Leaks and the free press
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.