Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Spies in Parliament, the Rugby World Cup and the privatization of TVNZ

March 17th, 2009

So, as Scoop recommended six weeks ago, the SIS is to be told to close its files on sitting MPs.

Paul Neazor, the SIS Inspector-General, picked up this suggestion in his report yesterday to Prime Minister John Key, in the wake of revelations that the SIS has been spying on Green MP Keith Locke, even after he was elected to Parliament.

Neazor also suggests that a consultation formula will still be needed when the SIS thinks it would a good idea to begin spying on a sitting MP. Key has indicated that he will consider a system to allow such surveillance ‘only when deemed necessary with consent from the Speaker.’

That’s not good enough. Deemed necessary by whom? The appropriate body for such a decision can only be the multi-party parliamentary oversight committee for the security services and intelligence. The new membership of this committee has just been announced: John Key, Rodney Hide, Tariana Turia, Phil Goff and Russel Norman. It is only this body in consultation with the Speaker, who should be authorized to allow spying to commence on a sitting MP.

The reason why it cannot be simply an arrangement between the Prime Minister – in his capacity as Minister in charge of the Security Services – and the Speaker is that this is far too narrow a mandate. The Speaker is after all, an appointee of the governing party – and this example only highlights what a bad idea it is for our Parliament to have a Speaker from a partisan background.

Since the principle at issue is the freedom of parliamentarians to conduct their business free of surveillance by the security services, it should be a parliamentary committee – in this case, it would be the same one already entrusted with security intelligence information – that condones any infringement of that essential freedom, and only in exceptional circumstances. This should be the first item of business when the newly constituted committee has its initial meeting.
Jihadis vs the Rugby World Cup

The more alarming news was that our special anti-terrorism task force is out looking for recruits, starting among the military.

These guys are so elite, few people know they exist. Lets see now – we already have the SIS, the GCSB, the special profiling unit within the Immigration Service, the Police Anti-Terrorism Unit, and the SAS. Oh, and the Police Armed Offenders Squad. And ordinary coppers, with and without Tasers. How many of these special forces and units do we need to keep us safe, and how will they avoid falling over each other in the unlikely event of a terrorist incident ever occurring here?

And now there’s this lot who are out touting for new members. They’re called SMERSH…no sorry, CTTAG, or the Counter Terrorist Tactical Assault Group. CTTAG is apparently an elite group within the already elite SAS, who are an elite within our military, who are second to none. We’re talking Triple-E ninja masters here, Trev.

And why, in a global recession, do we need to be spending money on these people and paying them to carry out their daffy fantasy exercises? Well, “international developments” have heightened the need for “an effective on call counter-terrorist capability”, an army source told the New Zealand Herald newspaper. Really? If ‘international developments’ mean the attack on the Sir Lankan cricket team in Pakistan, why on earth does anyone think that a rugby tournament in New Zealand would attract the followers of Laskar-e-Taiba – assuming they could get past the special profiling unit at Immigration? (see above).

Here’s some news for the SIS. Thanks to Helen Clark – and no thanks at all to the likes of John Key, Simon Power and Bill English who were keen to join in – New Zealand did not help to invade Iraq, and thus we have not become a terrorist target. Jihadis do not play rugby, and so far, have shown no political interest in a game played by very few people.

Domestic opposition though, is quite another story. One feels this is the only potential source of disruption. If there was to be domestic opposition to the Rugby World Cup, this would primarily be legitimate protest, protected under the Bill of Rights. If it became violent we already have an elite group – they’re called the Police – to deal with it. People who conduct violent protest get arrested.

Reportedly, CTTAG is seeking its recruits among the military. Obviously, young blokes from the military have no particular fondness for rugby and for rugby culture, do they? Of course not. They would therefore be the types best able to distinguish between legitimate protest against the Rugby World Cup and terrorism, wouldn’t they? Just like the Red Squad were in 1981.

Frankly, the thought there is this uber-military tac squad lurking behind the Rugby World Cup façade to police the citizenry is enough to sink any residual affection for the event. CTTAG, one can only hope, will not be called in to enforce the draconian RWC rules outlawing any non-endorsed advertising sign within a specified distance of the venues, or to police the massive legal penalties – a $5,000 fine or three months in jail – devised by Trevor Mallard to deter streakers at RWC games.

Finally, if the Rugby World Cup is the alleged reason for CTTAG’s current burst of recruitment, can we have some commitment from government that this squad will be downsized, or disbanded altogether once al Qaeda’s deadly threat to our rugby tournament has passed ? Faint chance.
TVNZ on the ropes

So now it is official. The government has confirmed that its demands for a dividend from TVNZ preceded the global recession, and are thus blind to its effects. On RNZ this morning, Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman confirmed that he had written post election to TVNZ notifying them of the government’s expectation of a 9% return on investment over the next three years.

That 9 % figure is exactly what he had told TAKE magazine, the film and television industry quarterly, in an interview last year.

Here’s the money quote from Coleman, last August :

I mean, [TVNZ] made $375 million of revenue last year, and ended up making a $4 million loss. [TVNZ] could be returning a far greater dividend, as well as producing some great television. So, the original formula was a nine per cent dividend. [Therefore] it should be returning about $33 million to the taxpayer, which would pay for a heck of a lot of other stuff that government wants to do.”

So the level was set before the recession – and no attempt has since been made to alter it, in recognition of the dire economic conditions. If 90 jobs at TVNZ are lost as a result, that seems of no concern to the government – which only illustrates what a public relations sham the jobs summit in February has been all along.

Yes, TVNZ Rick Ellis is right when he says that a decline in advertising revenue – it is estimated that TVNZ’s revenues are down $25-30 million on projected ad income of $330 million – would have cost jobs, regardless of the dividend. Deferring the dividend though – you know, in the spirit of the job summit – might however have halved the redundancies required.

After all, job cuts have been funding the state’s dividend from TVNZ for quite some time. Last year’s dividend of $10.3 million was an 8.3% return – but even that level was possible only because of the reduction in operating costs achieved by Ellis on the back of a prior wave of job cuts at TVNZ in 2007. A nine per cent level is utterly punitive in the current conditions, and will only be achievable by continuing cutbacks in the popular but relatively costly programme content. Yesterday, TVNZ announced it will now have to cut 100 hours of local programmes. The risk is of a downward spiral in local content, and in the ratings and advertising revenue that it brings in – which will bleed over into a reduced ability to bid for quality overseas shows.

What we are really seeing here is a systematic attack on state broadcasting by the government that currently owns it – in a process that can only, ultimately, benefit the government’s friends at Sky and Mediaworks. The loss of staff – 17 from the newsroom alone – will definitely hurt TVNZ, which was already down to the bone after the 2007 cutbacks.

Yet it is the other shoe – the state broadcaster’s increasing difficulty in funding local content and buying quality overseas shows – that will hurt it even more in the long run, both commercially and in public support. Then it can be sold, at a fire sale price, to the government’s corporate cronies. ENDS

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    1. 10 Responses to “Spies in Parliament, the Rugby World Cup and the privatization of TVNZ”

    2. By Sara on Mar 18, 2009 | Reply

      Im glad to see your alarm bells ringing loudly Gordon. I wonder why they want less jounlists at TVNZ. Hoping they can sneek their secret agenda through with the help of all their public relations staff and get past a crippled media. This may muzzle journalists journalists who remain at TVNZ. They might think twice about criticising a government that likes making journalists redundant.
      John Key was not dubbed “The Smiling Assassin” for nothin.

    3. By Peter on Mar 18, 2009 | Reply

      TVNZ might save more money
      1.by cutting the 90 minutes of so-called news and analysis ( i.e from 6pm to 7.30pm) to a one hour show.
      2. by having fewer crews dashing round to car accidents and court exteriors.
      3. by showing more news reports from quality broadcasters, such as the BBC ( they could they franchise their overseas reports to the BBC and be done with the often fatuous “Kiwi” angle on world events).
      4. by ditching much of the so-called Close Up nonsense and trying decent one- to -one interviews on the New Zealand stories that are worth showing on the news.

    4. By Mike on Mar 18, 2009 | Reply

      Might TVNZ have reached the point where it is hardly worth “saving” or “tweaking” anymore? We have come a long, long way from the kind of public broadcasting that existed twenty or more years ago.

      A sense of what those channels were once like can be gained from tuning in to Maori TV: minimal ads, local content, long current affairs interviews, non-sensationalist docos in primetime, and balanced news coverage.

      Maybe TVNZ needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. If this means starting again with a single non-commerical channel, so be it. Of course, I’m not holding my breath that anything like this will happen while either Key or Goff are in charge.

      (Haven’t yet seen any of the new TVNZ digital channels, so it could be they are doing something right there).

    5. By stuart munro on Mar 18, 2009 | Reply

      Sad to say I agree with you Mike, I haven’t watched TVNZ in years, & I’m not planning to start again any time soon.

    6. By Gary Chiles on Mar 19, 2009 | Reply

      People have stopped watching TVNZ BECAUSE of the advertising.
      You can’t expect anybody with at least half a brain to sit through that amount of mindless nonsense. Especially when the content of much of the programming fails to distinguish itself from the advertising muck that surrounds it.
      The advertisers have killed their own golden goose, not any government.
      I laughed and I laughed and I laughed – I’ve waited 46 years to see Television advertising suffer financially the way they have made us all suffer mentally.
      Revenge is soooooo sweet!
      If TVNZ remains a commercial entity it deserves to die, it only deserves to survive if it reverts to a being public broadcaster prohibited from ANY advertising.
      Quality always trumps quantity, only the brain-dead enjoy stupid television and advertising.
      To quote the late great comedian Bill Hicks, “If any of you work in marketing or advertising, do us all a favour and kill yourself…… I’m not joking!”

    7. By DeepRed on Mar 19, 2009 | Reply

      If push comes to shove, it’s better that TVNZ goes bankrupt than see it falling into the hands of FOX News.

    8. By Philip Grimmett on Mar 20, 2009 | Reply

      Is this a conspiracy to make TVNZ irrelevant and easy to sell?
      Lets face it, it has become a bloated embarrassment and needs more Government money, not less. Providing cash for the Govt! Sacre blue!

    9. By Marc on Mar 21, 2009 | Reply

      Gordon, You have proved yourself another pundit in a sea of armchair judging ignorance. CTTAG has been in being for at least 4 years, a result of the SAS being tasked towards two large and divergent outputs. It is not an extra RWC capability, it is a new name for an existing capability. If you think they have no role, you should consider the fact reported by surveillance teams first hand of the NZ “activists” who were observed training to kill a VIP in convoy by ambush with gunfire, very similar to the Sri Lankan attack. You need to realise the truth. Security information is not made public for a variety of essential reasons. The result is that you learn far too little to make any judgements, rendering your arguments as baseless and pointless as a broken pencil. Perhaps its time to put yours down. Don’t any of you remember the Rainbow Warrior?, or the boy scouts motto: ‘Be Prepared’. Having worked in jihadi filled countries, I can tell you they make little difference between those who support the US in war and those who do not. They see Christian infidels, and guess what, Gordon? You and I and most NZers are put in the same target basket. Lets switch on people.

    10. By Daniel on Mar 22, 2009 | Reply

      Nice to see you dumping on the people who train harder then you ever could to protect your life. People like you are the first ones to cry out for help when the bad guys turn up. Just because there is no major terriost threat in NZ (Rainbow warrior, did we see that coming), dosn’t mea it wont. Better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it aye.

    11. By Medved on Mar 23, 2009 | Reply

      In terms of anti-terror groups lets not forget about the Special Investigations Groups SIG (responsible for the 2007 raids debacle), the Threat Assessment Group TSG, Tactical Policing Group TPG, Combined Threat Assessment Group CTAG, PLUS the SAS, SIS and numerous others… I guess in times of economic hardship having the state expand it’s surveillance apparatus and secret services to spy on it’s citizens is historically consistent, pointless but at the same time it keeps them off the streets and away from WINZ I guess. Maybe some of the folk from TVNZ could be reassigned with CTTAG?

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