Tuesday, May 21

What Byron “extremism expert” Clark isn’t telling you?

From time to time, the issue of political commentators and their conflicts of interest flares up and becomes, itself, subject to political commentary. Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards is arguably the leading voice on this issue in New Zealand. In an article for Newsroom in 2018 with the heading “Be transparent about pundits’ conflicts of interest”, he wrote that “The audience needs to know whose opinion they are receiving”. 

Since then, thanks to increasing scrutiny, it could be argued that there has been some improvement. But there is a broader issue, and that is what else the public should be informed about commentators that might impact upon their credibility, especially when they are held up as an authority on a particular subject.  

You may have heard of Byron C Clark. In the last few years, he has been promoted as an authority on the far right/alt right extremism, and disinformation. With the parliamentary protest a year ago, he became one of the media’s go-to experts on such matters. This expertise is based largely, it seems, on him spending untold hours burrowing down fetid rabbit holes on the internet. He has just published a book “Fear: New Zealand’s Hostile Underworld of Extremists” and is doing the press rounds promoting it. 

The far right is clearly a growing problem in New Zealand and elsewhere and, while I and others have serious doubts about Clark’s methodology, I don’t doubt his good intentions. However, if someone is purporting to be an expert on extremism, I believe it’s important to know about their own history on that subject. 

It is a matter of public record that Clark was a member of the Workers Party of New Zealand, a socialist/Marxist political party that operated for about a decade from 2002. He was not just any member of the party. He unsuccessfully stood for the Christchurch mayoralty in 2007 on its ticket.

So what, you might ask? Well, a major policy of the party was to actively support and fundraise for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, known as the PFLP, which was by then a designated terrorist organisation in the US, the EU, Israel and other places (although not New Zealand). In a 2014 profile on the PFLP, the BBC noted “Combining Arab nationalism with Marxist-Leninist ideology, the PFLP saw the destruction of Israel as integral to its struggle to remove Western capitalism from the Middle East.” The PFLP became notorious in the late 1960s and 70s for attacking airports and hijacking commercial aircraft and holding passengers hostage, sometimes destroying the aircraft and killing passengers.

In 2009, the Workers Party formally announced its national solidarity campaign in support of PFLP under the heading “Resistance is Not Terrorism”, noting: “One of the important points of the Solidarity Campaign is to support the right of Palestinians to all forms of resistance including armed resistance. In many western nations the PFLP has been branded as a terrorist organisation, we believe it is the right of any people facing a military occupation to resist.”

In 2010, the party announced it was donating $1000 to the PFLP, raised mostly through the sale of PFLP t-shirts. The party’s magazine Spark (including the November 2011 issue Clark was a co-ordinating editor of) and the associated website “Fightback” regularly featured ads selling these t-shrts, with the banner “Resistance is not terrorism”.

Clark spoke at party conferences alongside speakers promoting the PFLP and posted articles on Fightback fundraising for the PFLP, including in 2009 as follows: “Due to popular demand the Workers Party will be holding another screening of the documentary ‘Lelia Khaled: Hijacker’ about the “poster girl of Palestinian liberation.” ‘Resistance is not Terrorism’ T-shirts will be available for $30 with all profits being donated to the PFLP.”

In case you’re wondering what this “resistance” looks like, it includes bombing shoppers in markets and teenagers in pizzerias, and hacking worshippers in synagogues with meat cleavers.

Terrorists always believe that their attacks on innocent civilians are justified in pursuit of their political or ideological aims, and that they are resisting oppression of one sort or another. The Christchurch gunman was no different.

Nobody who takes a “the end justifies the means” approach to murdering civilians should be held out as an ally or authority on extremism. Any such person must have the trust and respect of society and especially those most vulnerable to extremism. The fact that Clark is uncritically accepted as such without scrutinising this aspect of his past (which is easily discoverable on the internet) – and clarifying whether it remains his present – is extremely troubling. A charitable interpretation is that the media does not want to undermine the fight against the far right, but it also reveals a dangerous blindspot and hypocrisy about terrorism that does not emanate from that quarter. This makes certain communities, including the Jewish community, even more vulnerable. 

If someone who was held up as an authority on extremism had supported and fundraised for the KKK or another far right organisation, however long ago, I feel confident that there would be a powerful drive – championed by Clark himself – for that person to be deplatformed and suffer other social and financial consequences, and not to attend the Counterterrorism Hui, as Clark did last year.    

In her interview with him on 4 February, RNZ’s Kim Hill got the closest to this issue when she put it to him that he is “extremist left” and asked how he responded, which was as follows: “I certainly don’t reject the label of being far left. I don’t necessarily hold all the same political beliefs that I did a decade ago. I think my politics have changed and evolved over time”. 

I don’t know whether Clark’s evolution includes his stance on the PFLP, because the question has never been put to him in all his media appearances, and he has ignored the question put to him on social media. If he has evolved so that he regrets fundraising for the PFLP and eschews support for all forms of terrorism whatever the source and cause, then he should clarify that and explain why that is so. His evolution process might even provide insights about deradicalisation and should be welcomed.  

I hope we get that clarity soon.