Hard News by Russell Brown

96

It's worse than you think

It's not quite two years since the Prime Minister responded to one of the inevitable perils of public leadership -- a live-microphone accident -- by making a complaint under the Crimes Act, thus triggering an investigation that saw the country's major news organisations hit with search warrants during an election campaign.

I wrote about it in a post titled Criminalising Journalism, noting that the police were demanding from Radio New Zealand “unpublished material relating to interviews it conducted” with Bradley Ambrose, the cameraman who wound up with the recording of John Key's conversation with John Banks at a media stunt; the conversation the Prime Minister, who had invited several dozen journalists along, maintained was private:

RNZ should, of course, on no account, surrender any such material. To do so would be to compromise its ability to conduct sensitive interviews in future. Even if there is nothing of note in any material it holds – and, frankly, it’s not clear it even holds anything it hasn’t broadcast – to willingly hand it over is tantamount to giving up a source. That it has even been subject to such a request is extremely troubling.

What the police are doing here is criminalising journalism.

It’s not clear who made the decision to escalate a political embarassment to the level of a criminal complaint, or whether the complaint was made in an attempt to shut down the story, or out of a genuine sense of injury.

Turns out, it was actually worse than that.

Bevan Hurley's story in the Herald on Sunday today reveals that  the police helped themselves to Ambrose's private communications with his lawyer, his family and his colleagues. Documents released to Hurley under the OIA showed that two months after the incident the police served Vodafone with a search warrant to gain access to his text messages.

Last May, the police said they would be refusing to release any documents from their file on the "teapot tapes" case. It's easy now to see why. Their behaviour in investigating what was a relatively minor alleged offence was completely outrageous. 

But it's an ill wind: the text messages appear to back up what has been Ambrose's position all along: that the recording was inadvertent.  It's not hard to see why lawyers for the Prime Minister and the police were willing to reach a settlement with Ambrose. But it casts an interesting light on the warning issued against Ambrose by Police Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess, and the PM's insistence that "at the end of the day, [Ambrose's] actions have been deemed unlawful."

We can now see that the party doing the deeming had its own case to answer.

There are similarities between what happened here and the sprawling shemozzle around the release of Andrea's Vance's information. In both cases, the complainant was the Prime Minister. In both cases, the public servants tasked with investigation were complicit in gross and puzzling over-reaches. In both cases, the truth has had be extracted from those responsible. And in both cases, Steven Joyce has been drafted in to bully and harangue.

In the background to all this lie the GCSB and Telecommunications Intercept bills, with their expansion of powers and paring back and politicisation of oversight. The question now is not just how much you trust the executive, but how much you can trust an executive that presides over the screaming absence of constitutional empathy that this one does.

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