Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the Fonterra milk powder scandal, and the ongoing Dunne email saga

August 5th, 2013

The Fonterra tainted milk powder scandal is at risk of becoming the export equivalent of foot and mouth disease, and needs expert management now to staunch the damage. In that respect it is probably just as well that political operators such as Steven Joyce and Tim Groser are now handling the fallout. Because unfortunately, the stark details of the timeline involved don’t instill a lot of confidence in Fonterra’s own managerial nous. Incredibly, the contamination occurred in May 2012 but was not detected and suspected until March 2013 – and was then not confirmed to anyone outside the company until last Friday. (No wonder farmers lectured by Fonterra about their sanitary standards in the milk shed are feeling annoyed. But that’s the least of the problem.)

There are two glaring gaps in the timeline (a) the gap between the botulism-inducing incident and its detection and (b) the delay in notifying the government and most importantly, the New Zealand public who are/were left at risk during that time. Was this delay in notifying anyone else being influenced by Fonterra’s desire not to compound the controversy and delays in getting $100 million in export shipments off the wharves in China – an incident that also came to the boil in May? This scandal looks like getting far worse before it gets any better.

Interesting column by Michael Laws on the weekend about the Dunne/Vance emails/phone logs scandal that is now lapping around the knees of the PM’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson. In his SST column, Laws raised questions about the media’s alleged attempts to obtain the same data, which in turn invites speculation about what the media would have done if it could have got its own hands on the email content in question. As Laws indicates, the privacy issues now being treated as being sacrosanct by the Press Gallery might well have gone out the window. In the public interest, of course.

No doubt, there is a degree of hypocrisy about the media’s sudden discovery that privacy should be scrupulously respected. There’s nothing like things happening to yourself – or to the like-situated – to foster a sense of moral outrage about an issue. (It would be nice if the media were treating the prospect of mass surveillance with as much horror as they are the intrusions on the privacy of one Fairfax reporter.)

Arguably, the rules that govern the publication of this kind of material would be likely to produce an outcome that’s less dangerous than the use of such data for God knows what purposes by the PM’s office, or within something like the Henry inquiry. The really interesting question would be how the media might have reacted if the authorities had obtained some sensational stuff from a successful fishing expedition in Dunne’s outbox/inbox, and had then offered it for laundering through the media. To some, such an offer might well have tested the boundaries of media collegiality – which, again, is Laws’ basic point.

Even so, this kind of speculation about “what the media might have done” doesn’t invalidate the disquiet about the evidently more successful attempts at access initiated by the PM’s office and the Henry inquiry – if only because allowing access by state agencies to this kind of material is of greater concern, because of the power they wield. Still, it does make for an interesting moot point for some journalism class in future. How should the media respond when the public interest in such an issue – i.e., did or didn’t a senior MP leak a confidential report into our security services, and why – runs up against the privacy rights of the parliamentarian and journalist in question? Journalists are usually willing to waive the privacy rights of others, when wrongdoing may be afoot. In protecting its rights to privacy (even when its own scoop-related activities become entangled with the story) it can reasonably expect that it will not only be the Michael Laws of this world who query the double standard that’s in play, and the reasons why it exists.

Revealingly, the main reason why the media can’t access the Dunne/Vance electronic traffic is because Parliamentary Services isn’t accessible via the OIA, a distinction that was supposed to signal that the things that Parliamentary Services do are too important to the running of Parliament to be open to outside – or inside – scrutiny. Hindsight is cheap. But across the public service, officials should be taking due warning from this incident. It should have been agreed on by the requestors and by those they were pressuring that of course, private electronic communications (and the meta-data based on them) could never be material considered to be ‘relevant” for forwarding to the Henry inquiry, without the explicit consent of the participants in those communications. If Parliamentary Services, the Henry inquiry and the PM’s office had agreed beforehand on those ground rules, Geoff Thorn would still have his job. His former colleagues and peers should now take note, and should be taking the necessary self-defensive precautions when the politicians and their staff come calling.


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    1. 7 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on the Fonterra milk powder scandal, and the ongoing Dunne email saga”

    2. By Gordon Campbell on Aug 5, 2013 | Reply

      On reflection, my attempt above to find some kind of synchronicity between Fonterra’s discovery that it had a contamination problem with its milk powder (March) and the earlier export problem with China (in May) is strained, and wrong. In reality there was probably no good time for Fonterra to ‘fess up about a disaster with its milk exports, and that’s regardless of any other problems with our China trade. The long delay between discovery and notification probably just reflects a culpable reluctance by Fonterra to tell the government – and the public – the bad news.

    3. By RJL on Aug 5, 2013 | Reply

      Gordon, I agree, there’s no good time for Fonterra to confess to its knowledge of a disaster. But your main point that “four months later” is definitely a bad time to do so, still stands.

      On “The Nation”, Joyce tried to make some mileage out of “what the media might do”. However, that is entirely irrelevant when considering the legality and ethics of what Key and his men *did* do. DPMC, the Henry Inquiry, and Parlimentary Services are not media outlets. They are accountable to entirely different standards.

    4. By RH on Aug 5, 2013 | Reply

      As far as I know they are still not 100% sure it is botulism are they? reading up on it, it appears that botulism is very rare in NZ, and exceedingly difficult to isolate.
      Also I have to say, its all very well MPI etc having a wee rave about the timeline, however, when the dcd scare happened, MPI sat on that for 3 months…so they are not exactly lilywhite in my eyes, I’d be interested to know in this latest mess, if it was MPI or fonterra who went to the press first?

    5. By MP on Aug 6, 2013 | Reply

      I am outraged at the intrusion into a journalist’s affairs over a matter of mere political embarrassment. Contrary to Winston’s blustering there was no national security issue because the report wasn’t subjected to a national security classification. There was no crime, and certainly not a serious crime.

      However, it’s rich that the media are trying to play upon their supposed role as the Fourth Estate and guardians of the public interest when, largely, they are happy to shill for the government and avoid asking awkward questions. There is no rabid impartiality in the NZ media, so why should the public care if the press get their comeuppance at the hands of a deeply-popular PM? The media might have better luck getting the public outraged if the they took seriously their duty to investigate all comers and hold power to account. Fawning sycophancy doesn’t endear them to the public when they want public support.

    6. By David on Aug 6, 2013 | Reply

      GCSB hysteria

      Radical change is being promoted to every NZ citizen’s rights and freedoms, deserving of an informed dialogue, why are we being denied?

      Anybody concerned witnessing our armed forces dragging so called terrorists from their beds during the Dotcom Raids? Objective- to inform Mr. Dotcom he was charged with copyright infringements, at the end of a boot. FBI present, signed off by our PM Mr. John Key. Turns out to be illegal, Mr. Key’s response, extend this to all NZ’ers, solving the problem for our government. It has serious consequences for all of us, and is a deliberate attack on democracy.

      We need to wake from the illusion others would create for us; that everybody needs to be monitored, just in case, to keep us safe. The government disingenuously thinks we misunderstand; they are just fixing existing laws so it becomes legal to spy, should they choose, with adequate oversight of course, worried?

      We perceive the world through our own lens. Haphazardly constructed by our environment, upbringing, experiences, we learned (self taught) it. From this we form our beliefs, truisms about ourselves, our individual identity. I am this or that, along with our own unique world view. We seek to reinforce this belief of self.
      What you believe is reality, right? Or is it just your perception of reality? If there is self, there must be others.
      Perceptions formed after this lens filtering become beliefs. Our lens is the Ego.
      The Egoic self promotes separation, judgment, labeling. This is the problem.

      The media narrative can be very influential in forming these beliefs

      Repeating the same mistake of the Egoic self over and over brings the same result, many consider this the definition of insanity!
      IF you removed the Ego we are all the same, all one.
      Sadly you can witness these Ego’s in our Government’s debating chamber, failing to hear any competing narrative.

      Logically then our Egoic government is insane!

      This is counter-productive to good-governance.

      Reality is; The GCSB proposed changes are to protect the Government from the people!

      If you were to consider the OBR (open bank resolution), another master stroke of covert legislation of this National government you might begin to feel uneasy about what this government is preparing for?

      Regarding the occupy movement; who are the 99%? Obviously the majority, including you, a more pertinent question would be who is the 1%?
      The 1%; the people with Ego’s so inflated, who make their insatiable lust for more, whether it be for money, for power, or both, their identification. These people threaten democracy and the livelihoods of the other 99%.

      There should be an opportunity to explore with calm rational debate whether such legislation is the way New Zealanders want to live; through fear do we want to suffer the consequences of being under the threat of constant surveillance. This is a radical change to our society, one that deserves discussion.

      Let’s remove these egomaniacs, before NZ goes down the W.C.

      David Croucher

    7. By Cherry Gordon on Aug 8, 2013 | Reply

      It is perhaps worth remembering that back in May 2012 the government was in throes of restructuring MFAT. Staff numbers were slated to be reduced by 304.

      With product sold to seven companies in eight countries with unknown outlets around the world, Fonterra might have found it initially difficult to know whom to deal with in MFAT about a delicate matter needing continuity and skilled handling.

    8. By onenzer on Aug 12, 2013 | Reply

      anyone know where the MINISTER OF FOOD SAFTEY is holidaying ??

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