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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