Nothing seems to excite me more than tales of Conspiracy in Aotearoa. Thus when Peter Cresswell, an Objectivist and Libertarianz linked to an article by Trevor Loudon and Bernard Moran about the Soviet plot to make New Zealand nuclear-free I was in conspiratorial heaven.
(Read the article, then my critique.)
Moran and Loudon think that their article answers the following question:
A key question is: to what extent did those people on the Labour Party’s national executive, who played a leading role in taking NZ out of ANZUS, understand that they were serving the strategic interests of a hostile foreign power?
(Where that hostile foreign power was the Soviet Union, by the way.)
But it does not. The article insinuates but provides no real reason to accept their contention that (damned) Communism caused New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stand in 1984. Their argument relies on two key witnesses. Dr. Bassett, former minister under the 1984 Lange government and one Mr. John Van de Ven (who Cresswell calls an SIS agent, although Loudon and Moran only allege that he worked for SIS, which is a completely different situation). Bassett is alive and well, selling his account of the 1984 revolution; Van de Ven, the Soviet connection, is dead. Bassett is a source we can test; Van de Ven, who had private correspondence with the authors of the article, is not. Two strands of argument, two rather different stories, two rather different testing mechanisms for the individual arguments strands of reasoning.
The article tries to tie two events in the 80s; the growth of the Socialist Unity Party (the SUP) and the factionalisation of the Labour Party under David Lange. Bassett is the Labour Party connection; Van de Ven is the SUP ‘infiltrator.’ Van de Ven is the most interesting character in the story, in part because of the delightfully right-wing bias the authors show. Van de Ven is a unionist, but only because he was trying to subvert the system from within. He led a strike, but it was a rare case (so it seems) of a legitimate grievance with an employer. He meets up with Communists in Soviet Russia, including Gennady Yannaev, one of the plotters of the 1991 coup that overthrew Mikhail Gorbachev, but he makes friends with ‘good’ communists. The anti-socialist grievances of the authors are felt at every turn.
Van de Ven’s story is fascinating and at no point do the authors provide any independent substantiation of it. Whereas with Bassett’s tale of factionalisation in the Labour Party story they pull out supporting references and citations we are expected to take the authors’ word(s) that Van de Ven is a trustworthy source. This is problematic for several reasons.
On one hand the Van de Ven’s story is rather… well, exotic, Possibly farfetched. Not exactly plausible. Thus the burden of proof is on the authors (given that Van de Ven is dead) to give us reason to trust their reportage of it.
It’s not a task they succeed at. The plot itself is very post facto; it was meant to bring about the end of ANZUS and for the Labour Government to steer nuclear-free legislation through Parliament. A remarkable set of goals, especially given that the then government wasn’t exactly American-phobic. The supporting evidence, as it is, are stories about the SUP from a former KGB agent and the like, but nothing to support the assertions of Van de Ven’s story about his trip to Russia, his training and the like. Now, maybe he did go and maybe the authors have supporting evidence for his claims, but they don’t do anything to prove it and it’s a notable lapse in the methodology of their reportage.
Indeed, because we don’t know how trustworthy Van de Ven is (for example, was he really approached by the SIS, did he really seek to subvert the SUP or was he alienated by it at some later stage, causing him to create a vendetta story?) we have to trust the authors. Now, I don’t now them from Maui so I have a sort of general trust in them because, well, we generally take reportage to be a reliable testimonial process, but the plausibility of Van de Ven’s story is low, so that acts as a potential defeater claim to Loudon and Moran’s reliability; if the story is implausible then it takes extraordinary wrk on the part of the transmitters to compensate for that. Do Loudon and Moran do that?
No. Part of the problem with the Van de Ven story is that the authors are just a bit sloppy in their reportage. For example, they allege that Oleg Gordievsky, a double-agent, claims that the New Zealand and Australian communists were being run by International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, yet the two quotes they use:
“I know the situation in New Zealand very well; only 500 members of the Socialist Unity Party, but they are invaluable because each was ready to do something. It was like the KGB had 500 agents in the country.”
He added: “Plus some of them penetrated the trade unions, and then they penetrated the left wing of the NZ Labour Party.”
merely allege that the SUP, a Socialist Party, was involved with other Socialist organisations like the Unions and the Labour Party. Hardly shocking stuff. Maybe Gordievsky does allege it elsewhere in the cited material, but not here. They then run with their allegation to claim:
Understandably, the SUP took advantage of this preferential system, so that through the mid to late 1980s the majority of Labour Party senior officials were SUP sympathisers or secret members.
but provide no support. Who are these figures? And what kind of claim is this? It’s certainly unfalsifiable. Anyone who showed an interest in the Soviets can be claimed to be sympathetic; anyone who didn’t, well, they were a secret member of the SUP.
(There’s a further issue here in that Loudon and Moran seem to think that the SUP were powerful and influential when that is highly contentious and up for debate; this seems to be a classic case of deciding that all one’s political opponents are equally dangerous.)
Unfalsifiable claims such as these do not mark out exemplary journalism; anyone, according to Loudon and Moran’s allegation, could be a SUP sympathesiser or member. Lange, Phil Goff, Magaret Wilson, Mike Moore… Maybe they were. But where is the evidence to support such a claim? Well, that’s the problem, anything will count as evidence according to their allegation, and that simply won’t do.
So, the Van de Ven story is ‘not good.’ Implausible even. But it isn’t the only prong in the story. We have Dr. Bassett and the Labour Party. Even if the SUP story won’t fly, that doesn’t mean Loudon and Moran have completely failed. If the Bassett story works out then maybe Communism’s ‘malign’ influence on New Zealand’s body politic can be still be proven.
Well, it would if it connected with the Soviets at all. Instead, Moran and Loudon wax lyrical on the so-called Peace Movement, imputing guilt by association whilst never actually accusing anyone. We’ve been told about the SUP being evil Soviets, and the SUP were socialists. Now we get a story about some other socialists. Of course (it would seem from their implicit inference), all socialists are the same, thus, ipso facto, quad erat demonstratum or something similar, the socialists of part two are the same evil socialists of part one and thus Communism, Communism, Communism!
Moran and Loudon give a detailed story about how Lange was pressed into the anti-nuclear stance by factionalisation in the Labour Party. It seems like a god story; I’ll even grant that it is, initially, plausible (even though, on reflection, it falls down; no mention of Marilyn Waring, a National Party member whose ‘defection’ on the nuclear-free issue precipitated the 1984 election and, of course, the curious and awkward fact that it was American policy that really lead to the cessation of American naval ships visiting New Zealand. Had the State Department confirmed to the New Zealand Government that the USS Buchanan was not carrying nuclear weapons, then it would have been able to visit. But these are awkward facts that would get in the way of an otherwise ‘good’ story). But, and this is important, even if the story Loudon and Moran tell about the events of 1984 is plausible, it does not dovetail into the SUP and John Van de Ven story, even if they sincerely think it does. They conclude the article with:
The Cold War is now a distant memory, but in the 1980s the Soviet Union was still engaged in a relentless struggle to gain hegemony over the West. The source of the strategic initiative to remove New Zealand from ANZUS has been revealed as none other than the International Department of the CPSU.
Now, the Van de Ven story alleges that the CPSU was interested in destabilising New Zealand’s relationship with the USA. The Bassett story… I’m not sure what role it plays outside of mere insinuation.
What a lot of this boils down to is subjective plausibility. Loudon and Moran have written an article whose conclusion is only supported by its premisses if you already accept the conclusion to be true. Nothing they have written shows a definite link between the activities of the SUP and the Labour Party, between the Soviets and the SUP and a plan by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to make New Zealand take an anti-nuclear stance in 1984. Even the vaguest hint of such a plot is highly conjectural, relying on disparate accounts and a certain amount of winking and nudging on the part of the authors. It is mere conspiracy theorising of the worst sort, the same kind of activity that 9/11 Truthers engage in, similar to the rantings of people who claim there is a New World Order seeking to dominate us all.
Robin Ramsay, editor of the UK political magazine ‘Lobster’ recently noted that when it comes to reporting political conspiracies the author(s) must go to extraordinary efforts to prove their case because such a charge is a serious one. Loudon and Moran do not live up to this challenge.
Ian Wishart would be proud.
Update: Ian Wishart must be proud. Parts of the Loudon and Moran article are going into ‘Investigate Magazine.’