OnPoint by Keith Ng


The Whaledump Saga: Scooby-Doo Edition

On 2 October 2014, the Police raided Nicky Hager's home as part of Operation Oracle - the hunt for Rawshark. During the search, Detective Jason Abbot found a piece of paper and passed it to Detective Joseph Teo. "We considered [the document] was of interest to the investigation because of information we had already obtained", Teo said in his affidavit.

That piece of paper was seized and designated NH025.


I first got in touch with Ben Rachinger in February this year, when he first started dropping docs publicly, but I didn't meet him in person until May, several weeks before his story aired on The Nation.

Contrary to the conspiracy theorists, Ben's story wasn't ignored by the MSM. There was a pretty mad dash initially to get his story, but it all happened under the radar as journos tried to scoop each other.

At least that's why it was under the radar at first. As Ben's story unfurled, it became increasingly fantastic: He was whistleblower, and hacker, and undercover agent for the Police, with sources at the highest level of government. Those who chased the story were wary as hell, and Ben had a tendency of turning on journalists who questioned his story, lumping them into a media conspiracy against him.

But for all the reasons not to believe Ben, he had hard evidence to back him up: Screenshots of messages and emails between him and Slater. And when The Nation ran their story, they did it after confirming that Ben really did have a relationship with the Police. His evidence could not be the work of a garden variety fantasist. This was either a truly spectacular hoax, with elaborate planning, screeds of details, and willing participation by Slater... or it was true.

Several days after our meeting, he gave me an encrypted file purporting to be the full chat logs between him and Cameron Slater, but it took another two months before he provided me with the password.

I still don't understand why he did this. But he did, and here we are.



Not long after Dirty Politics, rumours began circulating around the identity of Rawshark: That it was Rangi Kemara, a computer security researcher and one of the Urewera Four. With his technical skillset and his "radical" pedigree, he was a pretty easy suspect for Rawshark.

This was common knowledge among the political class and he has been approached by senior journalists who thought he was Rawshark. When the Prime Minister says he knows who Rawshark is, he is probably talking about Rangi.

Ben has claimed in the past that he sympathises with Rangi and was protecting him. Throughout Ben's engagement with Slater, he dropped "inside information" about Rangi - that he's been interviewed by Police, that he's been arrested, that he's been summoned to court. None of that was true.

At the same time, he was also receiving payments from Slater to work on a book to out those who conspired against him, and as a part of this, he attempted to solicit a confession out of Rangi. This is often explicitly referred to as "social engineering", and once, as a fearless "mind battle".

21 Jan 15 08:30:37 - BR: Hi Cam. Ready to send off the stuff shortly and I've also got some ideas on how to push back. 0304*********** for compo and then we are good to go. I got the perfect way to bait Rangi. Unfortunately I know exactly how his crim mind works. Let's get some smashing done this week. Just let me know! Have a great morning.

23 Jan 15 15:23:04 - BR: So, I got Rangi to admit he's RS, got proof from him ie the encryption key, and I've been fearlessly waging a mind battle with them.

28 Jan 15 14:29:14 - BR: I'll provide this and more writing upon ____ lol. I'm honey potting Rangi too.

30 Jan 15 12:10:48 - BR: I'm entrapping Rangi to break suppression on something

And what exactly is this "proof... ie the encryption key"? Ladies and gentlemen, here is the smoking gun, the evidence Ben provided to Slater (verbatim):

If it's not clear to you already, this is no smoking gun. This is a ludicrous and obvious hoax. Rangi is no stranger to interacting with the Police, and Rawshark has shown a clear aptitude for not being caught. Yet this conversation - which supposes Rangi is Rawshark - shows him throwing up his hands the second Ben says that the game is up, and accepting his imminent arrest with a simple: "bloody hell". And that the first and only action he takes on hearing this news is to hand over the key to his incriminating evidence to first person he sees, as opposed to the more rational course of action of, ya know, *not* handing over the key to his incriminating evidence to the first person he sees.

This is, in short, laughably stupid.

Rangi, for his part, says that that was definitely not him. He confirmed that Ben had been talking to him, but that he was suspicious of Ben right from the beginning. He adds that the person who made up that password, with its substitution of numbers for letters, clearly doesn't understand the point of diceware passwords.

As part of this fearless mind battle, Rangi received an email from "whaledump@hushmail.com", claiming to be Rawshark. Because of Rangi's aforementioned suspicions, he fired off an email to Hager to ask if this was legit. Hager replied that the address is unknown to him, and that it is probably a fake. So Rangi ignored it.

And then the Police raid happened.

Detective Abbot saw the email, printed out on Nicky's desk. Jackpot!

To: Nicky Hager!
Something something whaledump@hushmail.com!

[Disclaimer: Not actual content/header of email.]

Presumably, the Police were already treating Rangi as a suspect at this point.

"We considered [the document] was of interest to the investigation because of information we had already obtained" - Detective Teo

So they find an email from their prime suspect to Hager discussing the criminal conspiracy they're investigating, when in fact, it was just an artifact of the fearless mind battle being waged by Ben:

As for why Rangi was a suspect before this point, or why he was a suspect at all, all I have to go on is this statement by Ben:

09 Feb 15 23:25:18 - BR: Prior to my involvement, no one had a fucking clue about Rangi and Hager.

In the logs, Slater doesn't dispute this. But beyond that, I have no idea whether it's true.

That email, NH025, is fascinating to me because it's chock full of irony. For someone who wanted the glory of being at the centre of things, Ben actually ended up succeeding. The Police (possibly) connected Rangi with Hager because of Ben, then they actually found evidence connecting Rangi with Hager because of Ben. The stuff that he made up were widely believed by the political class, all the way up to the Prime Minister!

Despite the fact that this piece is about all the shitty things that Ben has done, the lies that he's told, it's also about acknowledging that he really did influence the course of events, and fooled a lot of very powerful people.

But he also did a lot of pretty shitty things.


Blackphone/Black Ops

In June this year, after Ben's story on The Nation (accusing Slater of commissioning Ben to hack The Standard) came out, a blog released private photos of a senior political journalist. It had the very clear purpose of distracting attention from Slater and discrediting Ben.

I now have definitive proof of how those photos got into the hands of that blog.

This was the log of the Threema chats between Ben and Slater on 19 Dec:

19 Dec 14 12:23:44 - BR: I play a game online but I'm always straight w you here
19 Dec 14 12:24:11 - BR: I blame the Govt for throwing people like us to the sheep that want to be wolves
19 Dec 14 12:24:21 - BR: I hope John hasn't actually abandoned you
19 Dec 14 12:24:25 - BR: Oh
19 Dec 14 12:24:50 - CS: Yes...john key lost my respect
19 Dec 14 12:26:43 - BR: Shit like that
19 Dec 14 12:42:42 - CS: How unethical
19 Dec 14 12:43:18 - CS: If only she knew
19 Dec 14 12:43:21 - BR: Pray tell?!
19 Dec 14 12:43:28 - BR: Lips sealed
19 Dec 14 12:43:41 - CS: When we meet
19 Dec 14 12:44:10 - BR: I'll make a new folder
19 Dec 14 12:46:02 - CS: I'm sick of these unethical journos attacking me

Note the non sequitur and missing time after 12:24. Here is one of the photos which was posted on that blog (original photo on the blog was unblurred):

Note the timestamp on the photos and the line "Shit like that": 12:26 on 19 December. The photo is clearly showing the Threema conversation between Ben and Slater. Note that Threema shows the name of the person you're talking to, not your name. This is showing Slater's side of the conversation, not Ben's.

Just for a final nail in the coffin, note the icon on the top left of the screen. That is a "space switcher" icon used by SilentOS, the operating system for Blackphones.

Last weekend, Slater's wife said that Cameron used a specialised "highly secure phone" which could be remoted wiped:

In the Threema logs, Slater says:

06 Jan- 15 17:43:44 - CS: I have a black phone...no cops have been near it

The upshot is that the photos which appeared on that blog are photos of Slater's Blackphone, showing the conversation where Ben sent those photos to Slater. Ben's previous claims that those photos were hacked from his phone is a lie. He sent them. And unless Slater wants to claim that his "highly secure" and remotely wipable phone was stolen, unlocked, photographed then put back, it's also clear that Slater actively participated in that release.

(Note that I received the Threema logs in May, though I wasn't able to unlock them till July. The blog post containing the private photos came out in June. It is not possible for the Threema logs to have been doctored in response to the blog post.)


Can HAZ weekly pay? Lol

From late November 2014 to end of January 2015, Ben strung Cameron Slater along for money. Every couple of days, he would ask Slater for cash. The early payments were not for "hacking The Standard". They were payment for helping Slater, Cathy Odgers and others write a book exposing the plot against Slater. Ben's role was in detailing how the conspirators of this plot (including Rawshark) were tracked down, and in providing background on the hacking underworld.

25 Nov 14 10:53:09 - CS: I want you to sit with Cathy and tell her your story for the book
25 Nov 14 10:53:16 - CS: I'll pay you for it
25 Nov 14 11:00:00 - BR: Haha want to advance me 50-100 dollars? I've already written up so much. Would appreciate a helping hand today.
25 Nov 14 11:02:33 - CS: How about $500
25 Nov 14 11:02:52 - CS: Send me your bank account
25 Nov 14 11:04:49 - BR: Westpac or ASB? What's best for you. Ps you're the fucking man
25 Nov 14 11:09:11 - CS: Westpac
25 Nov 14 11:09:32 - BR: Man, this is huge. I never doubted you and have always maintained my silence.
25 Nov 14 11:09:43 - BR: Doing this for me is humbling
25 Nov 14 11:09:54 - BR: I can't tell you how much it means
25 Nov 14 11:12:33 - CS: Check your bank
25 Nov 14 11:14:53 - BR: Maaaaaaaate.
25 Nov 14 11:15:07 - BR: Mate. You're a very good person.
25 Nov 14 11:17:58 - CS: Right let's start lining up these pricks to take them down
25 Nov 14 11:37:34 - CS: In hagers book he links Cathy to Russians and Chinese so we will hide you by calling you an offshore specialist

27 Nov 14 18:00:33 - BR: Ok so I've collated all the screenshots, records of chat logs, meeting minutes w cops and a list of the evidence they have. Also I've collated a short report on the whole journey from book release until now. It's a bit lengthy but I want to put it in a google drive and send you the link.

That's a really valuable set of evidence. Thanks for your assist the other day.

Like to reach out to you for more money. Doesn't have to be a lot but we have almost nailed these pricks and I can do w maximum financial assistance. I won't require any further payment for the book etc and happy to have done what I've done so far :-)

Really appreciated if you're in it to win it, Cam. Seeing cactus tomorrow morning. Compiled report today.

Throughout this period, Ben kept Slater on the hook with purported inside information from his role as an "undercover agent" for the Police. The common theme was that action was imminent.

According to Ben, Slater's many enemies were all being targeted by Police, many had been questioned, and arrests were imminent, or had already happened. In order for the momentum to continue and for the "last stage of our triumph" to be achieved, more money was required.

30 Nov 14 17:24:16 - BR: Yo, just left a short meeting with cops. They are planning to move within days.
30 Nov 14 17:24:25 - BR: Definitely this week.
30 Nov 14 17:25:05 - BR: Coming, that is. They want to set up a bit of a tricky meeting where the perp and I meet in public and then they move on him.
30 Nov 14 17:25:24 - BR: Simultaneously they will be arresting three other people.
30 Nov 14 17:25:46 - BR: They have insufficient on KDC at this stage to arrest him in this case.
30 Nov 14 17:27:34 - BR: I don't know how I feel about being there for arrest
30 Nov 14 17:37:53 - BR: But that's all pretty exciting!
30 Nov 14 17:42:55 - CS: Woe...do you know who other three are
30 Nov 14 17:51:27 - BR: I'll try to find out. Got another meeting in a hour w some senior cops :-|
30 Nov 14 17:52:25 - BR: They advised me to say nothing whatsoever to anyone, FYI.
30 Nov 14 17:53:12 - BR: Ok so I've got the meeting tonight and another meeting tomorrow. Pretty crucial you have some sort of write up prepped in advance for the blog!!
30 Nov 14 18:04:41 - BR: Ok so on a serious note. I know you are getting paranoid but you need to chill. I'm working hard and need to get the next two days done and then our worries are over!! Special request. Have to buy some USB drives and also a lot of caffeine and tobacco so this plan goes straight. I don't need another 500. 180 will get me everything I need today. Please trust me and assist this last stage of our triumph.

This was mixed in with some straight-up flattery...

03 Dec 14 15:41:36 - BR: Hey man, last request. They're actually going to have my electronics for at least a month. Need a $500 loan to get another laptop. It would be much appreciated because there's still so much I can do for Team Cam. I'm accom sorted etc. Let's kick ass and send names to a police hotlist. I've made the contacts, you have so much to teach me.... I know I can learn so much from you. You're like Severus Snape from Harry Potter books IMO. Hope you can help me out

...veiled threats...

10 Dec 14 12:34:44 - BR: Cam, I really need one last bit of help. Up to you but I'm going through hell for you and I'm keeping all the secrets. I'll be destroyed publicly and with Anon if they find out about any of us. The money keeps me floating and fighting. Up to you.

...and special deals.

19 Dec 14 13:06:49 - BR: I'll send you pics and screenshots. I do have dirt on a Fisher. One thing, can you loan me some $? I'll send pics and stuff for sure. I'm on bones of my ass. Let's fuck these unethical journos up.

Slater wanted to believe his Great Day of Reckoning was arriving, and Ben was happy to help. He wanted to believe, even after these "imminent" arrests were delayed time after time, even when the information he was given was laughably bad, even when he had himself discovered the information was false.

05 Dec 14 15:41:46 - BR: He's been served
05 Dec 14 15:42:10 - BR: Summons
05 Dec 14 15:42:18 - BR: Told you I'd come through man
05 Dec 14 15:42:30 - BR: You must have doubted me
05 Dec 14 15:42:35 - CS: Summons to appear in court?
05 Dec 14 15:43:18 - CS: Mate when you have been under attack.like I have it is v. hard to trust
05 Dec 14 15:44:05 - BR: I can only imagine
05 Dec 14 15:45:51 - BR: Last last request (lol), I have to keep floating and alert for next week or so. Financial help appreciated. We got them. 
05 Dec 14 15:46:15 - CS: Now we need the info for the book
05 Dec 14 16:37:23 - CS: He's still tweeting...why isn't he in the clink?
05 Dec 14 16:49:17 - BR: Court summons is diff to clink
05 Dec 14 16:49:26 - BR: Cos he's on parole ish
05 Dec 14 16:49:36 - BR: They want to deal with it this way
05 Dec 14 16:50:58 - BR: But he's been charged
05 Dec 14 16:51:06 - BR: He's sending me angry messages
05 Dec 14 16:51:15 - BR: Will have to go off grid :-//
05 Dec 14 16:52:28 - BR: Now comes the danger time for me
05 Dec 14 16:54:06 - BR: Let's see if I get through it
05 Dec 14 16:58:05 - BR: I leave the finances in your hand, Chief. Going OL for a few hours at cops reco.

This happened so regularly that it actually became a running gag:

28 Jan 15 08:55:57 - BR: Sweet. Done a big report for you w a lot of docs.

Can HAZ weekly pay? Lol

Slater's willingness to believe was almost boundless. Almost. When the deal to hack The Standard was struck, the price was set at $5000, with $1000 upfront. But on the day of the delivery:

07 Feb 15 08:13:30 - BR: Inform the client you have the file and it's encrypted. I'm still very much worried. 1k is good but so is being free and non charged, or non blackmailed. Half remainder upfront and you get key within hours. Or you can try crack the encryption! Client will understand if I'm hacking on their behalf. Cheers. Got to run as moving place again this morning. Too many missed calls and a herald journo scoping me out at this location.
07 Feb 15 08:23:35 - CS: Mate that wasn't the deal...I've exceeded the deal...you asked for 500 down payment...you've had 1000...I've also helped you financially for months...I've never let you down

For the first time in three months, Slater didn't pay. So later that day, Ben gave Slater the decryption key anyway, "on trust" that Slater will pay. One catch though:

07 Feb 15 17:23:39 - BR: The links inside are to the doc dumps and diagrams. Trusting you. You just have to guess the encryption method ;-)

Not surprisingly, "guess the encryption method" was a wild goose chase. And finally, after three months of this bullshit, Slater has finally had enough, and this long protracted con came to a definitive... late middle.

09 Feb 15 22:57:51 - CS: I did that help you out...but you've got to want to help yourself...its very frustrating...if I replayed all the things you've promised me and lined them up beside what has been delivered...well its lots vs nothing...and I'm about done with it all
09 Feb 15 23:04:22 - BR: A lot versus nothing?
09 Feb 15 23:04:31 - BR: That's an interesting perspective.
09 Feb 15 23:16:19 - CS: Tell me what I've got...other than a nearly $5k hole in my account...you said you'd help with the book...nothing...we had a deal and what I've got is an email of gobbledegook...my rep is on line with funder...I can't show them a single thing...I think you are taking the piss with me now...
09 Feb 15 23:17:49 - CS: I've been completely straight all the way...tell me I'm wrong...coz right now I feel like a trusting fool
09 Feb 15 23:19:21 - CS: I've fought these fucks as they've laughed at me...pried through my private life...and so I believe someone when they come to help...I try to help them because I'm like that...and as usual I'm the one burned

At this point, even I feel sorry for Slater. Ben was very obviously taking the piss with him, and still, Slater is so isolated and desperate that - even after saying out loud that this is just all just a scam - he still can't accept that this was all just a scam. Ben feigns outrage and indignation, declares that he's "on Team Cam, dw" the following day, and things return to normal.

11 Feb 15 22:16:02 - CS: I've talked to funder...bonus is avail for info on Nippert etc
11 Feb 15 22:16:28 - CS: Just reviewing twitter from back then...I bet juha was involved too
12 Feb 15 00:41:15 - BR: Definitely
12 Feb 15 00:41:21 - BR: He's been very cagey
12 Feb 15 00:41:40 - BR: I'll have the info to you tomorrow re Nippert and Ng, no problem.
12 Feb 15 08:08:49 - CS: OK cool
12 Feb 15 08:30:46 - BR: Yeah so it's the IP addresses of the two phones Ng and Nippert used for WD. They used disposable hushmail email for login. They also transmitted some documents but never been able to find those because phones got smashed after WD2 went down.

Conclusive Proof of WD = Ng and Nippert

1. IP leakage
2. Semantic analysis of the two blended has a 92% probability of a match.
3. In emails, Ng alludes to having inside knowledge of hack and RS.
4. Ng is, ofc, very close to Kim. Who's a prick.

Low on net. When I get going today, will dump the Ng and Nippert files on you.

The morning after Slater offers a bonus for dirt on "Nippert etc.", Ben wakes up with definitive proof that Nippert and I are Whaledump. For what it's worth, "blended semantic analysis" makes as much sense as a facial recognition match based on one of those "what would your baby look like" photos. And, as should be obvious by now, the evidence never arrives. Two days and another $500 later:

14 Feb 15 08:32:25 - CS: Nice one mate...you got me again...shit I'm a dumb trusting cunt
14 Feb 15 09:43:38 - BR: I sent it!!!! I'll go and resend now but I sent it before bed
14 Feb 15 14:19:41 - BR: Got it yet?
14 Feb 15 14:19:47 - BR: I sent it in triplicate
14 Feb 15 14:37:27 - CS: I'll go look again

And he did. This goes on for another two days. Until Ben declares war on Slater by posting their messages online.

16 Feb 15 16:57:26 - BR: Time to dance
16 Feb 15 17:00:50 - BR: I'm not releasing anything derogatory or bad about you
16 Feb 15 17:00:53 - BR: My promise
16 Feb 15 17:00:59 - BR: But I'm done
16 Feb 15 17:06:55 - BR: I'm broke alone and going crazy. Sorry man. Too much for me.


I tried to talk to Ben face-to-face for this article. Last time I flew up to Auckland to meet him, he was suddenly unreachable. And I'd arranged to meet him again this week, but he cancelled again, flipping between claims that he's keen to talk but just can't make it, an aggrieved "let's battle shall we?", that Police action on the Slater case is imminent, that he (Ben) might be arrested soon.

Obviously, having seen how he played Slater, I wasn't buying it. But I went along with this for months in an attempt to get another face-to-face conversation with him, because I thought - I believed - that when confronted with the black-and-white evidence, he would tell me the truth. A definitive, unifying truth which would make sense of this whole fucking mess.

Oh man, I wanted to believe.


Postscript: So, *is* Rangi Rawshark? I asked, and here is his "clear as mud" response.

Am I Rawshark? I think it is clear from what transpired over the last year that we all are in a sense, anyone that takes direct action in the way that Rawshark did to blow the lid off empathyless activities of the powerful. All I ask is that one day I can have a beer with the real Rawshark, and shake her hand, that would indeed be an honour. Chur!


If you enjoyed/had an aneurysm reading this post, please consider putting some money in my tip-jar.


Don't put words in our mouths, Rob

In an opinion piece in the SST, Rob Salmond said:

After I published Labour’s method online, Keith Ng, Tze Ming Mok, and Chuan-Zheng Lee - all skilled analysts, all otherwise critical on this topic -all agreed the name-based ethnicity analysis was statistically sound, robust, and accurate.

Hey Rob, don't put the words "statistically sound, robust, and accurate" into our mouths to describe your work.

You asked whether I was willing to give a "more-or-less endorsement". I said the method was sound but the data wasn't, and we left it there. I would note that on the original blog I said of the data problems:

these problems only render it unscientific and utterly useless, which is the least of Labour's problems.

If you need clarification, let me restate it: The method is fine, the data is broken, and those problems render it unscientific and utterly useless. Not sound. Not robust. Not accurate.

Rob also said:

Having said that, one group I think did not overreact – despite their strongly critical stance - was the New Zealand Chinese community, including KeithTze Ming, and Chuan-Zheng. Their criticism was less about Labour’s intentions, and more about the impact of these revelations on ethnically Chinese New Zealanders.

Thanks for the flattery, but I was very critical of Labour intentions and I thought I was bloody clear about it.

I said that Phil Twyford was knowingly "straight-up scapegoating" Chinese New Zealanders and offshore Chinese alike and "fueling racial division in this country". I said it was "cynical, reckless dogwhistling".

What part of this was ambiguous for you??? Did you think I meant "cynical, reckless, but ultimately well-intentioned dogwhistling"?

Even after a week where Labour has been trying to take the "reverse racism" highground, trying to pretend that we didn't blame Labour is a new delusional high, Rob.

But since we're talking about intentions, Rob said:

Labour’s intention was always to talk about offshore money, and never to conflate ethnicity with nationality, or to make life more fraught for any group of New Zealanders.

Except that the ethnicity analysis (the Chinese-sounding names part) was their "main data analysis", and the "analysis" of offshore buyers was secondary to this. Here's what Rob said about the two in our exchange on Twitter (step 1 = Chinese-sounding names):

I presented *step 1* as rigorous, against folk saying I'd sat in the dark asking "who sounds Chinese?"

..then (step 2 = offshore buyers, emphasis added):

I only ever presented step 2 as informed speculation stemming from the rigourous step 1 work.

That is, they claim their intention was to talk about offshoreness, but what they knew about offshoreness only came from "informed speculation" secondary to the main analysis about ethnicity.

And what did Rob concluded from this "informed speculation"?

My conclusion: if my prior for "is there large-scale offshore $?" were X, my posterior post these data is >X

It's a wanky way of saying: After seeing the Chinese-sounding names evidence, he is more confident that "there is large-scale offshore Chinese buying in Auckland" than he was before. How confident was he before? And how much more confident has he become?

No, I won't quantify it, because that would be introducing false precision to qualitative reasoning. 

But here's the problem. He is literally saying his level of certainty is unknown + unknown. Which equals, of course: unknown.

This is the statistical basis on which Twyford is out there using words like "implausible" and "very unlikely".

In case you still think this is well-intentioned, or that unknown might actually be meaningful in any rigourous sense: 

Rob: But directional evidence has always been par for the course in political debates, as u know from media work.

Me: That's bullshit Rob. You're dropping the standard of proof to >0. i.e. Literally infinitesimal. 

Rob: What, you think directional evidence is *not* entirely standard in political debate. Come on.

What Rob means by "directional evidence" is to judge evidence by its direction only - as opposed to its direction and its strength. That is to say, Rob believe it's okay to use evidence which supports a claim in political debate, explicitly regardless of how weak it is. According to Rob, any shred of evidence is okay in a political debate, because that's how political debates work.

Please do not mistake me for thinking that this is well-intentioned. This is a cynical attempt to bamboozle the media and the public by hiding your utter lack of evidence behind fancy jargon. It's a travesty and a sad excuse for analysis. You ought to be ashamed, Rob.

Also, Sunday-Star Times: These claims Rob made about me are incorrect and defamatory. Please issue an correction in your next issue.

Also also: I've set up a permanent tip-jar over on Givealittle. If you feel like giving me a tip, feel free to do so.


My last name sounds Chinese

I don't own a house, but if I bought one, I hope that cynical politicians wouldn't blame people whose "last name sounds Chinese" for..

driving up house prices beyond the reach of hard-working Kiwi first home buyers

..as if people whose "last name sounds Chinese" can't be a hard-working Kiwi, as if we are taking their houses.

And if I became a property investor, I hope that I'd be judged like every other property investor, and not hung up as a political scapegoat as if we were some kind of foreign parasites, but they are wise stewards of property reaping the rewards of thrift and hard work.

I hope they wouldn't treat us as if we were not them, based on whether our "last name sounds Chinese".

Here's the thing with Labour's "analysis" of Auckland house sales, which the Herald are running with. Behind the curtain, there's nothing more to it than going through house sale records and asking "do these names sound Chinese?". It cannot tell you whether these people are speculators, investors or owner-occupiers, and it cannot tell you whether they are offshore, immigrants from the 90s, or if their ancestors have been here since the goldrush.

You can't magically MATH your way from a last name to a residency status. They have one piece of real data: "39.5% of last names in a list of house sales sound Chinese". All the assertions that Labour are making beyond this are complete bullshit.

Real-estate figures leaked to the Labour Party, which cover almost 4,000 house sales by one unidentified firm from February to April, indicate that people of Chinese descent accounted for 39.5 per cent of the transactions in the city in that period.

Yet Census 2013 data shows ethnic Chinese who are New Zealand residents or citizens account for just 9 per cent of Auckland's population.


"It's staggering evidence that strongly suggests there's a significant offshore Chinese presence in the Auckland real estate market. It could not possibly be all Chinese New Zealanders buying; that's implausible."

What Phil Twyford has done is just a sleight-of-hand with percentages:

  • 39.5% of house buyers are ethnically Chinese...
  • ...but the resident Chinese population in Auckland is only 9%.
  • 9% of residents can only buy 9% of houses...
  • ...so 30.5% must be non-residents! Ta da!

Here are the same numbers, in absolute terms:

  • 3,500 house buyers are ethnically Chinese...1
  • ...but the resident Chinese population in Auckland is 126,0002.
  • 126,000 residents can only buy 126,000 houses...
  • ...so, uh, yeah.

It is entirely plausible that 126,000 people can buy 3,500 houses. He goes on to claim that:

Mr Twyford said it was unlikely local Chinese — whom he did not wish to criticise — could be responsible for so many purchases, as they made up only 5 per cent of top income earners (those on more than $50,000 a year).

  • First, Chinese migrants generally come with a lot of cash - because having a lot of cash is a criteria for immigrating to New Zealand. So they don't need to have a high income to have enough cash to buy a house.
  • Second, there are 293,103 people in Auckland earning more than $50k a year (Census 2013). 5% of that is 14,655 - no small group.
  • Third, it makes no sense to assume that only those earning $50,000 a year can afford to buy a house, because only 26% of people in Auckland earn more than $50k, but 61.5% of homes are owner-occupied (both from Census 2013).

Once again, Twyford is using sleight-of-hand, comparing the 5% figure with 39.5%, as if you could rub two numbers together and they'll transmute into something else.

Twyford is doing this because all he has is "39.5% of last names in a list of house sales sound Chinese". He wants it to mean "a lot of houses are bought by overseas Chinese". But equally, it could mean that Chinese people in Auckland:

  • Are new migrants without a house
  • Have more money
  • Move more frequently
  • More likely to be of household-forming age
  • More likely to get help from their parents
  • More likely to invest in real estate

There's a long list of possibilities, but in the absence of evidence, that's all they are: Possibilities. Wanting to believe in one doesn't make it true.

There are more problems with the list itself:

  • Is that one company where Labour got their leaked list from representative of the rest of the market?
  • Is that one period (Feb-Apr) representive of the full year (are there seasonal effects)?
  • Is that period comparable to previous years?
  • If Chinese people are disproportionately engaged in speculation, are they disproportionately selling as well as buying (that's how speculation works, right?)?

But ultimately, these problems only render it unscientific and utterly useless, which is the least of Labour's problems.

The subtext of this story is that people with Chinese-sounding names are foreigners full of cash who are buying all our houses and chasing hardworking Kiwis out of their homes. This is straight-up scapegoating, placing the blame for a complex, emotive problem at the feet of an ethnic group.

Let's be grown-ups about this. Twyford can say “we're not criticising local Chinese” all he likes. Hell, he might as well tell us that some of his best friends are Chinese. But when his headline is screaming “the Chinese are buying all our houses”, when he says a “tsunami” of Chinese money is heading to our shores, it's clear that he's blaming Chinese people, and it's obvious that's the message that will be received.

Phil Twyford, Labour, and the Herald – you are fueling racial division in this country. You are encouraging people to question whether ethnically Chinese people ought to be able to buy houses. You are saying that people with “Chinese-sounding names” are dangerous foreigners who will destroy the Kiwi way of life with real estate purchases.

You have done this, and you can't shirk responsibility for your actions by trying to deny what you are doing, as you are doing it.

And for what? Look, I agree that hot money is a dangerous thing for a small, open, export-reliant economy. And a tax regime that favours non-productive activities like property speculation is crazy. These are real political issues that I feel strongly about. These are also straightforward problems which any half-competent political party ought to be able to communicate, without using the Yellow Peril as the boogeyman.

This is cynical, reckless dogwhistling. Like Winston Peters, just without the smirk.


1 If we assumed that the 39.5% figure is accurate and applies to the rest of the 8790 houses sold in Auckland during that period (REINZ figures), then 3500 houses would be sold to people with Chinese-sounding names.

If 9% of the Auckland's population of 1.4m people is Chinese, then there'd be 126,000 Chinese in Auckland.


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?