Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ron Smith: Watching the Media

My 25 April blog on SAS involvement in taking prisoners in Afghanistan, who might subsequently be subjected to ill-treatment, suggested that the New Zealand policy of not officially taking prisoners at all was untenable, but that the purposes of the Jon Stephenson Metro article complaining about it, went beyond mere concern for human rights. It was, I argued, part of a continuing campaign by left-wing, anti-American interests, to force the withdrawal of New Zealand troops from the Afghan campaign. Comments by the parties (NZDF and Stephenson and his supporters) over the last week have done nothing to address either of these issues.

Of particular interest to me over the last two weeks has been the performance of National Radio’s Mediawatch. In the first treatment of Stephenson’s story (on 1May), we were treated to a gushing interview, with no probing of the evidence on which it relied and no critical questions, such as why, when his ostensible concern is human rights, he did not ask Colonel M* of the Crisis Response Unit about the treatment of captives in his charge.

This was followed up last Sunday (8 May) with a second tranche of material towards the beatification of Jon Stephenson, in which words of support were broadcast from a range of supporters, including Labour and Green MPs and other luminaries of the left, such as Gordon Campbell. It had been ‘painstaking research’ and the criticisms made by the Prime Minister and General Rhys-Jones were accepted to be contradictory and misleading. There were no contrary opinions.

This is where my interest in last Sunday’s Mediawatch was particularly aroused, because I spent some time on the previous Friday morning being interviewed by Colin Peacock (of Mediawatch) and I had a lot of contrary opinions. I referred to my earlier blog and expanded on the difficulties of maintaining a ‘not-taking-prisoners’ policy and the problems that it presents to our forces in the field, and I added that the solution was not to pretend that we did not take prisoners but rather to press the Afghan authorities in regard to their treatment of them. I also, of course, re-asserted my claim that the purpose of the Metro campaign was to cause the withdrawal of SAS forces. Listeners last Sunday will have noted that none of this appeared in the programme.

There is a wider problem here and that is the extent to which much of our media operates from a particular set of political prejudices from which they cannot seem to escape, even if they occasionally recognise a duty to do so. This applies not simply to whose views programme producers decide that their listeners may hear, but to the prejudices of the ‘regulars’, who, whatever is the ostensible topic for discussion, treat those listeners, to anti-American (anti-Bush, though that is disappearing a little now), anti-capitalist, anti-Douglas/Brash asides. The consequences of this persistent media bias are not simply to distort political debate but to leave the listening public less well informed, in a more general way. It is particularly a problem where we are talking about broadcasting (radio or television) that is supported from the public purse.

It would be very much in the public interest to have a proper debate about the issues that Jon Stephenson raised in his Metro article. In my judgement, the public policy setting re prisoners is still wrong. There are also still grounds for concern about the treatment of captives, as there is for the continuing civilian toll of the conflict. Beyond this there is the matter of our purpose and interest in Afghanistan and its relationship to the continuing war on terror. The debate needs to encompass all of these things, not some of them. It particularly does not need the shameless promotion of one set of views.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Actually Ron if it wasn't for Mediawatch I would never have heard of you or your blog!

I agree with your last paragraph it would be good to have a debate in public (and in Parliament) about NZ-Afghan relations (and NZ-US relations and their intersection over Afghanistan). But that debate doesn't need to be sidelined by your attack on Mr Stephenson, (as Paul Buchanan has pointed out) particularly given that he is one of the few in the media showing sufficient interest in the subject. The radio and TV news on the NZ army's role in Afghanistan is largely confined to repeating what the governments (both Labour and National) say. The media isn't political prejudiced on the subject, in fact NZ governments couldn't ask for a more complicit media (which makes the occasional exception like the Metro article stand out in stark contrast).

Much seems to happen without debate in this country (can you remember any debate in Parliament or in public prior to the government's about-face on Kosovo?).

On the specific subject of handling of prisoners taken by the SAS, why have you rejected the idea that the NZ Army could detain these prisoners themselves? The argument you have proposed of saying: yes we have an obligation to these prisoners but it is too hard (or is that too expensive?) so we will excuse ourselves of this humanitarian obligation; is an argument of the pinhead dancing sort. I don't think you needed to follow this morally dodgy argument.

Dealing with prisoners is a normal function of civilized armies and should be costed in along with feeding and providing accommodation for the SAS in Afghanistan.

In fact if you want to get creative, rather than argue that it is all too hard and we will hand over the prisoners to people of doubtful repute. You could have argued that NZ should find other countries who have a better reputation for dealing with prisoners (among the many countries with troops in Afghanistan) and set up a joint prison/POW camp with those countries. Rather than hope that the Afghans (and Americans) eventually stop torturing prisoners, why not NZ (and friends) show how humane detention should be done?

But first of all we do need to decide as country who is the SAS fighting? and why? And if we decide to keep them there we should resource them to do the whole job, including holding prisoners.