The revelations about NZ’s GCSB mass, ‘full take’, surveillance of communications in Pacific countries have resulted in far less criticism of the government than Key’s decision to send troops to Iraq. This is in spite of the muddled, inadequate, contradictory responses by John Key. And it is in spite of some mainstream and alternative media journalists/columnists criticisms of Key’s responses (see for instance, Andrea Vance, Gordon Campbell, David Fisher, Toby Manhire), and the fact that:
most of the targets are not security threats to New Zealand, as has been suggested by the Government.
Images of the likes of ‘Jihadi John’, ready made arch villain, for cowboys versus Indians style narratives, are likely to have a strong influence on many people’s political views – maybe more so than reasoned, evidence-based criticism.
Larger than life images of fictional (and fictionalised real) ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ provides the most direct means for large numbers to engage with political, social and economic issues. In the mainstream, images and related narratives of the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ may have more meaning for many Kiwis than references to faceless GCSB workers, or critics of mass surveillance.
For a large number of Kiwis, the extent of US-led 5 Eyes digital surveillance, in the context of complex international relations, may be far too big and depersonalised for many to grasp. Our media, both news and fictional screen dramas, have long encouraged people to attend to political issues through the use of very personality-focused, direct engagement. They encourage people to engage with political issues through narratives of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’, and in which most of the time the cavalry arrives at the eleventh hour to save ‘innocent’ victims.
The fictionalisation of mainstream Media coverage
These days, visual presentation dominates most peoples views of the news – especially with the 6pm evening TV news.This is presented most often through ‘heroes’ and often flawed, conflicted, anti-heroes, who ultimately fight the good fight against recognisable villains. These days, screen ‘heroes’ may sometimes act more out of self-interest than for the common good, but, ultimately they act to fight for ‘good’ over ‘evil’.
The US-government supporting MSM (mainstream media) has helped beat up the human face of villainy, in the very visual image of the likes of ‘Jihadi John‘. His image has frequently been presented on NZ’s free-to-air 6pm news.
While the issue of sending troops to Iraq, comes closer to home with the more visible role of NZ servicemen and women, the Kiwis involved in international spying are necessarily a secretive bunch of faceless, nameless people – unless it’s the international claimed, investigative journalist Nicky Hager, who the government always preemptively tries to smear, inaccurately, as a villain..
So it is no wonder that many Kiwis express the view that the spies are doing what they need to do, to keep NZ and its people safe from the likes of ‘Jihadi John’. He has the advantage over previous US-led selected villains, like Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leaders. ‘Jihadi John’ is presented as being a Brit, a “homegrown terrorist” representing the enemy within western countries, providing some superficial support for increased domestic surveillance by state agencies.
There is no one media-friendly personality that can be used as a vehicle for a narrative that explains the dangers of unaccountable, mass surveillance by an international web of state agencies.
The influence of fictional dramas on news and politics
Hollywood movies and prime time TV dramas have been preparing us for many years for the surveillance state. It has become increasingly common for crime and spy dramas to draw on ‘full take’ surveillance in their battles against the truly evil, fictional villains. Crime procedurals, spy and political dramas like Criminal Minds, NCIS:Los Angeles, and (Aussie) Rush, usually have their geeky, slightly eccentric computer data retrieval experts and hackers. They are willing and able to break the rules to catch the bad guys. They often work in front of multiple monitors, which link to cameras on or with operatives in the field. The managers and backroom people thus have “eyes on” the immediate action, giving the audience a sense of having a ringside seat to realistic action, often enlarged on screen.
Over time, audiences must surely have been desensitised to the use of ‘full take’ surveillance. Plus they have been given a false sense of reassurance that it is used by the good guys against the (often these days viciously militant Islamic) villains. Programmes like Criminal Minds present the investigative team as being like a family, and like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, they work tirelessly to protect and save innocent people from the horrors of twisted souls, whose evil acts lurk behind the curtains of people’s daily lives.
Engagement with familiar personalities over-ride any personal flaws and mis-steps. The programmes usually start with some expendable casual victims who we don’t see enough of to engage with. Then another potential victim is introduced – someone who we are encouraged to engage with personally – they are the ones usually saved as the cavalry arrives in the last minutes of an episode.
Person of Interest has the (superficially) alternative narrative of people working against the evils of ‘full take’ surveillance. But it fails to put the surveillance in the full political context, making the ultimate villain the artificial intelligence of computerised “machine” gone rogue. Individual heroes and villains operate within that context.
In programmes like State of Affairs
and the Strike Back,
the ‘eyes on’ monitors of the ‘full take’ surveillance are not only personalised, but glamourised via the larger than life intensely dramatic visual displays.
Team Key: talking over the heads of critics
Team John Key is very savvy about the influences on dominant public opinions of such personally engaging, visually-dominated, Hollywood narratives. That is why Key talks over the heads of more critically minded journalist, bloggers and social media commenters. He talks in the (sometimes contradictory and personally flawed) terms of popular media – over-simplified, drawing on the seeming realism of (superficial and often misleading) visual images, and aiming for emotive engagement on a personal level.
This benefits from the pervading images of the likes of ‘Jihadi John’, while any potential personalities that threaten to provide direct engagement with counter-narratives, must be smeared, denounced, marginalised, or even criminalised by Team Key. Kim Dotcom did act as the face of such counter narratives for a couple of years. More recently, Nicky Hager himself has begun to pose a threat.
Thus Key attacks Hager’s public profile/image rather than responding to the substance of his thorough, evidence-based research.
How to counter the fictionalisation of news and politics?
Hager most often communicates through reasoned critiques of the evidence. Playing the Team Key game of (internally contradictory) popularist, superficial narratives is already losing the ideological battle. It is really hard to counter the forms of communication, where superficial visuals seem more realistic than painstakingly gathered evidence, and soundly reasoned arguments.
There needs to be a significant number of prominent voices continuing to present the counter-narratives, and to provide more people with the means and motivation to be critical users of modern communications.