Who texts the PM?

An OIA request for information about the Prime Minister deleting his text messages is back (hat-tip to @eey0re) and Wayne Eagleson has found another wafer-thin excuse for the wholesale deletion of his master’s cellphone records:

With the large volume of text messages received and sent by the Prime Minister every day, these need to be regularly deleted not only for security reasons but also to ensure that the Prime Minister is always able to send or receive messages by preventing the cellphone exceeding its memory capacity.

What I always like to do with issues around newfangled technology is compare them to an old-school, “real-world” situation. In this case, let’s imagine that Treasury has been OIA’d about documents relating to a policy decision, like cutting taxes. And let’s imagine that the response says, “We can’t produce those papers, because we destroyed them.” And when people say “I’m sorry, what the hell did you just say?” Treasury responds,

With the large volume of documents received and written by the Treasury every day, these need to be regularly incinerated to ensure the Treasury is always able to receive and write documents by preventing our filing cabinets exceeding their capacity.

Yeah, that’s not how it’s meant to work, and they know it.

My view on this issue from day 1 has been: sure, you don’t want to keep sensitive material on a cellphone in case it gets nicked. Sure, cellphones only have a limited memory capacity. But if you are a senior civil servant, or an experienced politician, you know damn well that there is a set of principles and rules around preserving that information for the integrity of the state.

Maybe those rules aren’t completely up-to-date with all the new nifty ways we have of communicating. Maybe there’s not a specific “how to deal with a ton of meaningless text messages about when the car’s arriving” guideline.

So you ask. If you appreciate the need for transparent and accountable government, that is.

Unless, of course, it’s very convenient for you to just go “oh whoops, there’s no guidelines around deleting thousands of messages sent and received by the Prime Minister’s Prime Ministerial cellphone, guess we’ll just erase them.”

Because then no one would ever be able to prove, to pick a random example, just how often he contacts Cameron Slater.

Connecting the dots on satire, Parliament, and dirty politics

Danyl McLauchlan has a great suggestion for NZ politicians who really want to show their dedication to freedom of speech and the press in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack:

People might be surprised to learn that in New Zealand satirists are not actually protected by the law at all, …while it is illegal to use images or footage from Parliament that subjects the House to satire or ridicule. So if some of the New Zealand politicians or newspapers standing on their soapboxes … wanted to actually promote those values and campaign to update our laws protecting satire so that they’re in line with that of most other western democracies (a simple members bill should do the trick) that’d be lovely thanks.

Sorry for quoting such a huge chunk, Danyl, but it was a very concise post!

In 2007 the use of parliamentary footage for satire was banned, in a move so utterly ridiculous it made The Daily Show. (I apologise for the abysmal streaming which Comedy Central persists in inflicting on us.) Unsurprisingly, the two parties which stated the loudest objections to this were Act (back when they had 2 whole MPs) and the Greens. Michael Cullen decided to declare the media were “taking themselves too seriously” and Peter Dunne – Peter Dunne – got very snooty about mockery “going a bit far.”

(As a side note, at the time Gerry Brownlee said the rules were an “interim” thing and could be reviewed, so Labour supporters may finally have the “you’ve had EIGHT LONG YEARS” rallying cry we’ve been waiting for.)

This all seems like ancient history, but it gets particularly interesting in the light of John Key’s very strong, high-minded statements about the freedom of the press:

“The targeting of journalists going about their daily work is an attack on the fourth estate and the democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression, which must be strongly condemned,” he said.

Two immediate contradictions which were immediately pointed out by folk across the left were:

1. Um, what about that possibly-unlawful raid on Nicky Hager’s house? (Directly connected to the Dirty Politics scandal, and put a pin in that for a moment.)

2. Um, what about the police raiding four separate media organisations over the “tea-pot tapes” – a recording of this totally private conversation – then going “oh whoops, there’s no public interest in pursuing this case”?

But there’s yet another Dirty Politics aspect to this issue. And that’s the fact that since 2007 it has been illegal for you or me or even Patrick Gower to use images from parliament for the purposes of “satire, ridicule or denigration” …

Yet no action was ever taken over the fact that a government MP was taking nasty photos of other parties’ leaders, in the House, and sending them straight to WhaleOil.

So John Key can make all the bold, principled statements about press freedom he likes; the fact remains that his government has kept in place unnecessary restrictions on that freedom. He, personally, has derided one of our leading investigative journalists as a conspiracy theorist – and all the while his MPs are feeding vicious attack stories to their pet blogger – exactly what Nicky Hager documented.

How to respond to Charlie Hebdo?

Twelve people have died in the attack on French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and the response from many people – from a New Zealand perspective fairly divorced from the immediate impact – is familiar.

We’ve been here before, with violent extremists attacking media organisations for publishing inflammatory cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, though this attack is far more serious. And with the “benefit” of distance, there’s a lot to unpack – about the nature of satire, about the targets of satire, about the freedom of the press, about the right to cause offence – but what worries me is the instinctive reaction many Westerners have to declare “these people died because of these cartoons, ergo these cartoons should be published everywhere!”

It’s especially concerning in the context of this excellent article from Informed Comment, which posits a more complex explanation for the Charlie Hebdo attack – beyond just “they hate our cartoons and attacked us because they hate us”:

This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram).

If we accept this explanation, then the cries to republish the cartoons as widely as possible simply play into the extremists’ hands. Likewise demands for greater government surveillance and further compromises of civil liberties can actually make us less safe by making it a hell of a lot easier for violent extremists – of any persuasion, because there’s nothing unique to Muslim extremists about hating governmental authority – to persuade others that hey, you’re in a fight for your very existence here.

And I just don’t know what the point of republishing the cartoons is. Many journalists have already shown solidarity with the victims at Charlie Hebdo. Many cartoonists have already created their own works in support of the freedom to satirise. Without context – and especially, as I’m seeing in a lot of places, without even a translation of the original French – the cartoons don’t serve as satire, and publishing them seems to simply be “neener neener neener, look at this picture of Muhammad, you can’t stop us” thumb-biting.

As Fredrik deBoer notes, the question of whether we should crack down on violent extremists in defence of the freedom of the press is a “dead moral question”:

Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years.

So any talk about needing to steel our nerves or reinvigorate our efforts against terrorism is frankly a smokescreen.

What really worries me is that none of this is new. We know that aggressive responses just breed more conflict. We know that trying to “bomb them back into the Stone Age” just creates more violent extremists.

In the Informed Comment article above, Juan Cole notes that we have an alternative model to dealing with these kind of acts: the approach taken by Norway against Anders Breivik, which steadfastly denied him the opportunity to become a martyr for his cause.

So why don’t we take it? Why is the first instinct to say let’s arrest them, expel them, and drone-strike their families?

The depressing reality is that in the West, Islam is our generation’s Communism. “Foreign fighters” are our “reds under the bed”. There are many authoritarian people – across the political spectrum – who simply want to increase the reach and repressive power of government (as long as their particular end of the spectrum is in office).

They may paint themselves as moderates, liberals who just really, really love freedom of speech – but you just have to look at the kinds of comments their followers leave and upvote (and no, I’m not linking, but you know exactly what I’m talking about). They know the score, and it isn’t about a careful, thought-through reaction to the acts of a specific, tiny minority of the Muslim population.

It’s only natural to react with abhorrence and disgust at the violent massacre of innocent people. It’s natural to take up the rallying cry of “Je suis Charlie” and march in the streets against acts of terror.

What I fear is that abhorrence being manipulated to justify further erosion of our basic rights and freedoms – the very things George W Bush told us the terrorists hate us for.

The dogwhistling of the Treaty

Gareth Morgan has a four-part series in the Herald this month in a thinly-veiled ad campaign for his new book, Are we there yet? The future of the Treaty of Waitangi.

And there’s dogwhistle one: the smarmy comparison of Treaty grievances and settlements to a long car ride which we just want to be over, already.

This week’s effort seeks to establish Gareth Morgan, an economist, as an expert in the history of the Treaty, following on from his opining on the health system, the welfare system, and the inherent evilness of cat ownership.

That’s one thing about our society: we tend to assume that someone who’s been around for a while and made a bunch of cash is automatically credible, even in areas they have no background in. It’s the same thing that happens when we assume people from the business world (and woodwork teachers) are better governors of our nation than silly academics and unionists.

We also tend to assume that expertise, especially in an academic field, is a bit of a charade, and anyone can pick up enough of the intricacies of indigenous rights, case law, and restorative processes to form an informed opinion on them. It’s the same way everyone on Twitter suddenly becomes an expert in the Geneva Conventions when a report on CIA torture comes out.

There are a lot of downsides to these attitudes – most of which come under the heading of “not making personal/electoral/policy decisions based on proper information”. Another is that we accord people like Gareth Morgan the mantle of authority on issues just because he’s a rich old white dude.

(Yes, all four of those identifiers are necessary, because they all contribute.)

And that means he gets to write a book, and four columns in one of our major newspapers, which promote misinformation and racist stereotypes about Māori and the Treaty.

Morgan seems to be genuine in his concern. But despite referring to the “catastrophic effects” which Treaty breaches have wrought on our society, and seeming to praise the “fluidity” of current Treaty negotiations, the main takeaways from his column are:

  1. No one really knows what the Treaty means, so whenever people talk about “Treaty principles” they mean “stuff made up after the fact”
  2. The English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty are different so no one can agree on which should take precedence (my understanding is that indigenous language versions of treaties do)
  3. Some Māori just want too much (“Even in its modern “elastic” form it cannot be credibly stretched to legitimise all Maori aspirations.”)
  4. The Crown has sovereignty now so stop arguing about it
  5. I, Gareth Morgan, am the best person to tell you how to achieve rangatiratanga and you’re currently doing it wrong

It’s possible I’m being too cynical. Maybe Gareth Morgan will surprise me with his subsequent columns on “the limits of the Treaty process” and “one country, two peoples”.

But what I come back to is this: I don’t think the Treaty discussion needs another white guy giving us his reckons. (It probably doesn’t need an uninformed white woman like me giving her reckons either.) I don’t think it informs the debate, and I don’t think the priorities of people like Gareth Morgan are particularly relevant to resolving, as he puts it, the catastrophic effects of Pākehā colonisation of New Zealand.

Also, he hates cats.