Gordon Campbell on why the government shouldn’t run the Christchurch massacre inquiry

ardern-bannerSo far, so good. At Cabinet yesterday, the promised changes to our gun laws cleared their first hurdle. According to PM Jacinda Ardern, Cabinet agreed collectively “in principle” on a set of proposals to change New Zealand’s gun laws. Those proposals will be publicly announced before Cabinet meets again next Monday. Some details remain to be sorted out which, Ardern said, meant that she was currently unable to specify any elements of what the government has in mind. This seemed odd given that, presumably, none of those outstanding details has the power to up-end the commitments that Cabinet has just made.

The consensus is significant though, because worries had existed that NZF Defence Minister Ron Mark ( a long time pal of the gun lobby) might try to play a spoiler role – but NZF leader Winston Peters confirmed it had been a collective Cabinet decision, adding that the events of March 15 had changed everything. Later in the press conference, Ardern also hinted that National leader Simon Bridges might be inclined to support the changes being mooted.

Yesterday, Ardern also announced an inquiry into the background to the mosque attacks and into the role played by the SIS, GCSB, Police, Customs, and Immigration. As she indicated, this investigation will examine what the agencies knew about the attacker and his activities and whether they satisfactorily detected and shared any warning signals. The terms of reference and timetable for this inquiry have yet to be finalised.

As Ardern explained, the inquiry could be a Royal Commission, a public inquiry, or a ministerial inquiry – which she suggested, might be better able to handle any classified information that might prove to be relevant. Maybe so, but the obvious downside of a ministerial inquiry is that it would be seen by the public as being far too “in house” – in that it would be set up and managed and by the same executive wing whose agencies were under investigation. Yesterday, Act leader David Seymour was right to insist that:

…..this incident must be investigated at arms-length from the government by independent commissioners reporting to the Governor-General.

There also seemed something odd about Ardern suggesting that the needs of handling “classified information” – mainly the information and priorities shared by the 5 Eyes security partners – should be a factor in determining the appropriate structure for an inquiry into a New Zealand tragedy. Enabling the SIS to determine those sensitivities would be a terrible idea. After all, whether the SIS and GCSB let themselves be misled by the undue focus of their 5 Eyes partners on threats posed by Muslim radicalism is – or should be – a major point of contention at this inquiry. Enabling the SIS to drop a cone of secrecy over proceedings ( via sweeping claims about the need to protect classified evidence) would be viewed by the public as a cover up of the same incompetence and misplaced priorities that the inquiry has been set up to detect, and deter.

In the meantime, the silence from the SIS continues to be deafening. The sub-head on the SIS website proclaims with what now looks like black humour: “Providing security and intelligence services to keep New Zealand and New Zealanders secure”. Yet heading towards 96 hours after the Christchurch SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge has said nothing at all publicly – much less offer an apology to the Muslim community (or to New Zealand) for what looks like an epic fail by her agency. In some jurisdictions, her resignation would be seen as appropriate. Instead, it seems that the SIS desire to protect its information sources – and itself – is being allowed by the government to partially dictate what sort of inquiry we end up getting.

The Gun Law Changes. To repeat what this column spelled out in detail on Sunday, the gun law changes will need to contain these six components at the very least:

(a) the registering of weapons alongside the registration of owners, and a limitation of ammunition sales and cartridge magazines to only the weapon listed.

(b) a shorter registration term – 3-5 years, not the current 10 years

(c) a ban on the private ownership of military style weapons (ie semi-automatic and automatics)

(d) an immediate moratorium on the importation of such weapons to prevent a last minute influx before any ban takes effect.

(e) a 12 month amnesty with a penalty regime after the amnesty expires, to encourage owners to hand in prohibited weapons, plus a buyback scheme at market rates for such weapons. Such a scheme will be very, very expensive. It could also save lives.

(f) a requirement that gun owners in future pay the full cost of owning a gun. OIA information provided by the NZ Police to Otago Medical School researcher Marie Russell indicates that gun owners historically, have paid less than half (45%) of the actual costs involved in licensing their hobby. In the 2016/17 year, taxpayers subsidised gun owners to the tune of $6.5 million a year. That subsidy cannot continue, not when taxpayers will also be funding the guns buyback scheme.

Social media issues

As Ardern indicated yesterday, the inquiry will also examine the role that social media played in the Christchurch attacks. Oddly, Ardern continues to cite the Facebook spin that since Friday it has taken down 1.5 million videos of the shootings – a tally consisting of both the full and edited versions and including (presumably) the news items that utilised parts of Brenton Tarrant’s helmet-cam footage. Even so, Ardern’s praise for the response by social media companies is like applauding the fact that a few horses have since been caught by someone who left the stable door wide open.

Instead, Arden should be piling pressure on Facebook to scrap the notorious Facebook Live facility it rolled out in limited form to high profile users in 2015, and to everyone else a year later. From its inception Facebook Live has offered a platform for murderers and terrorists to upstream their crimes, and achieve the instant fame and outreach they crave.

Facebook and Youtube then plod along in the wake of the problem they helped to create, offering the public a pantomime of anguished concern, and their futile best efforts at takedown. Yeah, right. The problem starts with Facebook Live, and the instant fame, gratification and outreach that it offers. Ardern really needs to ask Sheryl Sandburg to scrap the means by which the likes of Brenton Tarrant can immediately upload their horrific actions. As things stand, Facebook is offering such people a ready platform, and a powerful incentive.

As yet we don’t know the inquiry terms of reference and how it will purport to analyse the social media dimension of the Christchurch massacre. Justice Minister Andrew Little has already indicated that security services cannot be expected to monitor social media 24/7. Again, this seems like a wrong-headed response. Sure monitoring net extremism is hard work. It is much more difficult than disrupting Islamic State’s recruitment efforts here. Yet given the security services’ lopsided emphasis on the threat posed by Islamic radicalism – an emphasis encouraged by our 5 Eyes partners – then the necessary correction has to involve treating white supremacists with the same urgency. No one said it would be easy.

Here’s how such an effort might proceed. Under our anti-terrorist legislation, we operate a UN-inspired list of organisations and individuals that inspire sanctions on travel, financing and the movement of funds. The focus of that list is almost entirely on Islamic and/or criminal organisations. In the light of the rise of domestic terrorism, shouldn’t we be supporting the similar listing of white nationalist organisations and the application of similar sanctions to their leading figures?

After all, it is hardly accidental that the title of Brenton Tarrant’s hate manifesto “The Great Replacement” shares exactly the same title as the very popular video of the Canadian racist Lauren Southern, which itself echoed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory popularised by the French writer Renaud Camus, whom Tarrant draws upon heavily for inspiration.

Clearly, the SIS will need to learn how to recognise the expressions of the ideology that lies behind the white supremacist threat – and then use its surveillance powers in ways that do not infringe on existing civil liberties and freedom of speech. As I said, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.

In addition, and as many have already pointed out, Tarrant’s screed happens to be studded with memes (eg the “subscribe to Pewdiepie” meme that references the Pewdiepie vs T Series contest for Youtube supremacy; also, the Navy Seals revenge meme is contained in the Q&A section of his screed). Throughout, there are various “Easter egg” in-jokes for Internet nerds to find. Tarrant’s aim being to cloak his white supremacist core message with content that’s meant to amuse and flatter his youthful target audience. Feed them a few memes and in-jokes, Tarrant appears to have reasoned, and that’ll make them more receptive to the core messaging.

This raises a capability issue. Basically, it is hard to imagine the SIS being able to recognise when shitposting is being weaponised, even if they felt sufficiently motivated to look for it in the first place. To be fair, it is pretty hard for anyone to detect true intent in a Net landscape where sabotaging expectations for comic effect is the hook for much social media sharebait. Neo-fascism co-exists on the Net with a ton of neo-Dadaism and (as Tarrant attempts at times in his manifesto) the neo-fascists do mimic that Dada tone, on occasions. Good luck then, with spotting the tipping point when the shitposting is about to become real.

Inquiry priorities

To sum up: the inquiry being mooted is at risk of (being made too narrow, deliberately. If the SIS and Police (a) habitually downplayed the risk posed by white supremacy and (b) habitually overplayed the risks posed in New Zealand by radical Islam, then it would plainly be wrong for the inquiry to focus too exhaustively upon Brenton Tarrant and his life and works. That would amount to looking at the problem once again, through the wrong end of the telescope.

Instead, the inquiry should be willing and able to look critically for the structural reasons within the SIS and GCSB – and between those agencies and their counterparts in the 5 Eyes network – that might explain why such a lopsided set of surveillance priorities became rationalised, and commonplace here. Given the New Zealand setting, that emphasis was wrong from the outset, and yet it was doggedly maintained despite the lack of much (or any) hard evidence to justify it. Why and how was that allowed to happen?

Again, one can only assume that the misplaced priorities largely originated from offshore, and were then dutifully pursued by our SIS, GCSB and Police. We need our security priorities to be made, and to be sustained for New Zealand conditions.

Obviously, the terms of reference for this inquiry are going to be crucial. To repeat: it was not a good start yesterday for Ardern to suggest that the protecting of classified information should be a prime factor in what kind of inquiry we ultimately get. Surely, we require the kind of inquiry that protects New Zealanders in future, and not one that best protects the access of SIS to its customary sources of classified information. In the case of Christchurch, that classified information from offshore probably did a lot to misinform and distract the SIS from doing its job properly.

Footnote One : Reportedly, the SIS has been aware of the recent rise of white nationalism, and has been monitoring it here over the past nine months. Really? How? Given its epic fail in Christchurch, SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge needs to step out from behind the customary fog of refusing to disclose the SIS operational secrets – most of which evidently aren’t worth protecting – and start to engage with the New Zealand public.

Footnote Two: The “othering” of Tarrant and his white supremacist ilk has been welcome, and with it the rebuttal of any suggestion that Muslims are not welcome as New Zealanders. Yet the “he’s not us” and “we’re not like that” messaging does run a risk of obscuring the racist colonial past in New Zealand, leading all the way back to Parihaka. Even relatively recently, leading politicians like Richard Prebble were using Question Time in the House to decry the inclusion of “illiterate Afghani camel-drivers” in our refugee and migrant intakes. Why bring in people “from desert cultures,” Prebble also reasoned, when bringing in white farmers from Zimbabwe was a live option. Brenton Tarrant would totally agree.