Tag: `Urewera 17′

First paragraph mismatch

If you were merely skimming the first paragraph of Herald articles this morning you might have assumed the worse about the accused in the October Raids trials when you read this:

Members of the “Urewera 18” group threw Molotov cocktail fire bombs and fired semi-automatic weapons at training camps in the bush, court documents show.

However, should you have had the time to read on, you might have wondered whether “show” should really have been “allege.” For instance:

Evidence from Detective Sergeant Aaron Pascoe was given to the hearing that film and photographs of a September 2007 camp showed a woman he said was Ms Morse holding an object believed to be a Molotov cocktail.

The person carried the object out of the view of the camera and returned a short time later without it.

Mr Pascoe was to give evidence that he believed she threw the Molotov cocktail into an outdoor oven, where police later found remnants of Molotov cocktails.


Photos of a person holding a pistol in various military type poses were said to be of Ms Morse.

Two pistols later seized by police were found to be unable to discharge a shot although an attempt to modify one appeared to have been made.

as well as:

Also brought to the court was a CD of gunshot sounds recorded on the Tuhoe land in the Urewera Ranges.

None of this shows that the so-called “Urewera 18” ((“So-called” because it is not clear that the arrestees were an organised group prior to the arrests: this is a label that has been put onto a group of people arrested at the same time and tarred as working together towards some plan prior to their arrests.)) threw Molotov cocktail fire bombs and fired semi-automatic weapons. That claim is simply the police’s interpretation of the evidence.

The police’s interpretation of the evidence is something which they would have defended in court; I’m not saying this interpretation is, in fact, incorrect, but without hearing an argument for it and hearing the defendants’ response to that argument, we should not say that the evidence shows that Molotov cocktails were thrown semi-automatic weapons were fired.

Indeed, it is odd that the New Zealand Herald article even uses “show” in that first paragraph, because the online version of the story ends with this summary, which clearly shows (I say without any hint of irony) the highly conditional interpretation of the evidence by the police:

* One person was seen throwing an object said to be a Molotov cocktail.
* A woman who police say was former accused Valerie Morse was photographed holding a pistol.
* Court documents show two people at the Urewera camps will give evidence of what happened there.
* Police also had recordings of gunshots heard at the camps.

We could ask why the Herald ran with such a strong claim in that first paragraph.

One easy answer is that it makes for a much more exciting story (and there are numerous studies which indicate that as most readers only read the first half of the article you can get away with making bold claims and misleading readers (because the weaker claims, although unread, are still in the story) if it helps “sell” the story).

Another answer is that in a small country like Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand), the small number of news media outlets is in thrall to the police and courts and thus unlikely to challenge the official theory in fear that their sources of information will dry up.

I am sympathetic to both of these views, but I think there is a simpler hypothesis which helps explain the situation which is congruent with the other two, which is that the court reporters that the Herald employs are naive and think that the police would not set out to present anything other than the unbiased truth to the courts ((This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we had an independent prosecutions service, but that is a matter for another time.)). If you believe everything the police tell you is prima facie warranted, then you will report their view of the story rather than ask “Are the police right in making this inference to the existence of terrible goings on?”

None of what I have said should be taken as saying that the police case has no merits: in our judicial system the merit of the police case against the accused will be tested in court and judged by jurors ((Which is a fresh development, as originally this case was going to be by judge alone.)). Now, I admit that am on record as saying that I think the police case is a beat-up (and if the police had grounds to surveil what was going on in the Urewera I hope they are doing the same for a number of gun clubs and farmers as well, who also have guns, also going around firing them and also hold political views some might find distasteful) but I don’t have all the evidence ((Some of you might; you know how to get in contact with me.)). However, if or when such evidence is presented, we still need to ask if it is the raw data or is it evidence as filtered through some interpretation of the raw data? If it’s the latter (as at the start of the Herald article), then it is only going to be as good as the argument which supports that interpretation (and, in an ideal world, will also provide an account as to why other interpretations should be discounted).

Conspiracy Corner – On finishing theses

He’s Back with (New) Zeal – Part 2

Trevor Loudon hit the ground running (upon his return to active service in the Right-wing Conspiracy Theory section of the Internet) with an Investigate ‘investigation’ of the Urewera 17. It’s a hatchet job; we should be scared of these so-called terrorists because, well, they aren’t nice, middle-class Act voters ((Loudon recently took a Green Activist to task for playing a role in the dissolution of the Auckland Star, an evening daily, because it robbed the people of their evening news fix. That the paper folded because the editor was outed as a homophobe seemed irrelevant to Loudon.)).

Loudon’s `journalism’ is interesting (and I use the term academically); because he rarely advances anything approaching an argument. Instead, he prefers to present his potted version of the `facts’ and it can be very easy to read the material in the `wrong’ way.

Take, for example, the article on the `Urewera 17′ (who are now up one member and being called the `Ruatoki 18′). Up until the final page and an half it would be easy to read the piece as a fairly understanding and almost sympathetic representation of the issues these people are supposed to represent.

For example, Loudon explains how some in the Tino Rangatiratanga movement have been inspired by or involved in the Zapatistas. The connection between those seeking the sovereignty denied to them by their colonial governments in Mexico and Aotearoa is laid out clearly. Because of the lack of some argumentative strand to Loudon’s writing the sense of there being a global community, of peoples interacting and co-operating, seeking to redress these not-so-ancient crimes, felt positive and empowering rather than indicative of a great, socialist evil lurking in the background (at least to this reader).

Of course, this isn’t what Loudon intends. I’m not his target audience; I don’t share his prejudices and fears and thus I’m not reading the piece with horror etched into my face. Loudon’s demographic (which, fortunately for us all, is small but, unfortunately, is also very vocal) share his prejudices and need nothing more than a list of `facts’ (because some of his details are contentious) to activate the Fear Module (TM) in their psychology. Loudon doesn’t need to advance an argument; his readers will jump to the same conclusion given a set of `salient’ points.

Loudon doesn’t condemn, then, the Urewera 17 openly, but he does try to do it by association. In the last section of the article, the only real meat in the pie ((I could here make some joke about Australia. Loudon wrote `that’ paper with Bernard Moran, an Australian, and given that Australian pies have so little meat compared to the New Zealand variety (it’s a regulation thing) it would be easy to make some pithy comment in that direction, comparing things to inferior pies. Instead I’ve written a non-pithy comment which has been relegated to the footnotes. Ho hum.)) he engages in some of his traditional investigative journalism; blog-reading ((I suppose I shouldn’t ping him on this, given what I do, but what the hell?)).

The man reads widely and during his `surveillance’ of the people involved with and around the Urewera 17 he came across a blog written by someone connected to one of the arrestees ((I’m deliberately being vague due to issues with a) privacy and b) the courts; if you need to know more I’m sure a library will have a copy of the relevant `Investigate.’ (Issue 91, August 2008))). The posts Loudon quotes are angry and inflammatory and because of their content Loudon tries to run an analogy between his expression of a extremist militant politic and the motivations and intentions of the `Urewera 17.’

Now, given the paucity of information (Loudon provides several quotes but we do not know just how indicative these posts are of the blogger’s general mindset) we could say that he had been having a series of bad days or that he might even be a militant (because, on both sides of the spectrum, left and right, there are people we can disapprove of. I’m certainly not in solidarity with all of my left-wing `associates’ (some would say I’m hardly in solidarity with them at all)) but Loudon moves from a claim of this person’s blog being “very revealing of the extremist mind-set of some Maori activists” ((p. 61)) (a claim that simply means ‘Some people do think this way’) to associating these sentiments with all anarchists ((p. 62)) (a claim that says `All such people think this way) ((Loudon would probably be horrified to find out that I know, very well, a Libertarian who is also an anarchist; according to Loudon’s logic this Libertarian would also be a suicide bomber and thus all Libertarians would be suicide bombers. And that’s what happens if you use slippery slope arguments.)). He uses this (perhaps unwitting) sleight of hand to then justify asking the leading question “Are [the blogger’s] view’s unique to himself, or are they more widespread amongst the maori [sic] radical community?” ((p. 62))

(The answer to which, for Loudon’s audience, is going to be a resounding ‘Yes.’)

We should not simply laugh off people who think like Loudon. Plenty of presumably sensible left-wingers (like Russell Brown for example) expressed their shock and horror at the alleged crimes of the `Urewera 17,’ buying right into the notion that the intentions and motivations of some of these people can be generalised to the group (Brown, at least, doesn’t tar all Socialalists as being Suicide Bombers; he simply tars all the arrestees with the same brush (see here). It is a worrying trend; people are buying into the notion that as the 17 were arrested by the police that they must represent some cabal of plotters prior to their being grouped together by the arrests (we must remember, the `Urewera 17′ is a media term not the name of a secret society). Now, of course, these people knew of each other if not knew each other, but it is not clear that they present an actual cabal of conspirators.

There will be more to say on this in the coming months.

Next time: Loudon and the Greens.