Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: 'Free society' report doesn't live up to title

Patsy Reddy and Michael Cullen.  Photo / Dean Purcell / Ross Setford
Patsy Reddy and Michael Cullen. Photo / Dean Purcell / Ross Setford

When it comes to the powers of agencies such as the SIS and GCSB, some people believe that "the security of the state and of the individuals within it overrides other considerations", write Michael Cullen and Patsy Reddy in the foreword to their report Intelligence and Security in a Free Society.

Such a view, say the authors of the government-commissioned review, is aroused particularly during times of prominent international security threats, and "may be summed up in the often used phrase 'you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide'."

They continue: "For others, the opposite is true: freedom and liberty are so precious that any secret activity by state agencies must inevitably threaten those human rights, if only through the chilling effect of the fear of surveillance. Most people's views probably lie somewhere between these two extremes. Ours certainly do."

That is an uncontroversial statement, and a sensible place to start. But while the Cullen-Reddy report has its merits - the oversight regime proposed is an improvement - it is disappointing that the core balance they identify, between security and liberty, is hardly fleshed out at all.

The authors have much to say about security threats, albeit in mostly generalised terms, but the impacts of state-sanctioned surveillance on individuals and communities get scant examination.

There is no space given to the philosophical and practical impacts, nor to that "chilling effect", which is mentioned for the first and last time in the foreword.

And so the recommended expansion of powers for agencies to spy on New Zealanders sail past with pause for little more than technical considerations; the balancing act of priorities never really takes place.

Counting words is a crude measure, but can also be revealing. The words "liberty" and "liberties" appear eight times in the 179-page report; four of those in the foreword.

"Freedom" crops up 13 times, four in the foreword, and one in reference to the US "Freedom Act". You'd expect to see the word "security" plenty of times; it is after all a report into security agencies. Still, it's everywhere: 630 times over.

The words "terrorist" and "terrorism" appear 124 times in the report, and fair enough, too. But "civil liberty" and "civil liberties"? Zero.

"Free society" appears twice within the report, meanwhile - once in the introduction and once in the foreword, but isn't it reasonable to hope the concept might get more of a look in? It is, after all, in the title.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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