Lone Wolf: Jon Stephenson and his Search for the Truth


image003WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that seeking the truth about New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan could be so dangerous? Quite a few people, I suppose. Because, thinking about it, war is an inherently dangerous business. So, am I surprised that so few journalists are queuing-up to follow Jon Stephenson’s example? No. Not when I consider Jon’s fate. Not really.


And then there’s Jon’s personality. He just isn’t like other journalists. Maybe that’s because he came to the profession relatively late – in his thirties. Unlike the other kids on his journalism course at AIT, Jon had seen quite a lot of the world. It had made him thoughtful. It had made him indignant. It had made him sceptical. He wanted answers. And, fortunately, the years he’d spent studying philosophy had made him very good at asking questions.


He was working at The Independent Business Weekly in September 2001. Warren Berryman and Jenni McManus ran that shop. They were “old school” journalists who understood that news is something which somebody, somewhere, doesn’t want you to know about. They also understood that news doesn’t come to you in a press release, it’s something you have to go out grab by the scruff of the neck and drag spitting and scratching into the light.


Jon knew, right away, that 9/11 was a global game-changer, and that the only way to understand it would be to follow the wreckage-strewn path of America’s avenging furies. He begged a leave of absence, borrowed some money and stole a march on just about every other New Zealand journalist by following the sound of the bombs all the way to Tora Bora.


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He was hooked then, as so many great journalists of the past had been hooked, on the raw, existential adventure of war. In the explosive brightness of the battlefield, Jon saw with unholy clarity the terrifying ballet of political power and military force which the gutless, but not guiltless, news organisations of the West deliberately keep out of focus.


After Afghanistan it was Iraq, and then Israel and Gaza and Lebanon, and then Zimbabwe, and then back to Afghanistan. And each time he returned it seemed that the New Zealand news media’s interest in what its government was doing – and who it was doing it with – had declined.


There were a handful of noble exceptions: Mark Jennings and Mike McRoberts at TV3; the editorial staff at The Sunday Star-Times; Simon Wilson at Metro. But, for the most part, the rest of his journalist colleagues were happy to lump him in with that other lone wolf, Nicky Hager.


When these other journalists went to Iraq or Afghanistan it was as safely embedded guests of the New Zealand Defence Force. None of them brought back stories that seriously challenged New Zealand’s involvement in America’s wars. They saw only what the NZDF wanted them to see. Wrote down only what the military PR officers insisted was the truth. Showed New Zealanders pride-inducing footage of New Zealand soldiers smiling at shy Afghan children; praised them as they went about the task of “reconstructing” Bamiyan Province.


And then Metro published Jon’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and, unexpectedly, New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan was pulled into sharp focus. The lone wolf who had, hitherto, been only an irritant, suddenly became a threat.


Jon wasn’t ready for the State’s response – any of it. That’s because, beneath the body armour of his battlefield experience, Jon Stephenson has the vulnerable heart of a patriot.


New Zealand produced great soldiers – the best. Jon knew many of them, and he knew that they were as sickened as he was by what they saw happening on the ground in Afghanistan. But, surely, the things that had gone so badly wrong, and which continued to go wrong in that theatre of the Global War on Terror, were the things that always go wrong in the fog of war? There may have been incompetence in the upper reaches of the NZDF – but mendacity? No. We were better than that: better than the Yanks; better even than the Brits.


Except we weren’t, we were just the same. The upper echelons of the NZDF and their political protectors simply trained their guns on Jon and opened fire. From the lowliest PR flack, to the Prime Minister himself, there was only one order of the day: “Get Stephenson!” They meant to hurt him and they succeeded. He was accused of fabricating his stories. His credibility was coldly and deliberately attacked by John Key in the Beehive Theatrette. In a Wellington bar, a senior serving officer of the NZDF warned him that if he ever set foot in Afghanistan again he wouldn’t make it back to New Zealand.


Most people would have buckled. Most people would have fled. But Jon Stephenson isn’t most people. Words that have long fallen into disuse in our relentlessly trivial society – like “honour” and “reputation” and “truth” – still meant something to this guy.


And so he sued the Chief of the Defence Force, Lt. General Rhys Jones, for defamation and forced him and the NZDF to acknowledge that what he had written in “Eyes Wide Shut” was no more than the truth. The jury in the case was unable to reach a verdict on the defamation charge, but the NZDF, well, by the time the case was over, it knew it had been in a fight.


Right now, Jon’s in Greece. Will he come home? That depends on whether, after going toe-to-toe with the very worst elements of the New Zealand State, he feels that, at its core, the country he grew up in still has a place for a person like him.


A person who continues to believe that one’s honour is worth defending; one’s reputation is worth preserving; and that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is still worth risking everything to find.


It’s a good question.



    • The ferocity driving the vitriolic and vehement denouncing of Jon Stephenson by the New Zealand establishment is testament to the man’s credibility.

      We have too many journalists in this country who act as stenographers for pronouncements handed down from on high and thrive in the sea of apathy their style of reporting produces.

      ADAM WHITE 10:55 PM

      Thanks for that Chris


  1. “So, am I surprised that so few journalists are queuing-up to follow Jon Stephenson’s example? No. Not when I consider Jon’s fate. Not really.”

    “There were a handful of noble exceptions: Mark Jennings and Mike McRoberts at TV3; the editorial staff at The Sunday Star-Times; Simon Wilson at Metro. But, for the most part, the rest of his journalist colleagues were happy to lump him in with that other lone wolf, Nicky Hager.”

    I can forgive NZ journalists of high integrity, skill and professionalism for heading overseas, and I suspect that is where Jon will work eventually. I saw the documentaries on Helen Clark on TV3 tonight and a week ago, and a similar remark was made, that certain NZers, once they grow a certain stature, they cannot find any more challenges here, they have to head overseas, to work within the larger world.

    As for his treatment by the defence force, it is nothing new, I suspect, they just do not like anyone to learn the truth of what goes on, that brings them into line with their US and some other allied forces.

    The biggest worry is how journalism has deteriorated in this country, and rightly, very few have the guts and stamina, to report the truth, to do the extra work, to find out what is happening behind the scenes of superficial government “performance” and rather propaganda.

    We need an army of Jon Stepehsons, we need legions of Nicky Hagers, we need more of a return to what true investigative, gutsy and professional journalism used to be like. NO to the over cosmeticised and overpaid newsreaders, who earn too much for pretty faces and infotainment, thanks.

    I want NEWS, not infotainment and commercial distraction.

    Yes, I would even pay a broadcasting fee or so, to get it, rather than the below average crap we mostly get these days.

    Good on Jon and Nicky, keep up the good work, we need you guys, to keep the bastards up at the top honest.

    I am waiting for the head of one John Key, so far treated as Mr Teflon PM.

    • I agree with most of what you say, but shouldn’t “…to keep the bastards up at the top honest.” be more like “…to keep the dishonest bastards at the top worried.”

  2. Thank you Chris for this article on Jon Stephenson. I have followed your writings on and off over the years and always been impressed. These days, particularly with The Daily Blog, you and many of your fellow writers are my “must read”.
    While Jon has literally put his head above the parapet you and other writers who challenge the state take your own risks.
    Thank you for your service to NZ.

    Brett Austin

  3. I think you can see what Chris is talking about in Jon’s face in the photo. It’s got a clarity and honesty you also see in Snowden and Manning.

  4. Very thoughtful article. Seems to me that John Key made his fortune as a bankster in USA and sold his soul to them while he was at it. It used to be ‘All the way with LBJ’, now, its mindlessly sign onto the Obomber regime. I’ve been in the NZ army and seen how ‘military liaison’ also brings with it political persuasion. Its the very same attitude that “Rolling Stones” journalist Micheal Hastings (RIP) documented so well in his book “The Operators” ( available in the excellent Auckland Public Library) – that somehow we, us, brothers in arms know much better that those whimpy politicos, how to make things happen. The attitude that lead to the “surge” in Afghanistan, and physical death and destruction in pretty much most places where there are resources to be claimed (ie How come our oil is under their soil?? ).

    Along with that physical destruction comes the destruction of the ethics that make civilization workable – honesty, integrity, compassion, hope and more. This military strategy BTW is phase 3 of a 3 part strategy laid out clearly in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins – again in Auckland Library. That book (a NY Times best seller) left me wandering if our illustrious leader could in fact be an economic hitman (with a nice smile.)

    So kudos to Jon Stevenson for facing off against our military men. I recommend he not travel in small planes or Mercedes cars that suddenly seek out trees. The reaction of military men to exposure, sunshine and wider truth can be extreme. Kudos and thanks Jon

    • More from me on what Jon is up against:
      [1] Micheal Hastings was a Rolling Stones journalist who reported from Iraq and the Army culture there. His article in the Rolling Stone got General Stanley (We’ve killed an awful lot of people) McChrystal fired.
      Its worth a read
      [2] This from Page 64 of Hastings book “The Operators”
      Dave came up to me. “You’re not going to Fuck us, are you?” I answered what I always answer: “I’m going to write a story; some of the stuff you’ll like, some of the stuff you probably won’t like.” Jake came up to me. “Well hunt you down and kill you if we don’t like what you write,” he said. “C. will hunt you down and kill you.” I looked at Jake. He had what I’d heard people in the military call retired colonel syndrome. A certain inferiority complex and bitterness about not rising to the rank of general. “Well, I get death threats like that about once a year, so no worries.” I wasn’t that disturbed by the claim. Whenever I’d been reporting around groups of dudes whose job it was to kill people, one of them would usually mention that they were going to kill me. I went outside to have a cigarette. Duncan joined me. How’s things, old chap?” “Pretty good; this is really cool. By the way, Jake just threatened to kill me.” Duncan’s face dropped. “What?” “No, no worries, dude, I took it as a joke, and it’s not the first time.” “He should not have said that,” Duncan said. “’Ihat’s not how to deal with the press.”
      [3] Michael Hastings has been teetotal for over 10 years and, according to his friends, drove like a granny.
      Here is footage and commentary on how he met his end:
      The most relevant comment from Louis Gilfedder of General Motors Technical Training Facility
      “I’ve been doing accident investigations for many years and this was no accident it was a murder. ”
      I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
      Kudos Jon

    • Oh well, might as well stick my neck right out….
      This link from “The Young Turks” on Michael Hastings confronting the Military machine on CNN. As one commentator says “How dare you do real journalism”. It indicates what Jon Stephenson faced; he, like Hastings, chose not to buckle..

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