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The SAS, the media, and Key

Written By: - Date published: 11:53 am, January 24th, 2010 - 50 comments
Categories: afghanistan, john key, Media - Tags:

I don’t think the SAS should be in Afghanistan. That said, there are good reasons why the activities of the SAS on deployment are meant to be kept secret. Both the media and John Key have behaved incredibly irresponsibly.

Do the publishing of pictures and the name of Willi Apiata after he apparently took part in combat alongside Afghan special forces in Kabul place him and the other SAS soldiers in greater danger? Well, the experts all seem to think so and I have no reason to doubt them. Certainly, I would think that Apiata would be a high value target for the Taliban. It’s hard to see how the deployment of the SAS to Afghanistan would remain politically tenable if Apiata were killed and the Taliban would know that. The experts are saying this will affect the SAS’s operations due to the greater danger they face.

When the picture was first published online by the Herald, it didn’t include Apiata’s name. Apparently, the media thought it was him and asked Key if would confirm it. Which he did. Key says “At the end of the day, I’m not going to stand up and lie to the New Zealand media. If it’s Willie Apiata, it’s Willie Apiata. It was pretty clear to anyone who knows the man that that’s who it was.”

You’re the PM, John. Act like it. If there’s something you can’t tell the media for security reasons say so and don’t tell them. That’s what Clark would have done. You should have said ‘guys, if you publish these pictures and claim one of those people is a national hero you make the SAS a greater target. I’m asking that you will act responsibly’. I doubt the media would have run the pictures in their paper edition or Apiata’s name.

The problem has been that, right from the start, Key has kept on giving the media titbits of information that ought to be kept secret. He gave little hints about what the SAS is up to. He went so far as to say that the SAS would be training a special Afghan commando force but not participating in combat actions with them. It appears that was another lie and it only served to make the media even more interested in signs that the SAS was involved in combat. Again, Key should simply have refused to give any information on what the SAS was doing and refused to confirm any reports from elsewhere. That’s been the practice for decades and for good reason. Key should have shown some responsibility.

So should the media. John Roughan’s attitude – “When you’re on patrol in Kabul we don’t think he’s preserved from being photographed.” – is frankly incredible. I’m glad this plonker wasn’t around during World War 2: ‘when you’re all getting on boats to head to Normandy we don’t think you’re preserved from being photographed’. Informing the public is important but not if it means putting people’s lives in greater danger.

But that’s the media for you. They don’t know the meaning of the word responsibility. This is why Key needed to display some leadership and strength from the start. He ought to have refused to give any information of SAS activities and requested that the media not reveal any. Sometimes being a leader means telling people they can’t have what they want. But Key isn’t that kind of Prime Minister. Not that kind of man. I think he still doesn’t understand the import of his words as Prime Minister and the duty of care that comes with that. He’s too desperate to be liked and keep everyone happy.

50 comments on “The SAS, the media, and Key ”

  1. illuminatedtiger 1

    Have a look at this http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/3257154/Key-broke-pledge-on-Kiwis-in-battle – Key mightn’t think so but he has still lied to the NZ public.

  2. Lew 2

    I can’t get concerned about this. Operational security is not so fragile in Afghanistan that it trumps the need for political transparency over what our military is up to. In some cases it would, but this isn’t one of them, in my view. Appeals to Normandy (which was) obscure this distinction.

    I agree with the general critique of Key’s relationship with the media and important official information, though.


  3. Pascal's bookie 3

    “But that’s the media for you.”

    Sho nuff.

    I know that the NZ media can’t afford to send someone over to actually report, and that it’s a complicated and difficult story that they haven’t covered in any real way, meaning that an established simplistic narrative is what they have to base any stories on, but really.

    That this little dust up is about all we have heard about Afghanistan is appalling. We’ve just had 6 weeks of summer fluff in the media. Our political journo’s have had nothing to write about and have been freed from the more intensive news cycle that exists at other times in the year.

    It would have been nice if some of them had used the time to do some in depth researched reporting on various stories that need it. Like strategic developments in the places we have deployed our military.

    Some interesting stuff on the US State Depts latest efforts here , details from a leaked document here , Pakistan no longer playing ball here , and so on and so forth

    • bill 3.1

      I don’t quite see why ‘being freed from the more intensive news cycle’ is a necessary prerequisite for putting news into reporting.

      It’s not as though they put news into reporting during the ‘intensive news cycle’ when they are reporting on topics they are familiar and comfortable with.

      And it’s not as though people like you or me are not capable of becoming quite knowledgeable about so called difficult and complicated stories even although we hold down full time, time consuming jobs or whatever.

      Journalists have no excuse and should be given none.

      Even if their employer would not print substantive news pieces, why are these people not using their investigative know how, contacts and word craft to put substantive commentary on blogs ( either their own or on the likes of the standard)?

      Is it because they lack all the necessary skill set that would set a journalist apart from a lackey?

      • Pascal's bookie 3.1.1

        Yeah, didn’t mean to imply that we don’t need better, or that there is an excuse. I don’t know, they are what they do I guess.

        One more link for those interested. real long, with attached papers on where and how the hearts and minds strategy is going; a proposal and a dissent. the blog post itself is pretty damning, the strategy itself is potentially related to what we have signed our SAS up for.

        Yet another blog worth bookmarking, both for the commentary that is there, and for the linked articles and documents:

        Petraeus and McChrystal Drink Major Gant’s Snake Oil</a

      • BLiP 3.1.2

        Is it because they lack all the necessary skill set that would set a journalist apart from a lackey?

        Yes. And the reason for that is the training has been taken over by the industry itself. The last thing the industry wants are people who think for themselves and hold true to the ideals of the Fourth Estate.

  4. felix 4

    Either Bill summed it up pretty well here or I’m just too cynical for this kind of thing.

  5. These jackasses did it, to sell papers.

  6. Gooner 6

    You’re the PM, John. Act like it. If there’s something you can’t tell the media for security reasons say so and don’t tell them. That’s what Clark would have done.

    Except when you tell lies to the media to get the police commissioner removed from his job.


    • Pascal's bookie 6.1

      Hey! Look! Over there! Aiiiieeeee!!

    • RedLogix 6.2

      Actually Gooner has a point in an assbackwards sort of way.

      I recall an interview with HC on NatRad some years ago when she admitted that she regretted her actions over the Peter Doone affair. As she explained it, she had spent many years in Opposition working hard to court media attention, and the habit of being openly available to journalists at all times. Of course the Peter Doone affair arose literally within the first few weeks of her taking office as PM, and in hindsight she realised that she had failed to change her handling of the media… that she openly answered questions that were being put to her, as if she was still the Leader of the Opposition, rather than taking into account the new realities of being PM. It was a mistake HC learned from.

      It’s not unrealistic to suggest that Key has made a similar sort of mistake here… only the consequences could well be far more severe… and after 14 months on the job as PM, I would have thought this an unforced error he should not have made.

  7. Blue 7

    The Herald published a photo of two SAS guys. It didn’t name them or give any specific information about where they were or what they were doing. Stuff published the photo on their site later, but again, no names or details.

    Then Key stuck his big oar in, and named one of them as Willie Apiata. And every media outlet in the country could now name Apiata and publish the photo because the PM himself basically gave them carte blanche to do so.

    He should have just shut it and said he couldn’t comment on security matters. If he had done that, no media outlet would have named him, because they couldn’t be sure about his identity.

    If the VC now has a target on his back, it’s thanks to Key, not the media.

  8. BLiP 8

    Ooops. Having just slagged off journalists for not doing their job, it would seem Kerry Williamson at the DomPost has made it quite clear that John Key lied through his teeth when he said; “I’m not going to lie to the media”. Hat tip, Tumeke.

    Before the election it must be remembered that John Key also said:

    I’ll be New Zealand’s first Jewish Prime Minister . . . . . . we apply Christian principles in our household . . . . . . actually, I’m a bit of an agnostic”

    As was pointed out yesterday, John Key will say whatever he thinks we want to hear. Coward.

  9. Anne 9

    I think Blue has summed it up neatly.

    It’s yet another example of Key’s inability to think appropriately when the occasion demands it.

  10. Blue 10

    It really gets my goat that this has been let slide. Everyone has got stuck into the media over this, which, while admittedly an enjoyable pastime, is completely missing the point.

    This is a huge blunder from Key. His first really big stuff up on national security. And no one is picking up on it.

    We have a loose-lipped PM who can’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut with sensitive information.

    Shouldn’t someone be paying more attention to that?

  11. TB 11

    On a lighter note. Those are two serious looking dudes in that photo….The Herald editor must have balls of steel….. or be extremely stupid… to risk pissing those guys off.

  12. todd 12

    Either Im a fucking genious or Eddie,you are bloody blind.who the hell did you think the pic was?.

    • Eddie 12.1

      It’s irrelevant whether it was obviously Apiata or not. Key shouldn’t have confirmed. Or denied, for that matter.

  13. todd 13

    Oh wait a minute,I didnt think, its Chris Carter in disguise.

  14. Horse 14

    Wasn’t the original photo picked up because it was published in the NY Times? With the soldiers identified as being from NZ? I’m not sure if the photo was available on the web at the Times, but whining at the NZ media over this seems so…… pre-internet.

  15. Rich 15

    A cynic would think that Apiata is being set up to be killed in Afghanistan and provide a casus belli for further NZ involvement (avenging dead heroes).

    I don’t think that in a democracy one can suppress such photos. Even if the NZ media didn’t run it, it’s such a good photo that the agencies would pick it up as a file pic. What else could they do – shoot the photographer?

    • Lew 15.1

      Substitute ‘cynic’ for ‘raving paranoiac conspiracy nut’ and you might have an argument.

      Agree completely regarding the photo, though.


  16. reddy 16

    Surely the war in Afghanistan is now being set up as publicity for the government?

    This changes the narrative of the war. It is now being used as a publicity stunt. Kiwi elite commando hero kicks arse!

    All other questions about whether we should be there, if the SAS should be there not our reconstruction team that was successful, or if the war is proving a hard sell in the U.S….

    to go out on a limb it is war porn. We see the soldier and the gun with a determined look on his face. We don’t see carnage.

    Would we glamourise the armed offenders squad in this way?

  17. Jenny 17

    Is Corporal Willie Apiata New Zealand’s, real life version, of Colonel Miles Quarich?

  18. regardless of them both being kiwi or it being Willie Apiata, it’s a stunning photo and you can tell he posed for it cos he’s staring right down the barrell.

  19. First of all,

    John Key doesn’t lie to the press? Lord Ashcroft, shares scandal, Bankers trust, Krieger anyone?


    Do you guys read the newspapers at all? Apiata was given $ 35.000,- worth of press training paid for by defence. The guy is a bought and paid for propaganda tool. He was taught how to slomo towards any camera pointed at him whenever and give them a Rambo stare while shaking his carefully coiffed warrior manes.


    I wonder how many Maori kids will want to be just like him. That should get rid of some of the unemployed young males who might get angry in the near future when they see more of their Iwi’s land get grabbed what with all the mining being planned as we speak.

    Captcha: MISUNDERSTANDING. Yeah, right.

    • Bill 19.1

      $35 000?

      Makes you wonder just how slow the guy might be on the uptake, dunnit?.

      You think they should do a NZ Next Top War Porn Model comp and recoup that training outlay through the advertising revenue? Maybe Colgate would be interested in sponsoring….”Kinder Killer Smiles” or “Death Smiles Whiter With Colgate” or whatever….

      Maybe Ron Mark could be on the jury? John too, seeing as how he has that gushing school boy enthusiasm thing going…should resonate well with the target audience.

      • travellerev 19.1.1

        That or he gets paid a ton to star as the NZ Rambo. I mean what an ad for the NZ army, eh?

        Excellent idea and while we’re at it we might as well do a who’s the cutest army babe as in those women who go for soldiers and military types. LOL.

    • Tony 19.2

      @ traevllerev: I doubt the army spent as much as you claim on media training for Apiata, that was probably the total cost for “media training” as you put it for a number of people, of which Apiata was but one. Organisations often have their staff undertake media training, for a variety of reasons, none of which are sinister. However it is true that Apiata was given media training, as any good employer would, and should have, given the situation. It is important to note that Apiata didn’t ask to be awarded the VC and I strongly doubt he could have refused the VC. The decision to award the VC is made by the Prime Minister. That Apiata deserved the VC is beyond doubt.

      The mana and dignity of Apiata’s and my people, demanded he be given the recognition and respect that he was given. Describing Apiata dismissively as “Rambo” is offensive to him and our people. Being the liberal white racist that you are this is probably something beyond your understanding. Oh and before you ask “Yessir I is one stroppy nigger”

      BTW – Are you really so stupid that you think that 9/11 was an inside job?


      • travellerev 19.2.1


        The amount described was a quote from a New Zealand mainstream media. In fact I link to that Newspaper.

        By the way if you are really so stupid to believe that 19 Saudi young men can hijack four air planes with box cutters, fly around for a couple of hours without any intervention from the biggest most well equipped air force in the world, crash into two towers and collapse three towers of that complex into a pyroclastic flow in freefall speed (Never happened before and never happened after) and all because a madman in a cave in Afghanistan told them too I got a real nice piece of rainforest in the Sahara for sale.

        • travellerev

          Added to that:

          If you link to my blog you will find that I have no disrespect for Willy Apiata’s courage and achievements.

          But if you think I’m going to shut up about the whole (white man’s) use of the man as a propaganda tool because that might be construed as racist you’re sadly mistaken.

          I’m not a man by the way in my case the captcha should have been stupid white woman but seeing as it comes from a Maori naive enough to believe the white man’s trash and lies I will not take that to serious.

          Have a nice day

          • Tony

            “…. a Maori naive enough…” Wow you really are racist aren’t you? No doubt you think that us brown fellas should just sit in the corner and be quiet, let the liberal white “woman” (I was going to say person but you’ve made the point that your’e a woman) who knows better do the talkin for us. It must grate to have a “brown fella” talkin back to ya.

            What you wrote earlier about Apiata was an intended insult by you towards him and our people and therefore racist. You trample on our mana like we are dirt. BTW the head of the army is Maori, is he just another brown fella doin the white mans work? Consider yourself lucky, if you insulted us 170 years ago we would have hit you over the head and put you in the hungi, haha only joking… the old people said that silly white women didn’t taste very nice.

            At least with right-wing white people (men & woman) they call a spade a spade. Liberal white “women” like you are just as racist but you don’t have the guts to say it to our face.

            As for “Arab Men” not being able to mastermind and carry out the 9/11 attacks, are you are saying that non white people are incapable are incapable of such a thing? you nothing of Arab history. As for how the buildings collapsed its simple – after the planes flew into the buildings gravity and the nature of the construction took care of the rest. My friends watched the planes hit the buildings from across the river.

            BTW – you describe the teleban as freedom fighters! They would rape & mutilate you in the blink of an eye.

            • felix

              I don’t even believe that you are maori.

              If you were, you’d be the first I’ve come across with your level of written language who can’t spell “hangi”.

              I call shenanigans on “Tony”.

              (captcha: “failed” Ha!)

              • Tony

                Sorry….my level of written language is too good to be maori? Who are you decide on who is and who isn’t maori? And you’re commenting on a spelling mistake… as my daughter would say “like OMG….get a life”.

              • felix

                No, your level of written language is too good to not be able to spell “hangi” unless you had no connection whatsoever with maori culture.

                You’ve been rolled. Now fuck off.

            • travellerev

              Jeez, hungi. LOL

      • pollywog 19.2.2

        Rambo was the man and being likened to him hardly constitutes an insult !!!

        i cant get over the power of that picture though , even more so when you consider who it is.

        so basically, Willie and his mate have just flushed out the enemy, dealt with them and are now returning to base. meanwhile a french photographer happens to be there so Willie walks straight towards him staring down the camera.

        legendary stuff

        • quenchino

          You have to get the fact that he is likely to have just killed a bunch of people.

          As with almost all the casualties of war; most were just the brothers and sons of very ordinary folk, living very ordinary lives…. now scarred by yet more deprivation and grief.

          • pollywog

            You have to get the fact that he is likely to have just killed a bunch of people.

            yeah i get that and thats what contributes to the power and intrigue of the picture, cos you have no idea what Willie’s thinking, only that this is how he looks when he does his job.

            its for others to determine the morality of his actions and propagandize it how they see fit. he’s cool with it, it’s an occupational hazard he takes on.

            to live by the sword, and you can tell he’s fully prepared to die by it too, with absolutely no fear.

            mean maori mean:)

            • Bill


            • felix

              cos you have no idea what Willie’s thinking

              Uh huh.

              to live by the sword, and you can tell he’s fully prepared to die by it too, with absolutely no fear.

              So now you can tell. Goodo.

              Ditto bill.

            • Bill


              In your eyes the guy is a hero….a ‘mans man’…and all the rest of that hero stuff.

              Ok. Fine.

              But you still going to idolise the soldiers who will return traumatised and incapable of readjusting to what for us passes as ‘normality’ if and when the strange little party in their head blows?

              Or are you going to turn on them at that point, your cheap vicarious little thrill long forgotten, and demand max sentences as you decry them for not being man enough to hack it?

              Just wondering.

              • pollywog

                But you still going to idolise the soldiers who will return traumatised and incapable of readjusting to what for us passes as ‘normality’ if and when the strange little party in their head blows?

                been watching Rambo again huh Bill? You know thats just a movie eh not a documentary ?

                we already know Willie has no fear and accepts death because of his past actions. you dont get a VC for talking tuff on teh interwebz. you get it for being heroic !!!

  20. tc 20

    I feel for any responsible servant of the crown who have to bring this kind of sensitive information to the PM knowing what a PR driven individual he is.

    Much like the an incompetant manager who has to be kept in the loop, yet lacks the intellect to handle the info correctly and undermines/jepordises the potential outcomes.

    Corporate style gov’t brings corp style behaviour…….man at top not there on merit just pleasing to the various factions who have a say.

  21. ben 21

    If this web site ever gave Key credit for anything, then your advice might have meant something. But we all know had he said what you suggest, he’d have been accused of something else, double speak or treating the people like idiots, or something.

    Key simply said what was obvious. Don’t try to pretend the cat was not out of the bag.

    • You are absolutely right,

      John Key would have lied if he had had the chance. he always does and only comes clean when the cat is already out of the bag.

      Here he just followed what was in his diary and here he lies about his tranzrail shares just to mention a few.

      As he said in the end of the day he doesn’t lie to the press but only if they do their job and catch him out.

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