Greenwald in New Zealand: Grandstanding doesn’t get more condescending or counter-productive

By James Robinson , written on September 15, 2014

From The News Desk

As an expat-New Zealander anticipating a coming election Friday US time, I was a little caught off my guard to see Glenn Greenwald parachute into the middle of our little campaign promising massive new revelations.

Greenwald was there as a guest of German-born Mega and Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, who remains in New Zealand using his residency as a shield from extradition to the United States to avoid federal indictments for online piracy, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Greenwald and Dotcom are odd bedfellows. Greenwald is a capital-C Crusader for the secretly surveilled masses. From the preponderance of evidence, Dotcom is an actual lawbreaker. The two appeared together at a town hall event last night in Auckland, the grandiosely labelled “Moment of Truth,” where Julian Assange and Edward Snowden also beamed in, to change the dialog of the New Zealand election in a way we couldn’t imagine until it happened.

It was odd. New Zealand elections really don’t get that exciting. Our elections last a few weeks. Our politics are small time. You’d call Prime Minister John Key’s National Party conservative, or right wing, or whatever your term of choice is, but when things like universal access to healthcare and welfare are accepted pillars of society on all sides of the political spectrum, Key often comes in to the left of Obama.

Dotcom was arrested in New Zealand in 2012 but the warrant was thrown out of court and he was ruled to have been surveilled illegally. In the face of this, he’s tried desperately to paint himself as a local folk hero -- even if his claims to have no idea Megaupload had any associations with piracy are nonsense. He’s handed out free ice cream, released rap records and put over $2 million into forming the Internet Party to unseat Key, who he views as personally responsible for his arrest. The Internet Party -- promising free broadband! -- joined with the Mana Party, another small party with an actual chance to be in parliament after the next election, and so, next week, Dotcom will have likely purchased an actual legislative mouthpiece in New Zealand.

He’s an idiot, but one with a little panache and flair and an international profile. And for New Zealand, where we treat each new Peter Jackson movie like we’ve won the tourism lottery again, we love anything that puts us in the mix a bit. We get lonely out there in the ocean. Greenwald seemed out of place in New Zealand with Dotcom. Like he was there out of obligation to some secret folk hero club, where Dotcom beamed a light at the sky and Greenwald just knew he was needed.

Greenwald, who’d been trading barbs with the prime minister for days, beamed in Snowden, and the two had actually serious things to say about the New Zealand surveillance state. Awkwardly, the two of them seemed to treat uncovering such abuses in a small, less relevant country with a sort of joy for the spotlight, as if they were touring the world with their one hit single and not uncovering the abuses of an entire nation. Snowden’s allegations, previewed of course as a scoop on the Intercept, were that the NSA has two facilities in the north of New Zealand and that the government engaged in “untargeted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio and phone networks” as part of the Five Eyes network (which includes the US, UK, Canada and Australia). Snowden pointed to evidence that directly contradicted the prime minister’s claims that we’d looked at but never participated in this surveillance.

As a New Zealander I felt sad and a little furious watching it happen. The biggest sadness here is that Snowden’s allegations are gravely serious. But by Greenwald and Snowden casting themselves as the white knights, trying to deliver New Zealand its own version of the American November surprise they’ve painted the prime minister’s own defense for him.

Imagine an American equivalent. A sitting Republican president the week of an election rocked by potentially cataclysmic information unearthed by two French journalists in a high and mighty manner. The context and reality of the information wouldn’t have a chance to sink in, drowned out by the furious claims of outsiders stirring the pot on cable news.

“I would have a modicum of respect for the guy if he had the guts to turn up here six months before the election, or six months after," Prime Minister Key retorted in a radio interview before the event. "If this loser is going to come to town and try and tell me, five days before an election, staying at the Dotcom mansion with all the Dotcom people and being paid by Dotcom, that he's doing anything other than Dotcom's bidding - please don't insult me with that."

Responding to the coverage online, many New Zealanders have taken a similarly skeptical and dismissive tone, writing it off as conspiratorial meddling. The Moment of Truth got a lot of headlines, but it won’t come close to even slightly influencing an election.

Dotcom’s grandstanding is old hat. It’s no surprise that he put himself on a huge stage to try and topple a prime minister he has a grudge against. Greenwald’s role there is weird. It’s hard to see his motivation, past a free trip. Is he taking the Snowden files on a world tour now? If he’d really cared about maximizing the impact of the news, he’d have worked with a New Zealand journalist, or at least slipped them the information to report out. As someone who has worked in the New Zealand media, where endless cutbacks have ripped out much of the guts of the news industry, it would have been a much needed and appreciated scoop. And would’ve been taken much more seriously.

But in making himself the story (an awkward image comes to mind of Dotcom calling Greenwald up, asking him to go through the files to look for whatever he can dig up about New Zealand, offering to fly him out if they found anything good) I had the queasy feeling that Greenwald actually views his own celebrity as being great enough to unseat the prime minister of a small country.

The images of Greenwald in New Zealand, smiling on stage, posing for selfies with Dotcom, calling in Snowden via video uplink were theatrical posturing. For the part of the country who will be voting against Key on Saturday it was an appreciated and entertaining info dump, the equivalent of preaching to the choir. As for moving the needle, those who could’ve had their vote swayed -- against voting for a deeply divisive, likely to be reelected prime minister battling a mounting toll of accusations of political treachery -- are likely now debating Greenwald’s right to yukk it up in another country’s election, rather than the actual thing he had to say.

As a New Zealander watching from across the world, I cringed. Greenwald riding in on a high horse to help a small country that doesn’t know better see the big bad truth, expecting the small timers to be impressed only that he’d shown up. They came as celebrity campaigners, not reporters. Grandstanding doesn’t get more condescending or counter-productive.