Gordon Campbell on smear tactics in politics

Column – Gordon Campbell

Smears are the political equivalent of a hit and run. First comes the allegation that hints of skullduggery – Russel Norman and Winston Peters held secret meetings with Kim Dotcom! – and then comes the rebuttal. Unfortunately, by the time the rebuttals …

Gordon Campbell on smear tactics in politics

by Gordon Campbell

Smears are the political equivalent of a hit and run. First comes the allegation that hints of skullduggery – Russel Norman and Winston Peters held “secret” meetings with Kim Dotcom! – and then comes the rebuttal. Unfortunately, by the time the rebuttals have been made, the spinmeisters will usually have hit the target and moved on. Patiently, one can explain the difference between the John Banks/John Key issues to do with Dotcom – which in Key’s case, involve admitted breaches of the law by the state’s security services. The questions at stake there – who said what to who, and when – are of substance. They have to do with alleged and/or admitted illegal behaviour by those holding the reins of power in central and local government. They entail culpable failures of judgment and oversight.

What the Key government has been peddling this week is something entirely different. To state the bleedingly obvious, there is nothing illegal about Russel Norman visiting Dotcom, and having a conversation about Internet commerce and Dotcom’s plans to found a political party. Similarly, Peters says his diary of private visits is no one else’s concern. Key has been interestingly specific about how often Peters is supposed to have visited Dotcom, on three separate occasions. How could Key know this? Surely, one would hope, not through using SIS/GCSB surveillance for his own political purposes? Norman’s subsequent opinion – that the ministerial discretion about Dotcom’s extradition should take heed of the history of law-breaking by the state against this individual – is grounded in the law to do with how the extradition process should operate. Discretion is an intentional part of that process: in that sense, the final decision to extradite is a political decision, not a legal one and Norman was entirely within his rights to express an opinion on how he thinks that discretion should be exercised. As yet, Key has not engaged with Norman on those grounds, preferring to use smear tactics instead.

Is it likely (a) if Dotcom ever does launch his political party and (b) if by August, Dotcom’s party has failed to get close to the 5% threshold, that he would then throw his support behind the centre-left? Very probably. Logically, he would be unlikely to support the centre right – given that its leadership colluded in raiding his mansion, trashing his business, and is seeking to ship him off to face some kangaroo court in the US. Personally, I think Dotcom would be better advised to forget the political party idea, and be what he really is: a voter registration motivator among non-voters, on behalf of the centre left. Dotcom’s Internet issues will only appeal to libertarian or centre right voters to the extent to which Dotcom is not politically aligned at all – which in this context, would defeat his wider purpose, which is a change of government.

Blame it on the moguls, per se. Maybe we need to institute a mandatory means test whereby the only people allowed to have contact with politicians are those too poor to buy influence from them. If any form of social contact whatsoever between Internet moguls and politicians is to be treated as inherently suspect, shouldn’t we be applying the same rule to Hollywood moguls as well? In the same spirit of the government’s smear tactics this week, how is one to innocently explain the sudden 180 degree turn by MBIE Minister Steven Joyce late last year, when it came to significantly boosting the level of subsidies on offer to Hollywood film studios? Joyce’s explanation to RNZ for the flip flop was that formerly he had listened to MBIE advice, but he then decided to pay heed to the differing Culture and Heritage Ministry advice. Interesting. I thought bureaucratic advice on a contentious issue came into Minister’s offices more or less simultaneously, not in a conga line. How could he have possibly taken the MBIE advice at first, without knowing what Culture and Heritage and the Film Commission were advocating?

Can Joyce and Key give an assurance that they never met with Hollywood moguls James Cameron and Peter Jackson before changing their minds so spectacularly? The immediate beneficiary of that change of stance has been Cameron, and his Avatar film sequels. For some reason Cameron is deemed to be a Good Mogul and the policies that benefit him are to be encouraged; Dotcom is deemed to be a Bad Mogul, with whom contact is to be treated as inherently suspect, no matter what benefits his legal activities may bring. Go figure.

Oh, and did I mention that the same offence meant to justify Dotcom’s extradition – i.e. secondary copyright infringement as a criminal offence – is something that every member country of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks (except the US, but including New Zealand) has agreed to reject within the TPP negotiations? As elsewhere, the TPP member countries staunchly maintain that such actions constitute only a civil offence at worst, and not a criminal one. So how can New Zealand accede to Dotcom’s extradition to the US to face criminal prosecution, when all along in the context of trade, we refuse to regard the offence in question as being a criminal matter?


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