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Dunne inquiry preciousness may stifle journalist freedoms themselves

  • August 26th, 2013

It is striking from Select Committee News' detailed report of the Privileges Committee interrogation of Parliamentary officials, including the unfortunate Mr Thorn, that no Parliamentarian manages to rise above the tawdry tournament of the day to consider the public’s long term interests in free speech.

Mr Henry and other officials account for themselves well, given Member’s stupid attempts at scapegoating . Winston Peters and (sadly and surprisingly) Judith Collins distinguish themselves with questions that seem to have no purpose other than currying favour with journalists.

If the tenor of the questions is reflected in the eventual report of the Committee (which may not be the case if Chris Finlayson can inject some rigour into the thinking)  the episode may take us further toward the lawyer paradise of paralysed public process in the absence of legal advisors and formality for everyone conceivable. And the short-sighted journalists baying for privilege from investigation even incidentally will have strengthened the trends and the climate that will some day justify shutting them out of their most vital public function – that is searching out, by fair means or foul, and making public, the embarrassing and significant information that Parliament’s denizens would most wish to keep secret.

In other words, by inventing new categories of privacy intrusion, this time to make sacred the email traffic data of Ministers who do not want it known, and their own, they bring forward the day when it will be a sufficient justification to exclude them, or to criminalise their publication of unwelcome disclosures, simply because they are not officially supposed to have the information, or have failed to apply formally through the proper channels. That seems to be the gist of the accusations against Mr Henry, Mr Thorn and others) on the basis that the release of information was not wanted by its subjects. People who live by discovering and publishing truths that the subjects would rather keep secret or ‘manage’,  score a massive own goal in the long term by asserting essentially that privacy is a sufficient reason to block disclosure.

I am aware of the rationalisation and fine rhetoric seeking constitutional protection of privilege for journalists. Their arguments should not extend to protecting them from the kind of disclosure that they themselves rely upon. It would be outrageous for MPs to assert that journalists be forbidden from reporting on who is seen to visit MP offices. Sure, an electronic record of visits is more convenient than staking out doors and offices.  But the swipe card records are just a technologically efficient form of observation. Any of Ms Vance’s fellow journalists should have been free to report on her visits to Minister Dunne’s office around the critical time that the Kitteridge Report was leaked, if they had seen them.

I do not argue that they should necessarily have had automatic access to the swipe card records, but it is not at all obvious that even such transparency is any more remarkable than the OIA disclosure now imposed on most written public officer communication. Indeed it would probably have less chilling and distorting effect on the quality of official and Ministerial communication.

The fourth estate plays a critical role. But it should claim no greater, and no less privilege than the public it serves. Their freedom of speech is ours. And they should be as vigilant to protect the freedom of others to discover the truth, however reluctant the subjects, as they are of their own freedom to find out and to report. Journalists should hate privacy law as cats hate dogs.

The public have a substantial interest in knowing whether Ministers are untrustworthy with confidential information. We have a similar interest in a Prime Minister being able to institute simple and direct processes to test his Ministers’ trustworthiness and veracity. The Ministers may invoke privileges against self-incrimination if criminality is involved, and there may be categories of communication that are privileged. But there should be no newly invented  impediment to finding out and publishing the information that casts light on a disturbing breach of trust.

From what emerges from the reports of the interrogation, Mr Henry should be commended for a job well done, and Mr Thorn reassured that he did no wrong.


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