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Chris Trotter argues the RNZ podcast series on the SIS during the Cold War makes a fortuitous and timely recharacterisation of our spooks against the backdrop of the modern threat from China

Chris Trotter argues the RNZ podcast series on the SIS during the Cold War makes a fortuitous and timely recharacterisation of our spooks against the backdrop of the modern threat from China

By Chris Trotter*

What possible reason could Radio New Zealand have for re-visiting the Cold War? It’s podcast series, “The Service” is nothing if not a jarring reminder of just how deeply the political paranoia of US-Soviet rivalry penetrated public life in post-war New Zealand. More jarring still, however, is the amount of effort our national public broadcaster has devoted to fanning the embers of a fire most New Zealanders believed to be well-and-truly out.

Even the title of the series – “The Service” – has an odd ring to it. For fifty years, New Zealand journalists, employing a tone that ranged from the strictly neutral to the openly sceptical, have been content to designate the initials of the Security Intelligence Service – S.I.S – as the appropriate noun. “Ess-Eye-Ess” is what New Zealanders have called their spooks for yonks. So why the sudden shift in tone? Where has this more formal, respectful-bordering-on-deferential title, “The Service” come from?

It has about it the very particular smell of what the Americans call “public diplomacy”. Say SIS to most New Zealanders of a certain age and they will think of two things: Penthouses and pies; and Bill Sutch. The former harks back to the contents of an SIS man’s (at least we assume it was a man’s!) briefcase. It was left inadvertently on a Wellington wall about 40 years ago and the SIS has been trying to live down the incident ever since. The story of Bill Sutch is altogether more serious and tragic.

William Ball Sutch (1907-1975) was a public servant and historian of enormous political, economic and cultural influence who dwelt at the heart of the New Zealand state from the 1930s to the 1970s (rising to become the Secretary for Industries and Commerce 1958-1965). Proudly and openly a man of the Left, Sutch was long suspected by those on the right of New Zealand politics of being, if not a Soviet spy, then something uncomfortably close to it. Certainly, the SIS had long been convinced that in Sutch they faced the antipodean equivalent of Kim Philby (the Soviet spy who operated for years at the heart of Britain’s MI6) and in 1974 they set out to prove it.

They failed. A New Zealand jury acquitted Sutch of the espionage charges the SIS had brought against him. Vindicated, but broken physically, Sutch was dead within a year. Death was not the end, however. Not for the SIS. For more than 40 years they have not ceased to seize every available opportunity to prosecute Sutch as a Soviet agent in the court of public opinion. That RNZ should now be rendering the “Service” so much service in this endless prosecution is troubling – to say the least.

Things get even murkier when the RNZ podcasts move on from Sutch to drag the Fourth Labour Government’s (1984-1990) anti-nuclear policies – and the much more independent New Zealand foreign policy which they spawned – into the “wilderness of mirrors” for which the Cold War’s “national security” paranoia was so notorious.

Listening to these podcasts, it is impossible to ignore the soft – but relentless – drumbeat of suspicion that every part of the foreign policy revolution of the 1980s: the grassroots movement for a nuclear-free New Zealand; Labour’s embrace of the cause; the enacting legislation; the banning of the USS Buchanan; New Zealand’s departure from the Anzus alliance; bears the unmistakeable imprimatur of the KGB’s Moscow Centre. This impression is in no way lessened by the former Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s, admission that he authorised SIS surveillance of his own Labour Party’s members.

Emerging from all the tendentious reminiscing of the old Cold Warriors featured in these podcasts is the clear impression that, in the eyes of New Zealand’s national security “community”, Sutch’s “economic nationalism” and Labour’s long pursuit of a more independent foreign policy were all of a piece.

Geopolitically, they were said to represent a decades-long effort on the part of the Soviet Union to detach New Zealand from “The West” (that all-powerful Anglophone alliance now referred to as the ”Five Eyes”.) That effort, these warriors have long insisted, came perilously close to succeeding. Undisputed is the energy so many of these old warhorses have expended between 1985 and the present day to: firstly, discredit Sutch’s economic nationalism; and secondly, to refasten the geopolitical ties that formerly bound us so tightly to Washington, London and Canberra.

It is this context, I believe, which explains RNZ’s public diplomacy in “The Service”.

There is clearly a serious risk that the generations of New Zealanders who have grown up with no direct experience of the Cold War will look upon the whole historical era as an absurdly dangerous exercise in diplomatic brinkmanship, military overkill and ideologically-inspired myopia. Unchallenged, this view of the Cold War can only strengthen the argument for an even more independent New Zealand foreign policy.

From the pro-USA “public diplomat’s” point-of-view, therefore, it is vital that the highly intrusive and often illegal behaviour of this country’s Cold War spooks be re-cast as both necessary and courageous. “The Service” and its agents simply did what had to be done to protect New Zealand from the predatory ambitions of a totalitarian superpower.

This is indeed a fortuitous and timely recharacterisation, because in the estimation of its national security community New Zealand is once again threatened by the predatory ambitions of a totalitarian superpower. Not, this time, by Russia (although the nuclear claws on that old bear have lost none of their lethal sharpness) but by the rapidly expanding power and influence of the Peoples Republic of China.

Once again, say the spooks, we find prominent citizens whose loyalties are increasingly difficult to discern. Once again, there is evidence of Communist Party-controlled “front organisations” exerting undue influence over the formulation of New Zealand’s economic and foreign policies. Once again, it has become necessary to place some Members of Parliament under SIS surveillance.

The sub-text of RNZ’s “The Service” is nothing if not ingenious.

Clearly, in the estimation of RNZ’s public diplomats, the Baby-Boom generation is guilty of allowing their rose-tinted “New Left” spectacles to blind them to the real intentions of the Soviet Union. Consumed by an anti-Americanism constantly fed and carefully stoked by KGB agents who “knew the Left” and how to “push their buttons”, the Labour Party adopted a programme that came within an ace of detaching New Zealand from the West. It is vital, therefore, that younger New Zealanders refuse to allow the Chinese to do to them what the Soviets did to their parents: i.e. turn them into the Communist Party’s “useful idiots”.

Not that they are expected to face this new threat alone. Standing alongside them in the fight: just as they stood alongside their easily manipulated and ungrateful parents in the long, secret struggle against Soviet totalitarianism; will be the un-named and un-sung heroes of “The Service”.

That’s quite a pitch!

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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Intriguing thought provoking piece. I long believed the widespread anti US sentiment in NZ was largely organic, strongly influenced by attitudes to the Vietnam war. The idea that the soviets were orchestrating public policy and perceptions seemed far fetched given they at the time presented as crudely unsophisticated, almost comically so.

Agreed and of course as well then, Nixon himself was like a magnet to iron filings in that regard

I remember Lange expelled a russian diplomat for spying,dont recall the labour party being under russian influence,labour unions yes,boilermakers,engine drivers officials would go to meetings at the embassy.if you got invited along the joke was"come and get your photo taken by the S.I.S"

And before that in about 1963 two or maybe three were kicked out by the Holyoake government. The Truth ended up in court over its accusations of communist associates amongst NZrs. Somebody published here not so long ago a set of maps of NZ cities that had been discovered somewhere which had been modified and targeted by the Soviets. On the other hand a map was found with the Americans recordings of Auckland harbour during the earlier Roosevelt’s presidency. There it is really. Like CT I tend to believe that these cloak and dagger type participants are more likely of the pie and Penthouse calibre rather than the characters to be found in a Len Deighton novel.

interesting piece. i find it even more interesting that no mention is made of Lange, who after he left office and Government, allowed it to become very clear that he was virtually rabidly anti-American. Whether this was enough to put him in the arms of Soviet sympathisers, or even be one himself, we'll never know. Plus while CT identifies China and Russia, i often wonder about America. Although technically it is a 'democracy', with it's history (including the sacking of the Gough Whitlam Government in Australia) I would not be too surprised if it too was endeavouring to exert influence here.

Also it is pleasing that CT, while often criticised for being, and admitting, of the left that he clearly favours NZ's unique independence. Unfortunately though I fear that our size means that sooner or later we may be called on to pick a side.

Plus while CT identifies China and Russia, i often wonder about America. Although technically it is a 'democracy', with it's history (including the sacking of the Gough Whitlam Government in Australia) I would not be too surprised if it too was endeavouring to exert influence here.

Hmmm... this article might put some matters in context.

More propaganda set to influence our local intelligence agencies from afar.

Who Really Paid Who?

Pilger and Hager make similar claims.
I also wonder at the credibility of journalists quoting 'sources'. There are very few investigative journalists left these days, and the general public has little time for articles that have more than two sentences in a paragraph.
And as NZ has always had a conflict of interests between the desires of its exporters and its internal values, identifying the 'right' from 'wrong' actors is hard enough for most folk. Add to that the complexities of non-state actors within the globalised context, and audiences raised on clear binaries within known narratives simply do not have enough criticality to engage.
Influence has always been here. I welcome CT's article for not being reductionist in its conclusions...

'I would not be too surprised if it too was endeavouring to exert influence here' ..... popes and catholics
NZs middle road approach is not necessarily something Uncle Sam would be entirely displeased about. Having relationships with a tiny and economically and militarily weak nation that has sound credibility with non aligned states but is philosophically aligned with many american values and aspirations presents useful intermediary avenues for the US.

Do you remember MM, or CT might if he reads is fan mail, about the time of The Philby scandal The Goons ran a program arising from that, so much so that Minnie Bannister in concert with a Henry Crumb was running a school for spies, graduates known therefore as Min’s spies. Great confusion, wonderful play on words, when Eccles turns up looking for a mince pie. Apologies but the Penthouse and pie was sufficient to dust that one off the memory shelf.

FG. Not until you reminded me. Big smile as it all came back. The wondrous Henry Crumb. Another indelible image from the Sutch era is the press photo of KGB officer Dimitri Razgovorov running from the SIS who sprung him at a clandestine meeting with Sutch in Wellington. That Sutch in 1974 still believed the Russian communist system to have any remaining credibility illustrates his entrenched ideology and wilful blindness to the obviously failing communist system and appalling atrocities committed by that state which were by then beyond dispute. Solzhenitsyns Gulag Archipelago with its revelations of the inhumane soviet punishment system arrived in the west the previous year. The Sutch incident was to cement in the naive consciousness of NZrs that malicious actors were indeed attempting to wrest control of kiwis hearts and minds.

Remember the number one lesson of the cold war - proxy states become battlegrounds.

Which we can ill afford - a peace maker set to our GPS coordinates offers no comfort.

Sheeeeit. The 70s was bad enough. Can I go back to being a warehouse shopper now?

Speaking as a humble penguin, you offer the most thought provoking things...

A contrarian view is that such weapons have delivered two of the most peaceful generations in world history which is set to continue under the MAD doctrine. Russias military credibility rests almost entirely upon nuclear weapons it it can never use offensively. They ensure the motherland will never be invaded but are largely useless for external military power projection. The Russians bled their economic and thus military strength by supplying the north Vietnamese. At the time of the Sutch incident the soviet top brass already knew the arms race with the west was well lost. The Reagan star wars OK corral showdown 6 years later simply confirmed it. Today the Russians are limited to small scale adventures such as the crimean annexation and supporting proxy wars like Syria with valorous activities such as bombing hospitals and identifying the whereabouts of foreign journalists for the Syrian government to murder.

The real deal are what broadly could be defined as operational-tactical hypersonic weapons designed to be used at the modern battlefield against variety of the enemy's military targets. Russia has one such weapon, hypersonic Kinzhal in IOC since 2017 and in full combat deployment since 2018.

The United States undeniably will be able at some point of time to develop some sort of a glider but I doubt it very much that US military will have anything comparable to 3M22 Zircon or even same Kinzhal anytime soon. Rule of thumb here is this: a generation of weapon systems. The United States lags behind Russia in hyper-sonic battle-field weapons not just by generation, but by two. She simply doesn't have any, while Russia already has Kinzhal in action for 3 years and Zircon is nearing its IOC. Link

Yes, I've been following the fanfare. While undoubtedly a tactical advantage for a few years the numbers needed to be effective in a conventional scrap with the deep and widely dispersed military resources of the US is beyond the capacity of the Russian economy which is smaller than that of 5 US states; separately. The yanks will have been intimately aware of Russian and chinese hypersonic missile development progress and while purportedly have dragged their feet, history shows that is unlikely. Somewhere in the US a team equivalent to the famous Lockheed SR71 skunk works group will be smiling quietly at Putin blowing his budget to build a system for which development of a superior system or effective defence is already well advanced.

the Russian economy which is smaller than that of 5 US states; separately.
Hmmmm ... since Russia is disengaged (sanctions) from trading with western nations IMF purchasing power parity economy adjustment is valid.
Why can't NATO evict Russia from the Middle East and Crimea if they are the force you claim and resort to this type of despicable behaviour?

Probably because US debt is unsustainable and precludes relevant military investment.

Brace yourself. The wave of evictions and foreclosures in next 2 months will be unlike anything America has experienced since the Great Depression. And unless Congress extends extra unemployment benefits beyond July 31, we’re also going to have unparalleled hunger.Link

Oops - I was wrong US looking to buy Turkey's Russian S400 hardware apparently.

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. would be able to buy Turkey’s Russian-made S-400 air defense system under legislation proposed in the Senate last week. The proposal is one powerful lawmaker’s attempt to alleviate the impasse between Washington and Ankara over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Link

Pretty familiar with the MAD argument. Several documented instances of underlings disobeying their superiors when things got heated during the cold war, and recently in Hawaii.

And proxy wars are ok if you're not in the countries concerned..

CCP, very good at under-current influence of NZ govt. State capture. Unis also under influence -it is obvious.

MissyChung. If you really are a chinese kiwi, I salute your courage. I'm curious about the extent to which the chinese community is directly intimidated by state sponsored actors within the NZ chinese community as distinct from a more general sense of fear based on implied retribution against family back in China.

I'd support the assertion that unis are influenced - pressure to pass students, lack of criticality for fear of curtailment of career progression. Encouraged to be a-political in relation to China...

Fascinating to get this perspective on RNZ from someone astute as Trotter. That a dedicated lefty would call out red radios' servitude to government policy demonstrates his intellectual integrity. The marxist long march through the institutions rolls on, shaping much of modern journalism, but in an adroit manoeuvre the media maintains the spirit of Dutschke while simultaneously demonising the CCP endgame of its same marxist underpinnings.

I have to say this MM, but are you aware that 'marxist critique' has underpinned vast swathes of media and cultural studies for well over four decades now? It's been extensively criticised for making assumptions about the supposed homogeneity and passivity of the 'masses' - so whilst it perhaps had some relevance as a critical tool to assess broadcasting, it's considered hopelessly old fashioned in an era of social media.

But by all means, do continue with your assessment...