Leaks and the free press

Taranaki Daily News - - Comment & Opinion -

Win­ston Peters’ witch hunt over the leak­ing of his su­per over­pay­ment is mis­guided and dam­ag­ing. Peters is clearly stung by what he re­gards as a ma­li­cious leak. But his at­tempts to force jour­nal­ists to re­veal their sources be­cause that is what his at­tempt to get jour­nal­ists’ phone records amounts to - is wrong.

The fourth es­tate re­lies on its sources and with­out them it is lost. This prin­ci­ple is broadly un­der­stood and Peters’ at­tempt to hunt down the source of the leaks is an at­tack upon one of the cor­ner­stones of democ­racy. If jour­nal­ists can’t pro­tect their sources, the free me­dia are crip­pled. And with­out the free me­dia our lib­er­ties will be re­stricted and our abil­ity to call the pow­er­ful to ac­count will be un­der­mined.

Of course Peters seems to be right that the leak was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. It was timed to cause max­i­mum dam­age to Peters and his party dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. Peters’ le­gal team claims that some of the re­porters in­volved in the story were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and were not neu­tral re­porters.

This gets things wrong in sev­eral ways. The cen­tral ques­tion was: is this a gen­uine news story? And there was only one pos­si­ble an­swer. The leader of a po­lit­i­cal party which had posed as the cham­pion of su­per­an­nu­i­tants had his su­per­an­nu­a­tion over­paid. That fact was im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion and the me­dia, hav­ing been alerted to it, had a duty to run it.

Ev­ery­thing else - why the over­pay­ment was made, and why the leak oc­curred - were sec­ondary to the is­sue of whether it should be re­ported. The al­leged po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion of the jour­nal­ists is ir­rel­e­vant. All pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists knew this story had to be aired, and would have run it if the politi­cian had come from any other party. More­over, the me­dia can­not sup­press gen­uine news sto­ries just be­cause they are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. They must run th­ese sto­ries be­cause they are in the pub­lic in­ter­est. Af­ter that de­ci­sion is made, the po­lit­i­cal chips must fall where they will.

Peters re­paid the money and the over­pay­ment seems to have been a sim­ple bu­reau­cratic error. There is ab­so­lutely no rea­son to doubt this or to doubt Peters’ in­tegrity in the mat­ter. At the same time, it seems clear enough that the leak was ma­li­cious.

Even here, how­ever, there is rea­son to think that Peters’ le­gal hunt for the leaker is overblown and even coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. NZ First went down in the polls mainly as the re­sult of Jacin­da­ma­nia and the un­ex­pected rise of Labour. NZ First tends to do well when the main op­po­si­tion party is do­ing badly.

Peters was also ob­vi­ously in­fu­ri­ated by the pos­si­bil­ity that Na­tional Party sources were in­volved in the leak. Na­tional’s ‘‘cut out the mid­dle man’’ motto cer­tainly added to NZ First’s prob­lems in the cam­paign. But it is undig­ni­fied and in fact fu­tile to keep flog­ging the horse so long af­ter the event. Most witch hunts fail to iden­tify the leaker, but even if this one did, what would Peters gain? Some per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal sat­is­fac­tion, no doubt. But in the mean­time he just looks petty and ob­sessed. Far bet­ter to move on.


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