Gordon Campbell on the media’s handling of (a) the Afghan crisis, and (b) the hacked DHB material

cyber hacking image 2Reportedly, there has been “chaos “in downtown Kabul and “chaos“ out at the Kabul airport. “Chaos” has become one of the go-to terms of modern journalism. By definition, ‘chaos” removes the need to, or even the/possibility of, rational explanation for what is happening right in front of us. As long as chaos is happening in someone else’s backyard – while we’re safe and snug around the TV camp-fire at home – the word “chaos” conveys a vivid sense of conflict, emotional extremes, the breaking down of the social order, and with the prospect of some pretty exciting visuals to boot. “Chaos” in one form or other is part of what we demand from the 24/7 news cycle, now that the stately old top-down control of information flows (and the consensus on factual reality) has been eroded.

What journalism shares in common with its current audience is a pervasive sense of nihilism, and the belief that the whole system is rigged. On those occasions when that becomes evident the audience is assumed to be more likely to tune in. Nihilism is the new objectivity. By and large, you could say that The Joker is now in charge of the newsroom. As Alfred the butler said in the Dark Knight, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical… They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Afghanistan is burning right now. Yet while what we’re seeing at Kabul airport is a breakdown of order, “chaos” doesn’t seem the right word to describe it, or explain it. After all, the Afghans trying to flee have a clear goal in mind. So do the US soldiers putting up razor wire to try and stop them getting in the way of departing aircraft. Calling this’ chaos” implies there is no rational explanation for this behaviour at the very time when the media is supposed to be keeping its head and trying to convey the context – and the culpability – for the scenes happening right in front of their cameras and microphones.

To use the jargon of the neuroscientists, what we’re seeing in Kabul looks more like multi-stabilities, and not deterministic chaos. So far though, as the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) has pointed out, the media appears content to keep running the images of chaos while playing “gotcha” with the Biden administration on an issue – Afghanistan – that the media itself chose to put on the media backburner after George W. Bush invaded Iraq 18 years ago. As the CJR noted yesterday, the US coverage of the fall of Afghanistan has demonstrated the media’s penchant for operating in an a-historical vacuum.

Remarkably, the word “Bush” was not mentioned once on any of the Sunday shows yesterday—an omission that was perhaps most glaring on ABC’s This Week, where Jonathan Karl interviewed Liz Cheney almost as a pundit, and not as the scion of Bush’s vice president who herself took a top State Department post in the early part of the war. Obama was scarcely mentioned either; there was some discussion as to whether Trump should own some of the blame for the pull-out strategy, but that was often as far back as things went.

Earlier this week, Werewolf outlined a history of the US/NATO involvement, including a passage on Joe Biden’s lone opposition – within the Obama inner circle – to the surge in US troop numbers that Obama authorised. Back at that time in mid-2009, Biden’s also wrote a paper ( called “Counter-terrorism Plus”) urging an immediate US military downsizing and withdrawal. In his view, American counter-terrorism actions in Afghanistan should be conducted from bases offshore, much as the US does with terrorist threats in other global conflict zones.

Biden made those same points again in his speech earlier today. Given the incompetence– both politically and military – of the Afghan government, Bident reasoned that a continued US military presence on the ground would have merely postponed the inevitable, and at the further cost of American lives. Biden had inherited (a) Trump’s reduction of US troops from over 15,000 to under 3,000 and also (b) Trump’s negotiation with the Taliban of a May 1st deadline for departure, in return for a reduced level of Taliban aggression against US troops. As Werewolf mentioned on Monday, if Biden had extended that departure deadline significantly, this would have left a vastly reduced number of American troops fighting the Spring fighting season alone ( without NATO allies) on behalf of the Afghan government. It would have required yet another surge of US troop numbers and equipment, including the return of the thousands of private foreign contractors that were crucial to keeping the Afghan Armed Forces able to operate on the ground, and in the air.

The despairing scenes at Kabul airport and on the streets of the capital are heart-rending. But as a Biden also said, an earlier airlift of vulnerable Afghans has been opposed by former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, on the grounds that this would only trigger a collapse in confidence. As mentioned in this column on Monday, the Afghan resistance to the Taliban was always been a Ponzi scheme. In the end, it didn’t take much – the final extraction phase of what had already been a significant US troop withdrawal- to make the resistance collapse entirely.

Footnote One: For what my five cents is worth, most of the blame for today’s grim scenes across Afghanistan lies with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Bush and Co had extended a limited punitive expedition into an attempt to build a modern, pluralistic democracy across the entire country. The slim chance of making that ambitious mission succeed was blown away when Bush chose to suddenly divert US resources into the Iraq invasion. The Taliban used the breathing space that Bush provided, and re-grouped. Barack Obama merely perpetuated the hopeless attempt at nation building, and Donald Trump began the process of leaving the Afghans – who had taken seriously the US/NATO/NGO commitment to a new Afghan social order- to the mercies of the Taliban.

Footnote One Looking ahead though, there is a distinct possibility of a “ new Taliban” media narrative taking hold. The judgment about whether the Taliban have changed – or simply got better at their public relations – will hinge on (a) the extent of summary executions and the oppression of women (b) how inclusive the next government of Afghanistan will be. Will the Taliban include former president Hamid Karzai, who could become a useful figleaf of international credibility in the next government line-up? And also it will depend on (c) the extent to which overseas humanitarian aid agencies are allowed to continue their efforts inside the country. There will be sharp differences of opinion within the Taliban on those three issues.

But if the West – and China and Russia – can deal with the murderous, oppressive regimes in Myanmar, Egypt etc, a Taliban-led Afghanistan may not necessarily be treated as a pariah state. Among other things, the West will not be wanting its own disdain for the Taliban to give China a foothold in the country. Indeed, given China’s harsh treatment of the Muslim Uighurs, the West could even have a head start diplomatically with the men in the black turbans. Now that the Taliban doesn’t need the drug trade to fund an insurgency, will the Taliban still operate the heroin/opium/crystal meth drug trade at quite the same level as it did before – or will it now suppress it somewhat, in return for UN humanitarian aid?

Footnote Two: Back to that “chaos” point. Last year, in a CJR article about what the cultural appetite for chaos means for journalism, Amanda Darrach quoted a passage from the infamous “End of History” speech that the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, delivered at a white supremacist rally in 2017. According to Spencer:

“As the Cold War ended, liberalism and Americanism lost its enemy. It lost its boogeyman. And it began to feel that history was over.… You have no future. You’re an individual, bouncing around on the internet between various consumer choices, social lifestyles, and sexual orientations.… We aren’t fighting for freedom. We aren’t fighting for the Constitution.… We are fundamentally fighting for meaning in our lives.… We are fighting to be powerful again in a sea of weakness and hopelessness. That is our battle.”

Obviously, the media’s battle should be to resist chaos, not to promote it. But it also has to operate in the world that Spencer was taking about, in which media facts are widely seen as being defined by class, by gender and by race.

Media and the Waikato DHB hack

RNZ’s problems with its handling of the Waikato DHB hack, happen to hinge on the age old balance that has to be struck between private information, and the alleged public interest. RNZ feels there was a pressing public interest in disclosing the information it found when it trawled through the DHB info it had been sent by the DHB hackers, as part of their ransom efforts.

Last Sunday, RNZ presenter Colin Peacock did a terrific job on Mediawatch in explaining the context. By giving Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, and RNZ CEO Paul Thompson every chance to put their case, Peacock also took the story onwards. Apparently, Edwards intends to lay a formal complaint with the media industry watch-dogs. Here’s the nub of the issue :

In June RNZ revealed a child – who was not unwell – spent more than nine weeks in a Waikato hospital because Oranga Tamariki failed to find a suitable placement. DHB staff were distressed by the apparent abandonment of the child. But RNZ had discovered the story in the data posted online by the cyberattackers – and aired it in spite of the earlier promise “not to publish” the stolen information.

RNZ’s defence, vias Thompson is that this material was in the public interest, and that a thorough internal consideration of the issues by senior staff had preceded the decision to publish, with the protection of the child being of paramount concern. But judging by the Mediawatch report , this is a problematic defence given that (a) RNZ has issued a blanket promise four weeks beforehand that it would not publish any of the hacked DHB material sent to it. Moreover, (b) it could only have discovered what it published by trawling through the private material, and had then constructed a public interest rationale for doing what it had publicly promised it would not do. As the Privacy Commissioner pointed out, RNZ had built an “end justifies the means” argument to justify its behaviour.

In the light of RNZ’s actions, the Waikato DHB belatedly went to court:

One week later Waikato DHB went to the High Court to prevent RNZ and other media using their stolen information for news.

The Court decided (PDF)the privacy rights of the patients whose information was stolen significantly outweighed any public interest in publication.But the judgment did not require RNZ to remove its Oranga Tamariki scoop online.

On Mediawatch, Thompson defended RNZ’s actions and internal procedures. The court ruling not-withstanding, RNZ would proceed in the same way on a case by case basis in future, he indicated.

“It is good that the Privacy Commissioner is advocating his position but media companies have to weigh both the public interest and privacy. Many aspects of journalism do cause privacy concerns. That is an essential and unavoidable part of journalism,” he said….“We sought other opinions and challenged ourselves but in the end I was confident – as was Richard (Sutherland, head of RNZ news) – that we had taken what steps we needed to take to ensure we protected the privacy of the individual – and that public interest justified the publication and broadcast,“ he said….

At this point, Thompson did not concede any ground in his interview with Peacock:

“Journalistic practice does evolve over time and this is one example we do need to think about and see what the BSA and the Media Council think about this matter,“ Thompson said. “But I think it would be a very sad day if anyone started to develop proscriptive rules that constrained journalism and journalistic freedom,“ he added.

Taking counsel from the Council

Hmm. It will be fascinating to see how the BSA and the Media Council handle these arguments. Apart from the privacy vs public interest core issue, surely there is some collateral damage to the public’s trust in the media when a respected media organisation like RNZ promises one form of behaviour and then does the exact opposite only four weeks later? A politician who did the same thing would be roasted alive by the media, and justifiably so. Especially if they used this track record as a reason why they should be trusted with the key decisions about such stuff in future.

Secondly, if decisions about the publication of hacked material are to be left solely to the discretion of the media bosses – trust us, we’ll be sure to act responsibly – then this situation will almost certainly boost the hackers’ ability to extract a ransom from their targets. Every individual, every state agency and every private firm has confidential information, or has done some things less than perfectly in life. Not criminal behaviour necessarily, but stuff that would be embarrassing to try and explain publicly. Now… if Thompson is to be taken at face value, such stolen info would become public knowledge whenever RNZ, in its wisdom, sees fit. Put yourself then in the shoes of a hacker target/ Wouldn’t the knowledge that even RNZ is willing to trawl through and selectively publish your stuff, make you rather more likely to cave in to ransom demands in future? Why, the RNZ precedent could even raise the price tag on any future ransom note.

Edwards is also right when he says that RNZ could only have found the Oranga Tamariki example by going in search of it. It wasn’t as if RNZ opened the files to verify that they were truly the Waikato DHB hacked material and lo, the Oranga Tamariki case was the very first thing it saw. So…by the time we get to the BSA/Media Council, presumably RNZ will reveal who on its staff – and at what level of seniority – found the story, before it got kicked upstairs for consideration regarding publication?

And if the RNZ deliberations were weighty and extensive and did include the seeking of opinion beyond RNZ, then presumably there will be a written record of this process that the BSA and Media Council will be able to access? Arguably, there is a strong public interest in making those processes and procedures open to the public. Thompson has claimed that RNZ’s internal processes are so robust as to obviate the need for prescriptive rules on how hacked material should be handled. Wouldn’t it help to engender public trust in RNZ being a responsible guardian, if the editorial processes it followed on this story were laid open to public scrutiny? After all, taxpayers fund RNZ.

Such transparency might also help dispel the sense that it seems hardly co-incidental that Oranga Tamariki should be at the centre of the story that RNZ did choose to publish. The controversial actions of Oranga Tamariki have recently and regularly been in the media spotlight. It would be interesting to see from the written record of the editorial deliberations whether this was felt to not only heighten the public interest in the story, but might usefully bolster RNZ’s defence for its decision to publish. (Hey, they’ve got a track record of screwing up. Its not as if we’d be breaking entirely new ground, right?)

Footnote One: Clearly, the court’s decision on the Waikato DHB material will serve as something of a precedent, and will probably raise the barrier against publication of similarly derived material in future. To Mediawatch, Edwards also suggested that one way of proceeding further should involve taking the decision to publish stories derived from hacked material out of the hands of the media organisations themselves.

One can see the point of the suggestion. But in practice, what sort of “independent” panel would suffice ? After all, the membership of the existing media watchdogs – such as the Media Council –already includes a sizeable number of current and former journalists and news editors. In any oversight body, prior experience is valuable, but there’s a related risk that this will also create an echo chamber sympathetic to the current industry practices. In the end, prescriptive rules may inspire more public confidence than a panel that will (inevitably) be suspected of industry capture.

Footnote Two: The media has always been reliant on leaks, and willing to use the public interest defence as a shield – more credibly so in some cases than in others. The whistle blower legislation offers some limited protections to those providing the media with confidential information whenever state agencies and private firms engage in dodgy behaviours. When material is hacked – and when it comes with a ransom note attached – there is, or should be, a distinct difference in how the media proceeds, or is allowed to proceed. Maybe as we review the effectiveness of the whistle-blower laws, we can consider this hacked/ransom issue at the same time. Bring in the Law Commission ?

Because we can be sure this issue will surface again. For example : is there a genuine public interest defence for publication if say a celebrity politician campaigning on a strong family values platform is revealed (via hacked material that came with a blackmail ransom note) to have a highly salacious private life? Thompson saying that RNZ will decide such matters itself, on a case by case basis doesn’t help to clarify the principles that need to be in play, and what weight they should be given Nor alas, does Edwards saying we should leave it to an independent panel to make such calls.