Monday, August 10, 2015

Spies in PR frenzy

The current Listener (dated 15 August 2015) runs a cover story “Secrets & Spies – The revolution inside our intelligence agencies” by Rod Vaughan, who claims to have been granted “special access” to those agencies. This example of embedded journalism has attracted a scathing commentary by Chris Trotter, to which – on one level – there is not much to add.

Except that Trotter somehow misses the point. He – like Vaughan – falls into the trap set by spy masters. The talk about the alleged ‘revolution’ within the agencies, defined by their directors having attended anti-tour protests at the age of 15 (Kitteridge) or being lesbians (Jagose), is simply a distraction for the flattered journalist. The real messages are buried in the middle of all the nonsense of how the agencies have changed.

Kitteridge is given a half page of unquestioned quotes about how big a threat the Islamic State is for NZ, culminating in the dubious claim that the SIS is neither capable nor allowed to monitor people’s internet browsing behaviour. She is also given space to perpetuate the mantra that “my staff barely have time to read their own emails, let alone so many emails of other people” - the na├»ve and dangerous myth that ‘full collection’ means that someone actually reads all the stuff that people write. This is followed by Una Jagose lamenting at length the legal restrictions the GCSB is under. The implied message in both cases is that the agencies need more resources and fewer legal restrictions.

Getting these messages printed just before the deadline for public submissions to the ‘Intelligence Review’ was the real reason why Vaughan was granted ‘special access’ to Pipitea House. And these messages just happen to match a lot of the questions in the official submission form.

Also by sheer coincidence, Vaughan was not the only journalist who happened to run a piece on the spy agencies this week. The Dominion Post’s political editor Tracy Watkins came up with the same idea. Her article “Spy boss Rebecca Kitteridge goes on a recruiting drive” (complete with a highly relevant picture of James Bond with sports car) follows the same pattern. After some light-hearted banter about Kitteridge subjecting herself to a job interview at the SIS, Watkins obligingly writes what Kitterridge already spoke into Vaughan’s dictaphone: the Islamic State is coming and we need more resources.

Vaughan may also be disappointed that he wasn’t the first journalist to be given ‘special access’. Back in March 2013, when the GCSB’s illegal spying on 88 people was all over the news, TV3’s Jessica Mutch claimed to be the first reporter to have been inside the GCSB headquarters. Her report back to Q+A host Susan Wood sounded like a small child reporting to its parents from a school trip. She was so much in awe at the swipe card system and the tinted windows that she completely forgot to ask about the spying.

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