Hard News by Russell Brown

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Media3: Whistleblower Season

The news media, in performing their role as society's "fourth estate", will often rely on the assistance of so-called whistleblowers: sources inside an organisation spilling the beans about wrongdoing.

It's commonly believed that New Zealand's whistleblower law, the Protected Disclosures Act 2000, offers some sort of formal protection to to people who disclose wrongdoing to journalists. It doesn't -- unlike the equivalent law in Australia. And yet, the man whose is experience is widely accepted to have motivated lawmakers, former mental health nurse Neil Pugmire -- who went public in 1994 with his belief that dangerous patients were being released into the community, and subsequently lost his job -- did just that.

The Act requires public entities to set up an internal disclosure regime (private companies are merely encouraged to do so) and allows informants, under some circumstances, to approach outside entities such as the Commissioner of Police, the Serious Fraud Office, an Ombudsman, the Health and Disability Commissioner, or a Minister of the Crown. But it does not protect the very important means of disclosure that is talking to a journalist.

That does not, oddly enough, stop people with a story to tell going to the media. And we're reaching the point in the political cycle where people are doing just that. Indeed, just last week Listener columnist Jane Clifton was complaining about quite how many tattle-tales there seem to be right now:

What sort of a country are we running here when first our diplomatic service and then our intelligence agencies quite routinely provide information to the Opposition? Staff were practically jamming the doorways on the way to the photocopier to give Labour’s Phil Goff details of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ chaotic restructuring. And just days after the potentially serious offence committed by at least one intelligence agent who caused information designed to embarrass Key to be conveyed to Shearer, another GCSB staffer slipped details of bureau restructuring and morale problems to a newspaper.

This writer naturally accepts tips from all-comers with a glad cry but very few leakers fit the profile of the noble whistle-blower. Most have an agenda of self-interest that always needs to be borne in mind when documentation embarrassing to a politician falls off the back of a truck – which it does with great frequency. And this is a worry. Public servants are increasingly putting their own political and employment interests ahead of their legal obligation to keep their work confidential and to observe political neutrality. A bloody good thing, too, you may say; stick it to the politicians. Except that at no time did voters ever ask for or express interest in converting to a politicised public service. Routine
leaking has meant, however, that’s what we’ve now got.

It's something of a theme for Clifton. Back in April, she wrote that "ACC is a veritable water feature of leaks, as who knows how many different agendas are at play. But it’s hard to overlook the probability that a lot of the leakage is not wholesomely motivated, but aimed at putting various parties’ pots on covertly."

But it's a bit of a stretch to crack on as if the current level of leakage is unprecedented. The Opposition seemed to have more leaks than it knew what do with during Labour's last term in government, and we've seen evidence in recent weeks that there may be serious problems with some public-sector processes. But Clifton is quite right when she says that journalists must consider the motivations, and potential self-interest, of their sources.

Nicky Hager, who has many times been the confidant of whistleblowers, will be joining us on Media3 this week to talk about the rights and wrongs of working with internal sources.

He'll be joined by James Hollings, senior lecturer in journalism at Massey University in Wellington and the author of PhD thesis on the motivations of whistleblowers and the best practice for journalist in dealing wth them.

And I'll also talk to a real whistleblower -- lawyer Fionnuala Kelly, who in 2006, while working as an HR advisor, wrote to a senior Corrections official to report "practices, dealings and events which I believe were unacceptable, and at times manifestly wrongful and dangerous," at Rimutaka Prison. The subsequent report could not substantiate most of what she alleged -- she told reporters it glossed over real problems. Was her whistleblowing worthwhile? On the basis of the changes Corrections made as a consequence, yes. But it was a battle.

Also in this week's show, Jose has a report from Saturday's We Can Create seminar and I've put together a look at the sprawling, troubling story of Jimmy Savile.

If you'd like to join us for tomorrow's (ie: Thursday's) recording, we'll need you at the Villa Dalmacija ballroom, 10 New North Road, at 5.15pm. That's a little earlier than usual so the presenter can get away to the Music Awards.

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