election campaign.

I'm not saying this is something political journalists should do. I'm saying this is what political journalists already do. I felt I had to say it anyway because "journalists trying to swing elections" seem like dirty phrase, but when you think about it, it is what they do everytime they "hold someone to account" for bad behaviour - they make it hurt like hell politically.

Think of it this way: If a Gallery journalist broke Dirty Politics and Key lost the election, would they say that it had nothing to do with them because it's not their job to sway elections, or would they claim the shit out of that scalp and put it in the trophy room?

I'm also stating it explicitly because the connection needs to be made: National's landslide victory means that the media's reporting of Dirty Politics has had no effect. The media had no power to punish politicians for bad behaviour.

This is why people are being dicks to you, journalists. They only see the failure, not the effort. You can't blame them for not giving you points for effort. And if you show no sign that you share their concerns at the failure, then of course they're going to think you didn't care in the first place.


Reasonable people can disagree about why the media failed.

It could be that the Left were just abysmal fuck-ups - so even when people were convinced National was doing bad things, they refused to vote for the alternative. If this was true, I think it would be quite genuinely not the media's fault.

Or maybe these things simply take a long time to play out. Nixon won by a landslide after Watergate because it took a long time for the complex allegations to crystalise, and longer still for it to pierce Nixon's public image. Maybe the media is having influence in terms of cleaning up politics, but it just takes a long time for it to become apparent.

Or maybe Key is right that people only care about tangible things, not wishy-washy things like integrity. Maybe they expect no integrity from politicians.

Here I think the Press Gallery in particular has to start taking some responsibility. The Gallery congratulates "good political management" (aka spin) as if getting away with shit was a virtue and getting caught is the sin; it talks about "it's bad look" as if every issue was a matter of mere appearance, without actual consequences or right and wrong; it tripped over itself to declare dirty politics to be something which savvy insiders knew all about, and that to be shocked or disgusted by the systemic assholery is to be naive.

The Gallery's reporting has contributed to a culture where "political engagement" means to cynically understand "the game". Can we be surprised then, that this has finally permeated into public consciousness, and anything and everything is all just part of the game?

(I won't go on about it any more here, but basically it's Jay Rosen's Cult of Savviness argument. If you are a political reporter, you need to read this.)

The scariest possibility is that National have finally achieved full-spectrum dominance over the media. That the combination of sophisticated polling and focus-grouping (Hi David!), Key's personal brand, and media management system (including the use of back channels like Slater and... others) now allows them to subvert the media's every move. They know that the cost of completely ignoring your questions is neglible. They know that they can negate a bookful of allegations just by calling Hager partisan. They know you'll give up on Ede if they just hide him for long enough. They know they can throw a bunch of CORTEX-CYBERHACKING-ANTIVIRUS-BUTTS-MALWARE-METADATA obfuscations into the air, and simply choke a story with irrelevant facts.

Again, reasonable people can disagree about why the media failed. But, if you accept that the media has a role as a watchdog, then you must see that it has utterly failed in that role.

If you don't believe me, believe Cameron Slater, Simon Lusk, Carrick Graham, Jordan Williams and Katherine Rich.


"Project SPEARGUN underway"

Let's get this out of the way: The Warner Bros email was a complete clusterfuck. Faced with claims that the emails were fake, TeamDotcom did a TeamKey - they got Hone to send it off to the Privileges Committee then flat out refused to talk about it because, apparently, it needs to work through that process and talking about it would somethingsomethingsubjudicelookoverthere. They refused to talk about where it came from, and when asked whether it was fake, Kim Dotcom could only manage a "to the best of my knowledge" response, and said they weren't there to talk about that email (contrary to what he's been saying for months, right up to yesterday).

Basically, they have no confidence in the veracity of that email - and so neither should we.


Glenn Greenwald's material, on the other hand, is solid. He has documents showing the progress of a programme called "SPEARGUN". According to Greenwald, this project involved the "covert installation of 'cable access' equipment" on the Southern Cross cable (i.e. Tapping into New Zealand's traffic with the rest of the world). The existence of this capability cannot be denied.

In response to the Southern Cross cable's operators saying that such a thing was impossible, Snowden (who videoconferenced into the event) asked (I'm paraphrasing): What makes the Southern Cross cable so special that it cannot be accessed undetected by the NSA, when everyone else around the world can be?

The new documents show that the GCSB had a cable access project underway, followed by another document that Phase 1 was "achieved". More crucially, he has a message showing:

(TS//SI//NF) New Zealand: GCSB's cable access program SPEARGUN Phase 1; awaiting new GCSB Act expected July 2013; first metadata probe mid 2013.

This shows that they had to wait for the GCSB Act to be passed before SPEARGUN could be used. i.e. The new GCSB Act - the one that supposedly wouldn't expand GCSB powers - expanded GCSB powers to allow them operate a metadata probe on the this cable which they'd tapped.

If this is false, John Key could simply say "SPEARGUN doesn't exist". If SPEARGUN never went anywhere, he could say that too.

Instead, what Key has done is release a bunch of documents about a programme called CORTEX. This was a plan to provide malware detection and disruption services to companies and ISPs.

CORTEX has nothing to do with SPEARGUN:

  • SPEARGUN sits at the major highways of our network, extracting metadata from the traffic that goes through and sending it elsewhere. CORTEX sits at the driveway of businesses and ISPs, checking what goes in and out for signs of malware activity. The two are very different beasts.
  • The metadata probes that Greenwald refers to are used to covertly extract metadata. According to the Cabinet papers, CORTEX "will in all cases operate with the consent of the participating organisations". The programme described in Greenwald's documents is not CORTEX.
  • According to Key, a "test probe" was built to sit on the Southern Cross cable. That is the whole country, not "participating organisations". Further proof that the purpose of the probe had nothing to do with CORTEX.

Why does the probe itself matter? It proves that most of what we know about SPEARGUN is correct. The Government was considering the use of such a probe to get metadata via cable access, and went - at the very least - as far as building one.

Key never said SPEARGUN stopped. He only said CORTEX stopped. In fact, all this elaborate song and dance has been put in place so he can *look like* he's addressing SPEARGUN, when he is doing nothing of the sort.

We are owed some real answers.


Why does the top 10% paying more tax? (An interactive story)

I don't understand why National's is trying to get everyone to want tax cuts. And I don't understand how he can get away with this bullshit "12% of households pay 76% of net taxes" line.

"Net taxes" is not a real thing. These are the official tax statistics published by the IRD. "Net taxes" is not among them, nor should it be, because it's estimate of a bunch of arbitrary measures, put together for entirely political ends.

So, I've put together the IRD tax statistics from 2003-12 into this interactive data visualisation, to look at whether the top 10% pay a disproportionate amount of tax, and why.