Hard News by Russell Brown

Help from the crowd

Independent journalism, whether conducted online or in more traditional ways, is not an easy path to pursue. For all the dreams of an army of truth-tellers swarming the space left by a shrinking media monolith, there is one particular time when you'd rather be with the dreaded MSM: that is, when the law comes into play.

By the very nature of speaking truth to power, the other guy is generally going to have better resources than you do, and that's particularly the case when the other guy is the state.

There are various ways to address this. Cameron Slater has funded some of the considerable legal help he has required in recent years through a form of contra: allowing his legal firm to place unattributed stories on the Whaleoil site in exchange for legal services, although it's less clear how he paid for the services of a QC recently.

The more conventional means is to rely on the goodwill of members of the legal profession by accepting pro bono legal advice. I am very grateful for the way such advice helped me see off a spiteful defamation action last year.

Nicky Hager also enjoys consistent pro bono legal support. Even so, he will face substantial costs in trying to recover the documents and possessions taken from him in last week's extraordinary police raid. It seems well within the theory of crowdfunded journalism for those who value Hager's work to offer help to cover those costs, as a statement of solidarity if nothing else.

That's the aim of the Givealittle campaign to help with Hager's costs, which was launched yesterday and has now passed $20,000. More than 500 people have donated.

I could envisage even people who regard themselves as politically opposed to Hager kicking in to this fund, on the assumption that there are still some small-state classical liberals who have not taken leave of their principles. This is, after all, an indivdual who has been subject to extraordinary state action without being charged with, or even suspected of, a crime.

One objection -- that Hager is principally in it for the money and has enriched himself by writing and publishing Dirty Politics -- can be dismissed. As Chris Keall demonstrates on the NBR website, this is not a lucrative trade, as anyone familiar with the realities of writing such books would already doubtless know.

I haven't opened comments on this post -- there's a discussion already raging on the rights and wrongs of the police seizure. But I thought it was appropriate to make an observation on what's happening here.


Terror panics and the war imperative

In this week's Media Take -- which you can watch here -- we look at three related topics: the sudden imperative for a new war in Iraq to defeat Islamic State; Australia's startling media panic over terrorism plots and the troubling new security laws simultaneously passing through the country's legislature; and the realities of Islam.

Paul Buchanan talked to my co-host Toi Iti about the move to war and the implications of an active role in the new action for New Zealand. Buchanan notes that Islamic State was identified as a threat, particularly to Iraq, in intelligence reports 18 months ago, but the reports were largely ignored by the White House and other Western governments. He concludes on this note:

Let me just say that wars are two-way streets. And if we do in fact follow Australia's course and put military assets into the Middle East, we become a target ourselves.

In part two, I talk to David Fisher and Jane Kelsey about the extraordinary conduct of a fairly large part of the Australian media around the recent police raids and the suspected jihadists: first in basically allowing the police to write the script; then in running preposterously false stories based on tips from unnamed sources; and then, especially in the case of the Murdoch papers, waving through a new law that literally criminalises journalism around security matters. It really looks like the Urewera raids times 10.

I concluded by asking Fisher about the police raid on Nicky Hager's house. He replied thus:

I don't think that the state likes journalism very much. I think that journalism's very awkward for the state, because it asks questions about what they're doing ... we have a great responsiblity to ask these important questions about what the state's doing. Sometimes we don't ask those as clearly as we should. Maybe they've forgotten what we're there for in the first place -- and that's why they're happy to go after us.

In part three, Toi talks to  and Auckland University lecturer in Islamic Studies Dr Zain Ali, who explains the various interpretations of sharia law (I thought he could have been a lot less equivocal about the vile punishments employed in Saudi Arabia) and Jon Stephenson about Middle Eastern perceptions of Western hypocrisy and the various monsters we've backed in the past.

I put together the video tracks for the first two parts, which was an interesting experience. First, in revisiting the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, from Dick Cheney's eloquent explanation in a 1994 interview of why invading Iraq would be insane, through to the manufacturing of the case for the war in 2003. And second in getting to grips with exactly what Islamic State is.

I found two documentaries particularly useful. One was this Vice News report (for all Vice's problems with commercial ethics, its foreign reporting is frequently superb), riding alongside Islamic State, mostly in the group's Syrian stronghold, Raqqa:

It's an anxious, aggressive, almost entirely male, world of religious fervour, one whose recruiting targets young adherents with a shock-and-awe media strategy and ludicrous promises of heavenly reward -- and which enforces its will on the ground with bewildering public cruelty. These are terrible, terrible people -- who also, metaphorically, make the trains run on time.

The second is this one, from Iran's PressTV. PressTV material generally needs to be approached cautiously, and this one occasionally lurches into what seem to be state-sponsored conspiracy theories, but it gets even closer than the Vice report to a world where people are crazy and fearful, often at the same time, and where it is very dangerous to be disillusioned. It also makes the case that Islamic State has been fuelled in various ways by the intervention of the West and its allies.

Be warned that there are a number of disturbing scenes. I "watched" some parts with my hand obscuring the screen.

Also, we simply didn't have time to include all of ABC Media Watch's examples of awful media practice in the report for the second part, but you can see the full picture in Media Watch Episode 34 (on the way the police controlled the message around the terror raids) and Episode 35 (on the news media's fabricated terror scares).

This week's episode, Security, secrecy and the new anti-terror law, broadcast after our show, is also well worth viewing.

I'm not inclined to dismiss the seriousness of what is happening in Iraq and Syria, or discount the reach of Islamic state's foul ideas -- they are both mediaeval in their cruelty and millennial in their communications -- but the distant conflict and the expansion of state power closer to home seem like things into which we should neither be spooked or simply wander. We do need to ask questions of our leaders.


Doing over the witness

Whoever compromised Cameron Slater's computer and copied some of his private communications almost certainly committed a criminal offence. The police should investigate Slater's complaint about the incident and, if they can confirm the identity of that person and have sufficient evidence, mount a prosecution and let them make their case in court.

What the police absolutely should not have done in a democracy was what they did last Thursday: send five officers to Nicky Hager's house when they knew he was absent, and have them spend 10 hours doing it over, remove what he described as "a large collection of papers and electronic equipment belonging to my family, including computers, drives, phones, CDs, an iPod and a camera" -- and then basically dare him to get his possessions and documents back via the courts.

Let's be clear here: Hager is not the accused. He is a witness. And the implications of what the police have done are very, very troubling.

It seems extremely unikely that the police will find the identity of "Rawshark", the source for Hager's book Dirty Politics and (presumably) the hacker, amid the property they have seized. Hager is meticulous about source protection and will have been especially so in this case.

But Hager also typically works on several investigatve projects at once (he referred recently to an ongoing project on secret tax havens). It's possible that the material taken could compromise sources, or embarrrass the very authorities who have seized it. The very fact of the search may deter future whistleblowers.

At any rate, this seizure by the state will now make it more difficult for Hager to work, and for members of his family to go about their business. If it was not a deliberate attempt to intimdate a journalist, it unquestionably functions as one.

Anyone in any doubt about Hager's legal position in using the material he received in the public interest should bear in mind the comprehensive failure of Slater's civil action to retreive similar material from the Herald, Fairfax and Mediaworks. Slater recently abandoned the action altogether, leaving himself on the hook for what may be substantial legal costs. Even his one small win -- an undertaking from the media companies not to publish personal material -- is now void. I gather the media organisations involved will nonethless take the high ground -- which is a courtesy Slater's victims have never enjoyed.

Those who welcomed the raid on Hager's house -- Bill Ralston included -- are effectively saying that the state should now visit the same punitive action on those media companies, whose journalists have also made contact with the hacker. They should then ask themseves exactly what kind of country they actually want to live in.

That won't happen, of course. Which makes what happened last Thursday look all the more like intimidation.

The police have also set themselves a potentially unfortunate standard with respect to the criminal complaints made against Slater -- including those with respect to his accessing of private data from a Labour Party computer and, more seriously, an apparent conspiracy to undermine the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Markets Authority, and intimidate a witness with whom they were dealing. Will the police now turn up and search, say, the Prime Minister's office?

If Hager's work has been impaired for the time being, the other journalists will continue theirs. At least one of those journalists has now completed a substantial post-election story based on Rawshark material. It's just a matter of when it will be published.

Slater will, no doubt, continue to profess his virtue. His curious distance from his own actions was captured neatly in his post on Whaleoil yesterday:

Journalists call people they write stories about. Journalists give people a right of reply. Journalists tell the whole story, not massaged narratives that suit their politics.

Yeah, really.


Home advantage

Home advantage is one of competitive sport's key tropes. It is regarded as such an important influence on the outcome of football matches -- in which it is rare to win with a lead of more than a goal or two and draws are common -- that in some home-and-away tournaments, away goals count double.

Sometimes home advantage takes on mythic proportions. It is, remarkably, 20 years since the All Blacks lost at Eden Park. (I was there and it was not a good day.)

There are any number of reasons that home advantage might matter: familiarity, knowledge of local conditions, players are happier near to their loved ones and, of course, the motivating infleunce of a partisan home crowd.

After the All Blacks' loss to the Springboks at Ellis Park over the weekend I think it's become clear that in modern international rugby, there is a new element to home advantage: control of the television pictures.

Let's be clear about this: the Springboks richly deserved their win. Their backs played some fluent, creative rugby, they have a new star in Handre Pollard, and their forwards unsettled the All Blacks in a way few sides have done in recent years. If nothing else, they showed how well you have to play to beat the current All Blacks.

But after an impressive All Black comeback, the match turned on Patrick Lambie's long-range penalty in goal in the dying minutes of the game. Both Wayne Barnes (who had a pretty good match) and his assistants missed the incident that led to the penalty and play had moved on well down the field, where the All Blacks were about to feed a scrum.

But the South African TV team saw it and replayed the footage. We viewers saw it and so did the crowd at the ground, who responded noisily.

The South African captain Jean de Villiers eventually asked Barnes if he would check the replay and Barnes (although he had told Kieran Reid in the first half that he could not check a replay at the request of a player) then asked his assistant ""Is there anything to have a look at?"

There was. Back in the Bok half, Dane Coles had tackled Schalk Burger around the ankles, meaning he fell into the tackle of Liam Messam and copped a fair old whack on the head on the way down. It was, everyone agrees, an accident, the kind of thing that is sometimes penalised, sometimes not.

But after the impact had been played through several times in close-up, with the crowd roaring, there was little scope for Barnes to not award the penalty --- on the basis that Messam had made contact with Burger's bonce.

Would it have played out the same way in Auckland, or any other ground in New Zealand? No. We'd have had the home TV advantage. The replays would have been celebrating Reid's good work in securing the scrum feed the All Blacks would otherwise have been having. We've benefited in the same way before, I'm sure.

So yes, great win to the Boks. But the much greater role of video replays in the modern game might cause an interesting situation in next year's Rugby World Cup in Britain Let's say it's a dour semifinal that England have managed to keep close but the All Blacks seem to have secured it. And then a possible offence 40 metres away starts looping in the TV coverage and on the big screens at the ground. Can it be ignored? And is there such a thing as a neutral host broadcaster?


History repeats: New Zealand's history of drugs and the law

The New Zealand Drug Foundation has posted the cover story I wrote for the current issue of its Matters of Substance magazine. It covers our history of substance use and abuse, the laws that have attempted to control them and the ways that psychoactive drug use has steered and responded to popular culture.

I've been regaling friends with elements of it ever since I filed the copy. Do you know that in the 1940s, New Zealand had the highest rate of heroin use in the world -- because doctors commonly prescribed it? Or that New Zealand had medical cannabis  (it was prescribed for migraine and hypertensive headaches) well into the 1950s? The United Nations and the World Health organisation had to prevail on our government to end both practices.

I also looked at the Mr Asia years, when the network that imported and distributed both heroin and cannabis was so pervasive that many of today's outwardly respectable baby-boomers have some story or other in connection with it. Tens of thousands of them also suffer from Mr Asia's great long-term consequenece: the silent epidemic of Hepatitis C.

The arrival of (or sudden attention to) new drugs takes a familiar pattern over the decades. Way back in the 1930s, the Auckland Star ran a glossary headed ‘Argot of the Dope Fiends’ (“H” for heroin, “Candy” for cocaine and “Happy dust” for “any powdered dope”). There is typically a panic and a crackdown but very few drugs actually disappear. In recent years, the cycle has picked up speed and the drug panics turn over more quickly.

And still, we pass laws. In Matters of Substance itself, I listed our most significant drug legislation in a sidebar. That's not online yet, so I've included it below in this post. We've been trying at this for a long time now, and you still cannot say we really know what we're doing.

NB: I'd really like to thank David Herkt for his help and advice on this story. His three-part documentary High Times: The New Zealand Drug Experience was very useful.


Poisons Administration Prevention Act 1866

The first attempt to control the sale of readily-available drugs such as laudanum and opium required only that the identity of the purchaser be recorded.

Sale of Poisons Act 1871

The first attempt to restrict the sellers of drugs to those on a register of licensed dealers.

Customs Law Consolidation Act 1882

Confined the importation of opium to larger vessels at specified ports.

Opium Prohibition Act 1901

New Zealand's first anti-drug statute targeted Chinese immigrants. It banned the smoking of opium and its importation for smoking and was amended in 1910 to specifically ban any Chinese person from buying opium without a prescription.

Quackery Prevention Act 1908

The first consumer protection legislation around drug sales.

Dangerous Drugs Act 1927

Made it an offence to import, produce or deal in a range of drugs, most of which remained available on prescription.

Poisons Act 1934

Defined certain drugs, such as barbiturates, as "prescription poisons" available only on prescription.

Narcotics Act 1964

Ratified New Zealand's commitment to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Covered more than 100 substances, from LSD to opium and cannabis. For the first time, the law made a meaningful distinction between possession and "dealing" and defined quantities at which dealing was presumed. Reversed the onus of proof, provided for warrantless searches and, as Ray Henwood put it in his 1971 book A Turned On World: Drug Use in New Zealand, smacked of "using a cannon to kill flies."

Misuse of Drugs Act 1975

Serially amended since, but still the applicable law, the MODA introduced the three schedules, A, B and C, based on the assessed harm caused by individual drugs and, inline with the recommendations of the Blake-Palmer report, set much lower maximum penalties for personal use or possession. Notable amendments include those in 1988 and 1996, which made the law automatically apply to drug analogues (substances that have a substantially similar chemical structure to that of a controlled drug).

The Pyschoactive Substances Act 2013

A work in progress.