Hard News by Russell Brown

Glass Houses

I finally got around to downloading and watching Fahrenheit 9/11 over the weekend. I had planned to take up the offer of a ticket for tonight's New Zealand cinematic premiere, but I can't go. And, y'know, Michael said I could download it - probably. It's as you'd expect - a highly persuasive work which does much of its persuasion by dint of video innuendo - but I ended up liking it more than I thought I would.

The film's greatest flaw is Moore's focus on what he hints might have been a Saudi conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks, and its implication that the guilty were protected when Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, were evacuated from the US. But even once you sift out the dubious elements, you're still left with the feeling that it makes a case to answer for the Bush administration and its chums.

Meanwhile, Dave Kopel's "57 Deceits" page has been upgraded to "59 Deceits" and now notes rebuttals from Moore's "War Room", some of them less convincing than others. Kopel quotes frequently from Moore's most trenchant and articulate critic, Christopher Hitchens.

Yet Kopel and Hitchens' tracts would be much shorter had they confined themselves to what is actually in the film rather than hauling in blurts by Moore in the past three years which would seem to contradict his own work. That Moore can be quite a critter in his unguarded moments isn't news, but it's also true that Hitchens wouldn't emerge terribly well from similar scrutiny.

As Yellow Times pointed out, Hitchens' ability to scream blue murder over the Bush administration's ill-fated appointment of the "obfuscator and falsifier" Henry Kissinger to head the 9/11 Commission ("the cynicism of the decision and the gross insult to democracy") whilst simultaneously maintaining his line that the same administration had been noble and honest in its prosecution of the war on terror is quite a contortion. A contortion, indeed, worthy of Michael Moore.

Kopel's hardly immune either. Take this oddly conflicted comment - on why he was voting Nader in 2000. By the standards of evidence he applies to Moore (ie, with much recourse to official reports), his dismissal of climate change as a "dystopian fairy tale" is simply absurd, and his claim that "Gore wants to outlaw the internal combustion engine" is, well, deceitful. Gore said in his book that "the elimination of the internal combustion engine by 2020" - and, logically, its replacement by more sustainable technologies - could be a "strategic goal". This is nothing like the implication in Kopel's comment that Gore as president would legislate to take people's cars away - and, indeed, is exactly the sort of insinuation for which Kopel so energetically damns Moore. So, yes, people in glass houses …

Doubtless you could spend forever on this sort of thing. In the end, I think it's best to take Moore's work and his critics' rebuttal as of a piece. One doesn't play properly without the other.

Meanwhile, with the news in Sunday's Observer that Downing Street has admitted that its repeated claim that coalition forces had discovered "the remains of 400,000 people in mass graves" in Iraq was untrue - the actual number appears to have been more like 5000 - you start to wonder if anything is true.

Given the extraordinary impact it had on our national history - not just the economic reforms but the setting in motion of the Treaty settlement process - it's surprising that there hasn't been a more vigorous public examination this year of the 20th anniversary of the fourth Labour government's arrival. Are we at peace with it, or just ignoring it? Anyway, Jane Clifton has a good story on the economic angle in this week's Listener. Reading it, I was surprised at how much I agreed with what Gareth Morgan had to say:

Morgan recalls that economist Brian Easton, for one, was always arguing that the sequencing of corporatisation and privatisation was all wrong. "And he was right. You have to make sure that you have the capacity for fair competition first – that new entrants can get into the marketplace. That there is a marketplace. Then you corporatise/privatise. But that wasn't done."

Instead, Morgan says, the "privilege" of a state monopoly was simply transferred – either to private companies like Fay, Richwhite, or a whole new aristocracy, the state-owned enterprise (SOE) honchos, who got to run monopolies, and pay themselves princely sums. The public was revolted by the SOEs' antics.

I think Morgan's also right when he goes on to claim that the public's experience of privatisation has effectively precluded talk of, say, further opening the education sector to the private sector. After experiencing some of the lousiest privatisations in the developed world, why would we want to have a big ol' punt with education or health?

Don't get me wrong: big chunks of the vast public sector did need to be broken out and sent to the market. There were business in which the taxpayer had no need to be, and practices in some public entities that were just crazy. Our economy had to be significantly restructured and deregulated. But the way in which those entities were butchered and the nature of some of the deals - particularly under the National government of the early 1990s - is something that's still hard to grasp. How could this have happened?

Brian Gaynor's lucid 1999 analysis of the fortunes of Michael Fay and David Richwhite, through the Winebox deals and the privatisations of New Zealand Rail and Telecom, is still disturbing reading. Fay and Richwhite enjoyed a series of transactions in which they benefited hugely, not only at the expense of the New Zealand public, but their own shareholders. They are not heroes but rogues.

Meanwhile, foul odour continues to emerge from that most rotten of the privatisations (see another Gaynor analysis from 2000), that of New Zealand Rail, with the Commerce Commission standing by its description of the actions of Tranz Rail management in destroying documents and emails in 2000 as "Enron-like". Sigh …