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

Toby Manhire: All-seeing PM a match for Five Eyes

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Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

I don't know what's coming but I know that what's coming is wrong, and it's outdated, and it's made up, but even if it isn't wrong and outdated and made up, which it is, it's based on stolen materials and in any case it's absolutely the right thing to do and, of course, we do it because, at the end of the day, terrorism!

There is something breathtaking about the Prime Minister's scattergun pre-emptive denunciations. On Wednesday he popped on his wizard's hat, stared into the future, and categorically dismissed the story which appeared in the Herald the following day. Not for him the decorous classic "the Government never comments on specific intelligence matters". No, John Key could "guarantee you it will be wrong", he said with a wave of the prime ministerial wand.

It must have been tempting for David Fisher and Nicky Hager at that point to conduct a switcheroo, and run instead with the headline "Revealed: Earth is round". But instead they went as planned with the revelations, drawing on documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that New Zealand had been wholesale spying on its allies in the Pacific from the GCSB base in Waihopai and passing on, unmediated, the harvested data to the US and Five Eyes partners.

As it turned out, Key acolytes and plenty of others besides responded pretty much as if the newsflash had been about the spherical nature of the planet. Spying on the Pacific!? Tell us something we don't know!

I can't be the only one who started feeling woozy with deja vu: isn't this much what happened with Dirty Politics, the last published work by Hager? He was dismissed by Key as a "screaming leftwing conspiracy theorist" on the eve of the publication of the book (which most people, including several senior politicians, expected to be about the GCSB rather than the machinations of the PM's office and an attack blogger). Then came claims of fabrication, and objections that it was all based - which it was - on stolen materials. Followed by the chorus of, duh, guys, were you born yesterday?

And so, even if no one credible has seriously questioned the authenticity of Snowden documents, who could blame them for trying it again? "We can't discount that some of what is being put forward may even be fabricated," said the PM's spokesperson yesterday. We can't discount fairies, they added (no, they didn't). The other familiar ingredients were there, with added "terrorism!".

None of which is to say evidence the GCSB has been eavesdropping on Pacific neighbours will come as any great surprise to many. Waihopai's giant mesh bubbles poking out of wine country are not there for novelty's sake. They're like a pair of big cartoon eyes, rolling at the revelations. Or a couple of speech bubbles, filled with the words, "What did you think we were up to?".

The important, and concerning, part about the Snowden papers is they point to a step change in the nature of the spying, with the upscaling of the base in 2009 to enable "full take" collection of communications. Before 2009, the interception was more precise and targeted. Now, it's collecting everything and funnelling it, essentially unfiltered, into the great NSA reservoir.

Apart from anything else, the publication of documents that detail the scale of New Zealand spying in the Pacific - and bear in mind Hager says these are "by no means the most dramatic revelations", with more to follow - enable a proper public debate about the practice. Is wholesale surveillance of allies' communications okay? It's perfectly possible to be in favour of targeted spying, and to be glad of the existence of the GCSB and the Five Eyes, but opposed to bulk snooping.

Mass surveillance is defended as necessary in a world replete with asymmetric terrorist peril. But its effectiveness is arguable at best. Is it worth the concomitant erosion of civil liberties? And as technological capability grows, are we hoovering up people's communications because we should or because we can?

As chance would have it, New Zealand has slated an independent review of intelligence services to begin mid-year, which is just the thing to tackle these sorts of questions properly. The latest revelations underscore the importance of ensuring the review is furnished with plenty of time, clout, transparency and real independence.

After all, the review - to be repeated every five to seven years - was secured as part of concessions to get through legislation that was itself brought about by a GCSB breach of the law, in spying on New Zealand residents including Kim Dotcom. And the bungling of the former SIS director in releasing official information was made plain by a recent watchdog review prompted, of course, by that screaming rapscallion Hager.

There's plenty of territory for an independent review to cover, and we look forward to the PM's response. Preferably after it's been published.

A little spin on cricket ad gems


TV viewing figures for the Cricket World Cup must be looking good. Not just because of the games, which are entertaining enough, but owing to the magnificent vignettes in the ad breaks between former New Zealand cricket heroes Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle.

They're like tiny, precious episodes in a classic sitcom: Two Men and a Heat Pump.

Call me presumptuous - dare to dream, and all that - but I've been working on my own scripts for new and topical versions, a selection of which I present below.

INT. STEVE'S LOUNGE - DAY.

Nathan crawls through the door, his cargo shorts dangling torn from his ankles.

Steve: Mate! What's wrong? You look hot and bothered, I'll put on some cool air!

Nathan: Mate! I was racing to get here when some vigilante stopped me and tried to snatch my khakis!

And look at that, we're out of space. I've got another cracker about the Picton lovebirds but that will have to wait.

- 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 listener.co.nz, 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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