The Moment of Truth: Glenn Greenwald is the worst at influencing elections

By James Robinson , written on September 22, 2014

From The News Desk

Glenn Greenwald arrived in New Zealand a little over a week before the country's general election, armed with damning claims (courtesy of Edward Snowden) that NZ Prime Minister John Key had -- despite assurances to the contrary -- authorized mass surveillance to be conducted on New Zealanders.

When Greenwald landed, Key was looking a safe-ish, if slightly wobbly bet for re-election. A recent tell all book from NZ investigative journalist Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics, had forced resignations in Key's government and forced him to admit that he spoke directly with rightwing bloggers, using them as a direct mouthpiece to attack his opponents. If played right, Greenwald’s scoop could have proved extremely damaging for a prime minister people who was losing the support of voters.

Unfortunately, this is Glenn Greenwald we're talking about. Like Inspector Clouseau trying to safely dispose of a bomb, Greenwald instead managed to trip over himself, lose control of the revelations and actually ended up helping the incumbent prime minister win a "remarkable" third term.

When Greenwald arrived, John Key’s National Party was polling in the mid-40 percent range, and trending downwards. Somehow his surveillance revelations set that trend in the opposite direction. Come election day, Key and National were elected to a third-term with 48 percent of the vote. As the Economist noted, that's a remarkable result. Because of the proportional representation in New Zealand’s government and the system of large and minor parties, voters usually breakaway from the main parties on election day to smaller players. But voters broke towards National and Key on election day at an unforeseen rate, delivering the Prime Minister his strongest ever electoral mandate, higher than even the polls had guessed.

So how exactly did Greenwald screw the pooch so badly? For one thing, he was in New Zealand as a guest of Kim Dotcom (whose self-funded Internet Party struck out completely with voters) for Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” event. It is unclear if the information about New Zealand would have ever been released unless Greenwald was invited down by Dotcom. Then Greenwald waited four days after arriving in the country to break the information and made himself the story, rather than slipping it to local media to break for maximum effect. He started immediately throwing haymakers at the New Zealand Prime Minister in the media (Key, who is not known for his adult rhetoric, famously called him a “loser” and "Dotcom's little henchman"). He allowed his revelation to play second fiddle to Dotcom’s release of an email supposed to embarrass the prime minister, that was quickly discredited. He seemed to not quite understand just how greatly Dotcom’s presence is starting to curdle on the voting public.

(Statements like this on Twitter from Greenwald poking fun at NZ’s quest for a seat on the UN Security Council -- a potentially huge political feat with big implications for a small country -- show that he might not understand New Zealand that well at all.)

At the end of this, Greenwald’s management of the information raises serious questions. Not least, does he feel obligated to travel through all countries where Snowden’s cache of documents holds information that clashes with the statements of publicly elected officials? Or despite his claims to care deeply about New Zealand and follow along closely with the local discourse, did he only decide to give a damn because Kim Dotcom offered him a big fancy stage?