19 Jun 2016

Nuclear headlines clash with the facts

From Mediawatch, 9:06 am on 19 June 2016

The headlines didn't match the facts in a recent UK story about New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy

Last Wednesday, a startling news story appeared in UK paper The Times that said “a 30-year ban on foreign naval ships that have nuclear capacity has been dropped by New Zealand".

The story was by a New Zealander who reports for the paper from Sydney, Bernard Lagan, and it had a photo of the frigate Te Kaha with this caption:

"New Zealand does not have any nuclear warships but is now prepared to drop its policy of banning them from its waters."

The electronic version of the story was shared by New Zealanders here and overseas wondering if it could really be true.

Many who saw it on social media saw only the headline and that opening paragraph, because the Times has a paywall preventing those without an account from reading the rest of it.  

Screenshot of story from The Times about New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy

Photo: screenshot

Had our nuclear ships policy really been scrapped without it making headlines here?   

Not likely. When then-National leader Don Brash was reported as saying the anti-nuclear policy would be gone by lunchtime a few years back, it caused an uproar.

As unlikely as it seems, the person who may have prompted this report in the UK is someone who campaigned for the anti-nuclear policy back in the 1980s: journalist and researcher Nicky Hager.

On 9 June, Mr Hager wrote a piece in the New Zealand Herald pointing out that the US fleet had been de-nuclearised since 1985. If the US Navy sent a warship in November to attend the New Zealand navy’s upcoming 75th anniversary, "the nuclear free policy is not threatened," he wrote.

'It would be the US Navy, not New Zealand, that had changed its position,” he said.

Photo: screenshot

Last Monday, Mr Hager was on the front page of The Dominion Post, and again quoted as saying the nuclear-free policy was not threatened by the proposed visit of a US warship.

"In 1994, the entire US surface fleet was de-nuclearised, and there are now no nuclear-capable surface ships or submarines,” the paper’s national affairs editor, Vernon Small, reported.

The headline on this story about the nuclear ships policy and the proposed US ship visit quoted Mr McCully as saying: “We don’t ask. They don’t tell."

Photo: screenshot

In London, the Times evidently took "don't ask, don't tell" as a change of policy, even though Mr Lagan's story said the New Zealand government now assessed whether prospective visiting ships complied with "New Zealand's existing nuclear-free laws".

The Times also neglected to mention the de-nuclearisation of the US fleet when it reported last Wednesday that New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy had "been dropped".

It should have been quite clear New Zealand's policy “banning” nuclear-armed ships had not been “dropped” at all.

All along, the real story was US policy on nuclear warships changing since 1985, while New Zealand’s stayed the same.