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A Study in Media Training

I’ve got to hand it to the prime minister: on last Wednesday night he stomped all over John Campbell in the interview about the GCSB bill. He said exactly what he wanted to and gave Campbell no chance to ask the real questions we all want answered. It was a demonstration of his mastery of one of the worst aspects of politics: the use of misleading propaganda to push forward a particular ideology while refusing to discuss the real issues.

Clearly this was a setup where the PM had been thoroughly briefed on what to say by his expert spin doctors. He had refused to appear in the past but when he did appear he was determined to use the time for his own benefit. It was more like a prepared speech on subjects entirely of Key’s liking rather than an interview where he answered questions.

How often did he say something like “I’ll answer that in a minute” but didn’t? How often did he try to make the interviewer look like the bad guy for even suggesting the process could be corrupted? How often did he speak about a basically irrelevant topic then act offended when Campbell interrupted him?

I can imagine Key and his advisors spending hours going over strategies for avoiding the questions and advancing a distorted and misleading version of the facts. They clearly did a great job and in some ways I really must admire their skills.

Campbell did seem to be somewhat intimidated by Key. There is no way any other politician would have got away with what Key did. Maybe it’s because the PM had refused to appear for so long that Campbell wanted to be nice to him so that he might appear again in the future, or maybe it was just the skill Key demonstrated which left Campbell with no answers. As one commentator said: it was like a study in media training.

But although Key clearly won the debate, I don’t know how many people would have changed their minds as a result of this interview. That’s because most people can see when they are being conned even when the person conning them is immensely skilled.

Most commentary since the program has pointed out where facts were distorted, assumptions were made, and inconvenient details were ignored. In some ways I think people who oppose the government’s spy bill will be even more cautious of it now after seeing the tactics which are being used to defend it.

It’s also interesting to note that up until then the PM had arrogantly and quite insultingly claimed that New Zealanders didn’t care about who spied on them and would be more interested in the new fishing limits bill which seems to have been introduced as a sort of smokescreen for the more malicious stuff going on.

Just imagine what people are thinking: instead of the current 9 the government will let you catch 5 fish per day (or whatever it turns out to be) instead of the 3 they wanted to cut it to (while leaving the real source of problems, commercial fishing, the same). They are really listening to the public view aren’t they? Apparently the same doesn’t apply when it comes to slightly more important issues like spying on its citizens.

Surely the public can see through such obvious and cynical strategies? If they can’t then I guess they deserve to have Key and his fascist friends (yeah, hyperbole, I know) for another 3 (or will that be 4) years.

It seems that the PM must have changed his mind about the importance of the issue though, otherwise he wouldn’t have made such an effort to appear on Campbell Live (his office called TV3 to arrange his appearance) and inflict us all with his propaganda. I haven’t seen that much effort put into the fishing quota legislation.

The Campbell Live poll on the GCSB (spying) legislation gathered 53,000 votes in a week where the snapper quote poll got 30,000 participants in a much longer period. Maybe people do care. And if they care about the bill they also oppose it by 89% against just 11% supporting it.

I know that these are informal methods of judging public concern and wouldn’t pass any sort of scientific scrutiny but they are the only indicators we currently have.

It can be hard for the public to judge the future effects of a new law (although, as I said above, they can usually tell when they are being lied to) but the opinions of experts in law and surveillance should be taken seriously. So what do they think?

The Law Society made submissions against it. New Zealander of the Year, Dame Anne Salmond, is skeptical of it. The Human Rights Commission are concerned about it. So is the Privacy Commission. Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, says the GCSB spends most of its time spying for the US who see it as an outpost of the NSA in the South Pacific. Jane Kelsey reminds us that the Urewera case shows how easy it is to get an interception warrant and how police exceed the warrant powers.

But the best comment comes from Orcon founder, Seeby Woodhouse, who said the National Party mistook George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, for a guide book. Maybe John Key has been consulting with the “Ministry of Truth”!

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