Rugby terror threat story a damp squib…Minister’s hose suspected

I’ve had time now to consider the Sunday Star Times extensive coverage yesterday of the alleged threat to security at the Rugby World Cup next year.

To recap briefly, the SST sent some reporters to rugby stadiums in Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland to test the security arrangements ahead of next year’s RWC. The problem for the paper is that Police Minister Judith Collins blew their cover on the Friday before publication with a pre-emptive media release in which she lambasted the SST for a stupid stunt.

Ms Collins was advised that a newspaper commissioned people to masquerade as terrorists who then gained access to restricted areas at Super 14 matches in Hamilton and Christchurch.

“The actions are unbelievably stupid and irresponsible. This stunt had the potential to result in games being called off and stadiums evacuated,” Ms Collins said. [Scoop 12 March]

Undeterred, or perhaps realising it had no option, the SST went ahead with the story on Sunday.

The toy “explosives” carried in one reporter’s bag were just that – obvious fakes. Nobody would have mistaken them for a real bomb. The reporters also carried a letter bearing the paper’s masthead confirming their identities and providing the name and mobile telephone number of the deputy editor. In other words, if the reporters had been stopped, their identities and what they were doing would have been instantly revealed. There was no possibility of anyone mistaking them for real terrorists. There was therefore no possibility of any panic, or evacuation, or a sudden halt to the games.

[Political beat-up detracts from real issues]

But wouldn’t real terrorists go to great lengths to hide their identities — such as carrying fake ID and so on? And how did the paper’s editors know that the security guards and cops wouldn’t have reacted badly? Did the paper do a real risk assessment?

As I mentioned in an earlier post; if the SST had not had its cover blown on Friday, Sunday’s “expose” of “major flaws” in security arrangements may well have detonated a different response from police, public officials and the rugby community.

Instead, it looked like the paper was just trying to catch up and scramble to cover its embarrassment.

It might also be instructive to think about the Police Minister’s pre-emptive media strike against the SST on Friday too. It now seems that her initial claims — that the SST had hired actors dressed as terrorists — were false, or at best highly-exaggerated and based on false information.

Collins’ media release on Friday suggested that the SST had hired actors to pose as terrorists — invoking images of be-turbaned and bearded fanatics running around with plastic Kalashnikovs. But this Minister, as you knew at the time, was highly misleading and designed to whip-up feelings against the paper.

Certainly the pictures of Jonathon Marshall in Sunday’s paper don’t show him with a turban and fake beard and the paper denies that any members of the public were put at risk.

I must admit that without the benefit of any further information – I did try to find out more – I was one of those lining up lat week to condemn the Sunday Star Times. On reflection, I was perhaps a bit harsh (more on that later).

Perhaps the Minister’s venom was a cover too — a way of softening the blow of the SST‘s revelations of lax security and also of deflecting any flack from the explosion that a fresh Sunday front page might have caused without the dampening effect of the early negative publicity.

At the heart of any assessment of the SST‘s actions must be the public interest test: Was the contrived security breach justified because an issue of vital public importance and public interest could be revealed through the action?

In other words: Did the ‘ends’ justify the ‘means?

Having read the stories online and in the hard copy of the paper I still think it was a bit of  a beat-up. I think that the criticism many have levelled – that the security conditions now are a lot more lax than they are ever likely to be during the RWC next year – is valid. This does mean that the premise of the story – and therefore the stunt – was flawed.

As one senior reporter told me today, if the stunt had been pulled early next year, after the security arrangements had been beefed-up and installed around the country and the security flaws exposed, the story would have been seen differently.

My pal also reckons that the SST would not have got much of a circulation boost either, because most of us who would be interested in such a dramatic story would already have read, seen or heard the Minister’s angry response and perhaps decided not to bother with the SST‘s revelations.

Further, I’m not sure that the public interest test was really satisfied here. For reasons already given the comparison with RWC security is not really valid. Secondly, the use of fake bombs or “toy” sticks of dynamite was childish and potentially dangerous.

As my reporter friend pointed out, a letter from “mum” – in this case a senior SST editor – would not really get the reporters off the hook if their ruse was rumbled.

It could have ended in tears and with the arrest of the reporters involved – despite the SST‘s insistence  it had legal advice that the stunt was legal.

In my experience, the disconnect between a lawyer’s opinion and what the rozzers might due in a pressure situation is often quite wide. “They shoot people, don’t they?”

On the whole, I still think it was an ill-advised stunt and I don’t think that the newsroom staff involved did an adequate risk assessment. They certainly don’t appear to have considered an important question: What do we do if our cover is blown early?

Had the Minister not dropped her own toy bomb on the SST we might be considering a different angle on this story and there might well be strident editorials and talkback squawk about the lack of security for the RWC; but that’s a version of history that won’t be written, not even in a “first draft”.

Instead, I’d like to end with a couple of questions for the Minister and her staff.

  1. Do you think it’s OK to mislead the public with false statements in your media releases just to hose down a potentially embarrassing story?
  2. You’ve done it once, how do we know you won’t do it again and again and again?
  3. Will you only stop when you’re caught?

Of course, the RWC is going to lead New Zealand out of the recession – or at least the government might hope we won’t think about it for a while – and of course, if it goes well, John Key will set an early scrum and rumble his way over the line for a 2011 election victory.

The stakes are high, not just for Mitchell Murphy and the SST, but for all of us.

On further reflection, they were hardly done by.

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One Response to Rugby terror threat story a damp squib…Minister’s hose suspected

  1. [...] Rugby terror threat story a damp squib…Minister’s hose suspected [...]

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