Claytons denial from Ministers about the PM gag memo

A curious Claytons denial from two Ministers about the memo sent out by the Prime Minister’s office s that directed them not to have interviews or answer questions about the Friday dump of documents.

Both James Shaw and David Clark said they didn’t personally receive the email, but the news reports clearly stated that the memo was sent to Ministerial offices.  Ministers don’t personally deal with a lot of email. Ministerial staff also manage what interviews Ministers do, and deal with Ministerial statements.

James Shaw was asked on The Nation on Saturday:

“It seems that the Government wants to be transparent by dumping all these documents on Friday afternoon, yet there’s been a directive from the Prime Minister not to talk to the media about it. Did you get that memo, is that the kind of politics you want to play?”

Shaw began his response somewhat awkwardly:

A Ah um I I personally didn’t.  Um my understanding is that that went out to agencies…

Ministers don’t personally deal with a lot of correspondence including emails. They have staff for that. And the news of the memo didn’t say the memo was sent to Ministers: Ministers told to ‘dismiss’ interviews on Covid-19 documents – leaked memo

The prime minister’s office has directed all ministers not to give interviews on a Covid-19 document dump, saying there is “no real need to defend” themselves.

A leaked email, sent to Beehive staff today, directed them to issue only “brief written statements” in response to media queries about the documents.

Clearly this states “sent to Beehive staff “.

“Do not put Minister up for any interviews on this.”

“There’s no real need to defend. Because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Govt is doing. Instead we can dismiss.”

The memo also included “key messages” for Ministers and staff to stick to in their written statements

It looks a bit like another memo may have been sent out with another ‘key message’ directive. On Sunday Minister of Health David Clark had a similar response: David Clark rejects idea Government ministers were gagged following COVID-19 document dump

Dr Clark said he didn’t receive the leaked email and only heard about it once the media reported it.

As with Shaw that doesn’t rule out his office receiving the email. Clark also made the point that he was ‘fronting up’:

At a press conference on Sunday morning where he announced increases to Pharmac’s funding, Dr David Clark said he was fronting media and answering questions on the documents “right now” and he’d also answered additional questions in interviews on Saturday.

“I’m comfortable and confident talking about the release of materials [about] the advice that the Government had received. As a Government, we’ve been transparent about the decisions we’ve made,”

Clark hardly ever sounds confident talking to media, including at this time. And his announcement of the Pharmac funding could have been timed and staged to try to contradict the directives from the memo.  It was a pre-budget announcement, they are typically done as part of the Government budget PR strategy.

One of the memo talking points was “”Evidence shows our decisions were the right ones”.  Clark had a similar response but worded differently.

“I think overaching all of this is the results, and um and you know they speak for themselves…that suggests that going hard and going early was the right strategy”.

Back to Shaw at Newshub: James Shaw defends gag on ministers talking about COVID-19 documents

A Ah um I I personally didn’t.  Um my understanding is that that went out to agencies ah and that is because it is really important in a time of crisis that the Government speaks with one voice, and the prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been that voice, and I think it’s appropriate she continues to be that voice..

So Shaw defended the intent of the memo – that Ardern is ‘the voice’.

Asked: “So ok, so Ministers can’t talk about their respective areas and it all has to come from the Prime Minister, are you happy with that?”

A very hesitant response from Shaw – a common sign of thinking through what one should say in advance:

“Um, well I am talking about climate change Simon, I’ve been talking about climate change the entire time…

A similar response to Clark, saying he is talking about his portfolio.

Asked “Ok, but in terms of the way of operating are you happy with that, for other ministers as well, you’re buying into that?”

“Well like I said, ah I think it is entirely appropriate at a time of national crisis, the scale of which we haven’t seen since the  great depression and World War 2, that the Government speaks with one voice, I don’t think that there’s anything strange about that at all.”

Again he defends the aim of the memo, for Ministers to avoid talking about the Covid response and contents of document dump apart from with suggested phrases.

It could be a tough campaign for the Greens if they can’t claim any credit for the handling of Covid. Wil they really be happy for Ardern to attract all the votes for that?

Clark and Shaw may be technically correct that they didn’t personally receive the gag email, but they both made similar denials that aren’t really denials.


From NZ Herald:

Former MP Peter Dunne said today that email was a sign this Government was no different from any others in practising 9th floor “grubby” tactics.

While the PM’s office has called the email “clumsy”, Dunne told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking “that doesn’t hide the fact they see themselves as bullet-proof, ‘we don’t need to explain, everyone loves us’.”

“People have not seen [Jacinda Ardern] a control freak before… this reveals the reality. It also acknowledges the fact this is a Cabinet with some mighty weak links, probably more than average.”


More from Stuff:  Beehive scrambled to contain email telling ministers to ‘dismiss’ questions about Covid-19 response

The prime minister’s office now says the email — which was provided to press gallery journalists hours after the Government publicly released hundreds of Cabinet papers — was a “clumsy instruction”.

Stuff can reveal the Beehive asked public servants to delete the email, after it was wrongly sent beyond parliament’s walls.

The email from Rob Carr, a senior ministerial adviser to the prime minister, was sent to the staff of Government ministers and to staff at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) who had worked on making public the documents.

A spokesman for the prime minister on Sunday said it was an error to send the email to public servants, due to the political messaging it contained, however it was “simply intended to be a heads-up” that the documents were being made public.

Again clearly sent to the staff of Ministers, so the Ministers denying receiving it personally are correct but misleading by major omission.

“[The email] was more about not re-litigating the past, and it shouldn’t have been framed as dismissing … It was more a clumsy instruction.”

Sounds to me more like an embarrassing reveal of PM PR procedures.


Tim Watkins: Gagging Order Is Double Dumb: Disrespecting Public Sacrifice & Damaging Brand Ardern

With much power comes much responsibility. And the government has a phenomenal amount of power right now, in the midst of a pandemic that has seen public money propping up the national economy, parliament on furlough and public officials granted special powers. Which is why any talk of gagging leaves such a bad taste.

…All of which is why the gagging order delivered by the 9th floor to ministers on Friday stands out like a sore, distasteful thumb.

It’s dumb on a range of levels.

Morally – or perhaps constitutionally – the New Zealand public has allowed this government at this time extraordinary powers and deserves at the very least in return full and frank information from cabinet. They deserve respect for the sacrifices made, not dismissal. To tell political staff to “dismiss” the questions of journalists working to keep that public informed is deeply cynical and defensive. It’s bad enough in the normal sweep of events; in these troubled times it’s shameful.

New Zealanders haven’t stayed home and saved lives, loss their livelihoods, skipped funerals and put their lives on hold to have questions about how and why decisions are being made dismissed by those paid to serve them.

Second, it undermines the brand.

For Jacinda Ardern, its about being kind and open and different from all those other politicians who, well, aren’t. Through several crises now she has dissolved Labour’s reputation in Opposition for a lack of competence. But key to her political success is this sense that she is not just a power-monger, but a caring and sensible person who gets voters and can be trusted to act in our best interest, even with extraordinary powers.

So for emails to be coming out from her closest advisors implying her office doesn’t trust voters with full and frank disclosure and that those voters’ confidence in her is being taken for granted – banked and exploited – is damaging. Any way you slice it.

Watkins obviously not impressed.

 

Trump considering retribution for public commentary he disagrees with

This sort of threat from Trump to punish commentary he doesn’t like could be a slippery slope to insidious attackson free speech.

Fox News 5 hours ago:  Rand Paul calls to revoke John Brennan’s security clearance, asks if he’s ‘monetizing’ access

CNN: Trump looking to revoke security clearances

President Donald Trump is considering stripping a number of former national security officials of their security clearances, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday, calling their public commentary about the ongoing Russia probe inappropriate.

“They’ve politicized and in some cases monetized their public service,” Sanders said during a press briefing.

“The President is exploring these mechanisms to remove security clearance because they’ve politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and their security clearances,” Sanders said. “And making baseless accusations of an improper relationship with Russia is inappropriate.”

Sanders would not say when the President would make this decision; she said only that the White House would provide updates when it had them.

So at this stage just an unveiled threat to not say things Trump doesn’t want said.

The list of former officials under consideration includes former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, according to Sanders.

Why be selective? Why not gag all former officials? And revoke all security clearances. And intervene in investigations. That should fix a bit of bad press.

A decision to strip a former official of a security clearance would prove a striking use of presidential power.

“This is kind of a petty way of retribution for speaking out, I guess, against the President,” Clapper said on CNN in the immediate wake of Sanders’ announcement.

I don’t know what Clapper is allowed to say publicly, but a general public threat by the President is a dangerous threat to free speech.

Trump has a tendency to be intolerant of people who challenge his game playing.

Suggestions Health Minister tried to gag hospital staff

A week that began with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she would be staying away from Parliament as the birth of her child nears has become very messy for the Government, with Winston Peters and Shane Jones throwing bombs into the political fray, Minister Eugenie Sage under fire from Green members for doing her job, and a run of bad looks from labour ministers.

And here’s another, from Newshub: David Clark accused of silencing DHB staff over Middlemore

Newshub has obtained a voicemail and emails which suggest the Health Minister tried to gag senior staff talking publicly about the state of embattled Middlemore Hospital.

In one case he even appeared to promise a board member, who he’d sacked, another job if they shut up.

“I notice more and more getting reported that is really not helping at all, and I’m hopeful that there won’t be much more commentary,” Health Minister David Clark said in a voicemail to District Health Board chair Rabin Rabindran.

“My fear is that if you and I keep commenting, the story keeps ticking along. I’d rather not have distraction about who said what when.”

However Mr Clark denies this, saying he was “absolutely not” trying to stop board members from speaking out.

“There were a lot of conversations happening through the media and that meant there wasn’t clear communication about what was going on, and that’s unhelpful,” he told Newshub.

The voicemail was left on April 18th, two weeks after he sacked Mr Rabindran. In the same voicemail, Mr Clark offered him a new job.

“I would consider you for further appointments because I think that sends a message.”

If Clark and other Ministers under fire survive the term voters may consider sending them a message.

There is a growing impression that the Government is either out of it’s depth, or over the top arrogant. Possible both.

Google and other problems with NZ suppression law

Court suppression orders are difficult to deal with in the Internet age.

In the past media like newspapers had court reporters who were aware of what cases were suppressed and complied with suppression orders where appropriate.

But social media has introduced major problems – it is easy for just about anyone to say things (publish) online, but it is impossible for most of us to know what is suppressed, so we don’t know what can’t be legally published.

And another big problem is that major online content providers/publishers are based out of New Zealand, like Google, Facebook and Twitter. And Google says they are not bound by New Zealand law.

NZH: Google ‘thumbs its nose’ at New Zealand courts – lawyer

In high-profile cases covered by the Herald in recent months, Google NZ along with New Zealand’s major media outlets have been served with orders which suppress details and require the removal of content that infringes on privacy or fair trial rights.

However, Google says it’s “not in the business of censoring news” and won’t comply because its search engine is bound by the laws enforced at its home, the Googleplex, in California’s Silicon Valley.

The result means some information suppressed by New Zealand’s courts can be revealed in a Google search.

The problems and Google’s place in New Zealand’s courtrooms was an issue last year during the High Court retrial of double-killer Zarn Tarapata.

An interim take-down order for all content related to Tarapata’s first trial was made to protect his fair trial rights and suppress evidence which was ruled inadmissible.

The Herald and other media organisations opposed the order but were ultimately forced to comply and removed stories about Tarapata’s first trial to avoid being held in contempt of court.

However, despite having an Auckland office, Google NZ said it couldn’t remove details of the stories from its searchable records.

In an affidavit to the court, Google NZ software engineer Joseph Bailey, wrote: “Google New Zealand Limited has no ability to comply with the interim orders.”

He explained that the Google search engine, Google LLC, was a separate legal entity incorporated in the US, meaning New Zealand’s courts and laws held no power over it.

The company also said it would require a “perpetual review” to find the “trillions of webpages currently existing on the web, but also those which are subsequently created” that breached the court orders.

…a Google spokesman said: “We don’t allow these kinds of autocomplete predictions or related searches that violate laws or our own policies and we have removed examples we’ve been made aware.”

He said while Google NZ was bound by New Zealand laws, Google LLC was not.

“Google LLC prefers for news publishers to make their own decisions about whether their content should be available online,” he said.

Even for small publishers it can be a daunting task trying to monitor all content, especially when not knowing what is suppressed by court orders.

Prominent human rights and privacy lawyer Michael Bott said Google was “thumbing its nose” and “expressing a high-degree of arrogance” at court orders, threatening fair trial rights and due process.

Bott accepted however it was a “fine line” between attempting to control Google – like China – and protecting the foundations of a liberal democracy.

“In a liberal democracy we have the rule of law. If Google doesn’t follow take-down orders on the basis that it’s an international company based in California, well that maybe true, but it also ignores the reality of the internet,” he said.

But there’s another significant problem – take down orders, even if you can get one, can take quite a bit of time, and even if successful can be like shutting the stable door well after the story has bolted around the Internet.

I think that most people accept that suppression in some cases is important, especially when protecting the identity of victims of crime, especially children.

But I think that protecting the right to a fair trial via suppression can be virtually unworkable in the Internet age. Courts need to find a different way of dealing with this.

While I understand the argument for protecting rights to a fair trial i think that it needs to be reviewed, taking into account the practicalities of the use of the Internet.

There was recent example of failed suppression in Dunedin recently when a young woman was murdered. The name of the accused was published and circulated in social media before a suppression order was issued by the Court.

I have personal experience with abuse suppression in the courts. It was used to gag me while running an online campaign of harassment and defamation against me online, and if I confronted this online I was threatened with prosecution for breaching suppression, while the group attacking me claimed immunity because they claimed their publications were not in new Zealand, so therefore immune from New Zealand law.

So they used New Zealand law to gag me, while publishing offshore to avoid new Zealand law.

I am still gagged on this. I hope that that will be ending soon, but given the blatant hypocrisy of those involved they may try to keep their legal and personal abuses secret.

The Google (and Facebook et al) problem with suppression is not adequately addressed by New Zealand law and court practices, and neither is the use and abuse of suppression on a smaller and wider scale.