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Editorial by Selwyn Manning.

Selwyn Manning, editor –

THE PRIME MINISTER HAS once again decided to attack the messenger rather than address matters of national interest, after the New Zealand Herald revealed the Government’s GCSB surveillance agency targeted emails of Trade Minister Tim Groser’s opponents while he campaigned for leadership of the World Trade Organisation.

From Seoul, 3News reported the Prime Minister John Key insisted the latest spying allegations were timed by investigative journalist Nicky Hager, and others, to coincide with the signing of a free trade agreement between New Zealand and South Korea.

When questioned on his conspiracy theory, the Prime Minister said: “Of course they were, it’s all part of a particular agenda by Nicky Hager and some others.”

For the record, the latest in the Snowden Revelations investigation reveal how the New Zealand Government’s GCSB surveillance agency was used to spy on opponents of Trade Minister Tim Groser, as he campaigned (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to become leader of the World Trade Organisation.

Let’s be frank: This is a huge issue. It follows revelations that the GCSB targeted diplomats and officials of some of this country’s most important trading partners.

This, after revelations that the GCSB operates a total-surveillance-take of all communications (both civilian and official) of almost all Pacific Islands states. But the Prime Minister insists the leaders of the GCSB’s targeted nations do not care.

From Seoul he said South Korea’s prime minister didn’t raise it so she didn’t care: “They’re just not interested in Snowden,” the Prime Minister said. Rather than protecting New Zealand’s national interest – for example to categorically state that he would investigate the allegations and if it was found the GCSB was spying in the manner revealed in the NSA documents, then he would order the agency to stop immediately – the Prime Minister went on the offensive, basing his shoot-the-messenger attacks on assumptions, allegations that he got completely wrong.

The Prime Minister’s incorrect theories caused the New Zealand Herald to react.

The New Zealand Herald’s David Fisher corrected the Prime Minister’s assumptions in a responsive report on Tuesday stating that Nicky Hager had nothing to do with deciding when the revelations would run: “Hager suggested holding until today (Tuesday) or tomorrow, or even waiting a week or more. I argued against holding it because, almost exclusively, news runs when it is ready to run. Holding off on something – unless a matter of life or death – is as bad as planning to run it on a particular day for a particular objective.”

David Fisher added: “I consulted with the editor, explaining the dilemma. He could see the issue but was comfortable proceeding. News was news. It runs when it is ready.

“Hager’s contribution was done by Thursday. I worked through the weekend – as did Gallagher – to have the story ready for Monday,” David Fisher said.

So it was the New Zealand Herald’s decision to publish revelations of the GCSB-WTO-Groser-surveillance scandal on the day the New Zealand/South Korea free trade agreement was signed.

Is the Prime Minister suggesting the New Zealand Herald is part of some ‘left-wing conspiracy’? Frankly, that argument is not credible. Sadly, there is precedence to such attacks.

When Metro magazine published Eyes Wide Shut, an extensive investigation by journalist Jon Stephenson – on how New Zealand Defence personnel handed over Afghani prisoners to United States interrogators knowing that they would likely be tortured – the Prime Minister did not announce an official investigation into the allegations but rather attacked the credibility of the journalist.

As such, John Key’s attack-the-messenger style affects the ability of the fourth estate to function professionally and meaningfully. This tactic exhausts the fourth estate’s purpose to raise matters of public and national interest. But to date, even after the New Zealand Herald revealed how the truth is at odds to the Prime Minister’s assertions, the Prime Minister did not retract his attack.

John Key said from Seoul: “There’s no question there’s an anti-government, anti-American agenda.” “It’s just a 2012, backward-looking anti-American bunch of plonkers – that’s what these guys are, they’re not interested in the future of New Zealand or making it stronger, they’re just opposed to the government.”

Mr Key said Hager wasn’t a journalist, despite Nicky Hager being the most internationally recognised New Zealand investigative journalist. Key said: “The guy’s a protester. Well, fair enough but just don’t take him too seriously. I don’t.”

The Prime Minister also said:

  • – The GCSB operates lawfully
  • – The GCSB does not have that many resources
  • – And New Zealand has strong oversight.

However, the facts are:

  • The GCSB was found in 2013 to have operated illegally
  • The GCSB has been provided with United States NSA proprietary surveillance technology and has experienced massive increases to its annual budget
  • Security experts define New Zealand as having poor oversight frameworks, oversight that is the least probing of the Five-Eyes alliance members.

But beyond the Prime Minister’s attacks, and the inevitable damage this inflicts on the public reputations of those reporting the revelations, New Zealand’s national interest is arguably being corroded. New Zealand campaigned for its appointment as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council on the merits of its independence.

New Zealand’s elected representatives and officials could apply considerable legitimacy to the handle: New Zealand is an honest broker, that as an independent Pacific Island state, a member and arbiter of prestigious declarations and agreements spanning progressive interest around the globe, that this country would stand up for the underdog, would be a voice for smaller nations, for humanitarianism, for the rule of international law.

These revelations of massive scale-digital communication surveillance, undermine that decades old reputation.

Now that it is known that the Government Communications Security Bureau has committed to under-the-radar surveillance of friendly nations, in our name, the country’s international reputation is in tatters.

We have been relegated to a reputation akin to a repugnant pint-sized bully, resourced and protected by a superpower hulk, whose victims, and others, will understandably regard silently as one to distrust and where possible avoid. For the Prime Minister to insist they do not care is, in my opinion, beyond naïve. On this issue, John Key’s position is beyond credible.