Hard News by Russell Brown

Regrettably, spoiled for choice

So what's the lead in Iraq today? Head of Governing Council assassinated? One not-very-mass WMD turns up? Pentagon denial of New Yorker claim that accountability for prison abuse goes all the way up followed by another investigation that says the same thing? News junkies are, perhaps regrettably, spoiled for choice.

Seymour Hersh's The Gray Area continues his remarkable contribution to reporting on the Iraq war and its trappings. It opens thus:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror

According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

The Pentagon swiftly denounced Hersh's detailed and apparently well-sourced story as "journalistic malpractice" - only to see a separate investigation, by Newsweek, come up with virtually identical conclusions (backed up, according to Newsweek, with copies of memos and reports). In the case of the more delicately-couched Newsweek story in particular, I suspect some conservatives will be quietly muttering "so what?". The belief behind the interrogation policy isn't exactly a new one: that September 11 and the future threat of terrorism changed everything: even the Geneva Conventions.

Small point of interest: the print version of the Herald carries the Newsweek report today - or, rather most of it. The Herald's version of the story concludes thus:

As his other reasons for war have fallen away, President Bush has justified his ouster of Saddam Hussein by saying he's a "torturer and murderer." Now the American forces arrayed against the terrorists are being tarred with the same epithet.

But, make of it what you will, there are actually two further sentences at the end of the Newsweek original, removed, no doubt, by the agents of appeasement at the Herald:

That's unfair: what Saddam did at Abu Ghraib during his regime was more horrible, and on a much vaster scale, than anything seen in those images on Capitol Hill. But if America is going to live up to its promise to bring justice and democracy to Iraq, it needs to get to the bottom of what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Riverbend has thoughts on the beheading and news of more refugees drifting into Baghdad, from the south this time. And Raed turns out to have another blog, this one shared with an Irani called Niki,

Meanwhile, Michael Moore's Farenheit 911 gets a 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Time takes a look at the film, which as ever, seems in places to run off with the facts (his Saudi conspiracy is tenuous) but which will likely deliver some provocative snippets of video to TV news this week.

Oliver Driver would seem to be a good touch for a drink at the moment, what with an acting role in Serial Killers, a creative director gig on Havoc: Quality Time and, now, the presenter's spot on Front Seat. I like the fact that his edges are rather more frayed than is customary for a TVNZ presenter. I hope he's allowed to have a raging argument with someone at some point. That might be quite entertaining.

With various chancers (Titewhai Harawira and Donna Hall) already declaring themselves candidates in this or that electorate for the new Maori party (likely to be named, with admirable simplicity, The Maori Party) its leaders had to (a) confirm their own roles, and (b) impose some process. They did just that, with Professor Whatarangi Winiata and Dr Pita Sharples named yesterday as president and co-leader respectively, but, interestingly, it was Tariana Turia who laid down the law on Morning Report yesterday: candidates, she said, would be chosen through a transparent process laid down in the party's constitution. She sounded quite impressive.

Reining in freelancers and showponies is going to be quite important to the party's prospects, I suspect. The problem with Tame Iti's performance with the hikoi at Parliament wasn't really the fact of him evacuating his nostril - a good enough piece of theatre - but that he had promised the hikoi organisers he would stand back in the crowd and do nothing of the kind, but then went ahead and did it anyway. A political party that ran like that would soon be creamed. Prediction: if Annette Sykes takes a prominent role in the party, Turia will be bailed up in Parliament over Sykes' old, but still notorious, warning to foreign investors that "they will have their forests burned down and hydro dams destroyed."

Peter Griffin unravels the spin on an OECD report that Telecom is claiming shows we're really getting a great deal on broadband in New Zealand. First flaw in the OECD study: it only counts services offered by monopoly incumbent telcos - clearly, rather narrowing the field. Further, it pretty much ignores the radically different standards of service enjoyed by customers in markets where the monthly fee charged for a DSL connection is slightly higher: "Most of the other countries benchmarked have much higher data caps or operate flat-rate unmetered services that are much faster than Telecom's."

As it happens, our house dropped down to Telecom's $70 flat-rate 256k (128k upstream) service last week, from the financially ruinous full-speed JetStream account. The 256k service is fine (mostly) for ordinary web browsing, and we've certainly been enjoying not having to count megabytes as 20 cents apiece - but when the child on the other computer starts downloading a 200MB game demo it all turns to sludge. I can't help but resent the lurch backwards: even 500k would be alright, but no such JetStream account exists. Unfortunately, unless the government pulls a surprise and demands a sterner unbundling solution this week, 256/128 is the service designated by the Telecommunications Commissioner, and therefore the one around which the market will cluster.

Chris Thompson directed my attention to this fascinating story about a failed economist who stumbled onto an intriguing idea: that "platinum pieces" - the currency in the virtual world of Everquest - had, through being traded in online auctions, attained a real-world value:

When he averaged the results, he was stunned to discover that the EverQuest platinum piece was worth about one cent U.S. — higher than the Japanese yen or the Italian lira. With that information, he could figure out how fast the EverQuest economy was growing. Since players were killing monsters or skinning bunnies every day, they were, in effect, creating wealth. Crunching more numbers, Castronova found that the average player was generating 319 platinum pieces each hour he or she was in the game — the equivalent of $3.42 (U.S.) per hour. "That's higher than the minimum wage in most countries," he marvelled.

Then he performed one final analysis: The Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned out to be $2,266 U.S. per capita. By World Bank rankings, that made EverQuest richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia. It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world. And it didn't even exist.

Several people have asked me what I thought about David Cohen's rather unusual column about me in the National Business Review last week. One NBR staffer advanced the theory that Cohen has a "crush" on me. Who knows? I have sent the NBR a polite note listing some of the sillier errors of fact in the column, and I trust they'll publish it. Apart from that, I really don't want to get into some public feud.

But a couple of things in the column are worth commenting on, although I won't attempt to match its frenzied tone. One concerns an error on my part: I said recently that David Young of the Business Roundtable had lunch with Tim Barnett (not a "top secret" lunch, just a lunch for goodness sake) and Lindsay Perigo to discuss the Civil Union Bill. Obviously I misunderstood Barnett, because David Young is still, of course in Denmark, as he promptly reminded me ("I'm by no means embarrassed by the suggestion that I would lunch with Tim - we have met to discuss the CUB before - but, in the interests of accuracy, I thought I'd point out that I'm out of the country"), but I forgot to make the correction the following day. Consider it made.

The other issue is something people have occasionally asked about in the past: why don't we have Comments columns on Public Address? It's not because, as Cohen trills, "your opinion is all readers need". We could have had a comments forum attached to each blog - the part of SuperModel on which Public Address runs was originally created for a discussion board - but I've been there before. I'm a web publisher, and responsible to some degree for what appears on the site, whether I wrote it or not. Running a comments board properly would mean constantly keeping an eye on it for offensive or defamatory content, and none of us have the time to do that. Neither did the Herald, which shut down its discussion groups in the late 90s when it was unable to stay on top of offensive postings and was facing threats of legal action.

I'm a huge fan of the forums at Slashdot, but without that site's registration and user-moderation system, comments columns frequently fill up with me-too dittoposts, or sniping matches that generate more heat than light. So we all regularly quote reader feedback in a conventional editorial manner - and sometimes offer readers guest posts of their own (there are a couple of those coming, when I get the time to format and post them) - and it seems to work quite well.

Righto: work to do. I didn't post yesterday because my morning began with a chat to Deborah Telford's communications students at AUT, which was quite fun (I immediately spent my book vouchers on Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East and the Michael King collection Tread Softly For You Tread on My Life).

Tomorrow evening, if you fancy a laugh - or at least a giggle - feel free to come along to the The Inaugural Flying Nun Pub Quiz at the Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland from 8pm onwards. Oliver Driver - yes, him again - is the MC, Hat Meier is the quizmaster, and I am captain of The Oddities (fellow team members Grant Fell and Alan Holt), who will duel with The Sally Army (Lesley Paris, Chris Knox and Russell Baillie). If you can't make it, National Radio is recording the thing and putting it to air at 1pm on Saturday.