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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Truth crusaders awol behind irony curtain

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'Big brother' visionary would scoff at today's whistleblowers' hypocrisy

Sixty-three years after his premature death, writer George Orwell has received the ultimate celebrity endorsement.

This week New Zealand First leader Winston Peters invoked Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 when condemning the campaign being conducted by Dame Susan Devoy, the bottom-feeding media and landscape-polluting white liberals to prevent him from alerting us to the fact that Chinese immigrants are turning Auckland into a giant opium den.

Peters isn't the only one who thinks 1984's nightmarish vision is becoming a reality. At least the citizens of Oceania are constantly reminded that "Big Brother is watching you". Americans didn't find out about their Government's surveillance programme until it was brought to their attention by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Although a leftist, Orwell discomforted many on the left because he saw the world as it was, rather than as it was supposed to be, or as the propagandists made it out to be. After serving on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War he wrote Homage to Catalonia, in which he revealed that the communist groups who took their orders from Moscow were more concerned with controlling - if not crushing - their ostensible allies than fighting the fascists.

If he was still with us, Orwell's penetrating scepticism would probably cause him to scoff at Peters' portrayal of himself as a fearless crusader whose freedom of speech is under threat from the forces of political correctness.

Orwell might point out that this self-styled outsider has held three of the four highest offices to which a New Zealand politician can aspire - Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs - and has played the victim card before: when Parliament's Privileges Committee was investigating him over the Owen Glenn donation, Peters likened his treatment to that being meted out to opponents of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

The fact Peters has built a significant and enduring political career by taking divisive positions and spouting inflammatory rhetoric would suggest that if the establishment really has tried to silence or subdue him, it has been spectacularly unsuccessful.

I suspect Orwell would be equally sceptical of the rush to anoint Snowden as a hero. Noting that Snowden got a job with a government contractor with the specific aim of acquiring information on America's cyber-spying networks, information that's now almost certainly in the hands of the Chinese and Russian intelligence services, Orwell might wonder why he shouldn't be seen as an agent of antagonistic foreign powers, rather than a whistleblower.

He would surely dwell on the hypocrisy of Snowden and fellow whistleblower Julian Assange claiming to be fighting the good fight on behalf of freedom of the press and open government while seeking and accepting assistance from the Chinese and Russian Governments which are fundamentally hostile to those principles.

Given that the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin provided the totalitarian model for both 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell would have appreciated the irony of Snowden hiding behind the coat-tails of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former officer in the KGB, the sinister and all-powerful secret police apparatus that spied on, tortured and frequently executed citizens suspected of harbouring anti- Soviet tendencies - or who had the bad luck to be related to or acquainted with known or suspected dissidents.

Snowden is apparently bound for Ecuador; Assange is holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. Again, Orwell would be fascinated that this pair, whose supposed cause is the freedom of the press, would seek refuge in a country which is hardly a paragon in that regard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, which compiles a risk list using such criteria as censorship, implementation of restrictive laws and numbers of exiled journalists, ranks Ecuador among the 10 worst countries in the world.

Orwell would be amused at the way the media's generally approving coverage of leaks and whistleblowers blurs the line between principle and self-interest. Contemplating the media-orchestrated indignation over surveillance of citizens without their knowledge, he might well wonder why that doesn't apply to reality shows that film people with hidden cameras.

The creators' justification is that exposing officials who take bribes or tradesmen who rifle through the lady of the house's underwear drawer is in the public interest. The US Government's justification for cyber-spying is the same, but on a rather bigger scale: the National Security Agency insists its secret activities have prevented 140 terrorist attacks.

And finally Orwell would despair that Snowden's revelations will reinforce the belief of the US gun nuts, rednecks and assorted paranoiacs that their Government really is out to get them, thereby widening America's paralysing divide and making gun control even more of a pipe-dream.

- NZ Herald

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