Political beat-up detracts from real issue

16:00, Mar 13 2010

BEARERS of bad news have never been popular, especially with the powerful. It is no surprise, then, that Police Minister Judith Collins and others have reacted angrily to this newspaper's exposure of security failings at major rugby venues.

Before we all lose our tempers, however, let's take a moment to consider the message itself. What our reporters showed is that security at three major stadiums is lamentable. Eighteen months before the start of the Rugby World Cup, there is no real security at these venues at all. What we have shown, in other words, is how much work needs to be done to ensure that the world cup is safe.

This is an important matter of public interest and this newspaper was perfectly entitled to do what it did. It was not a "stunt", as Collins claims. It was a serious test of public safety. She says it was only "pure chance" that our reporters were not detected. That, minister, is precisely the point: security at the rugby games was based on chance and nothing else. Her claims that the paper "commissioned" people to "run around dressed as terrorists" are wrong and exaggerated, and amount to a political beat-up. Our reporters walked calmly past security guards and into restricted areas without being challenged.

Collins says there could have been a panic and evacuations if things had gone wrong. In fact, this newspaper had taken legal advice and planned the test carefully to make sure that didn't happen. The toy "explosives" carried in one reporter's bag were just that – obvious fakes. Nobody would have mistaken them for a real bomb. The reporters also carried a letter bearing the paper's masthead confirming their identities and providing the name and mobile telephone number of the deputy editor. In other words, if the reporters had been stopped, their identities and what they were doing would have been instantly revealed. There was no possibility of anyone mistaking them for real terrorists. There was therefore no possibility of any panic, or evacuation, or a sudden halt to the games.

Embarrassed politicians, of course, are prone to lash out. Potentates of old had a habit of executing messengers who brought bad tidings. Collins' statements have a shrillness typical of ministers who have been caught out. A more sensible response would have been to say: "Fair cop. We've got a lot of work to do." But how often does a cornered politician do that?

The political sting lies in the farcical inadequacy that our reporters exposed. A security guard felt the bag of "explosives" from the outside, but said he couldn't rummage inside because it would open him to accusation of theft. Players signed the bag. Reporters were able to wander about stadiums untroubled. One got to within a metre of the players' changing room. One stood beside players. They stood alongside the police bomb squad. There is something typically, and even endearingly, Kiwi about this: at the rugby, even the security guards are laid back and mellow. It would be laughable if it were not potentially serious.

One security man says that it's not the job of the media to test security. Then whose job, it might be asked, is it? And why aren't they doing it? Who, to use the old saw, is guarding the guards? It's no reply to say that there is no imminent threat to sports players here and that we needn't worry till the cup starts in 2011. The reporters showed that security is inadequate even for the humdrum tasks it should be doing in the apparent absence of a terrorist threat. But, in any case, it is complacent to suppose that no terrorist threat is present, even now. The recent threats to the Commonwealth Games and the IPL have to be taken seriously. We cannot assume there is no threat: sport is a target.

Although many police and security people have reacted defensively, some of the more enlightened have been more honest. Superintendent Grant O'Fee, head of the police operation for the Rugby World Cup, admits he is "absolutely amazed anyone got near the players' tunnel, with or without explosives". Another security source says reporters should not have been able to move everywhere and get so close to players: he would be "kicking arse". That is surely the point: fixing the problem rather than lashing out at those who revealed it.


Sunday Star Times