Editorial: Chilling effect on free speech

The revelation that parliamentary officials passed a journalist's phone records and emails to a ministerial inquiry should concern every New Zealander.

This is more than simply an issue of privacy. It strikes at the heart of the media's ability to operate without fear or favour.

Some have tried to characterise the media-spying scandal that has engulfed Parliament in the past fortnight as a "beltway issue". The term, American in origin, is often used by those attempting to trivialise matters of public importance by portraying them as being of interest only to those who work in politics and the journalists who cover affairs of state. It certainly does not apply in this case.

Undermine the ability of journalists to protect their sources and you undermine their ability to reveal information that should be in the public domain but that others would rather keep secret. Do that, and you deliver control of the truth to a powerful elite.

That is why everybody should be unsettled by the revelation that the Parliamentary Service handed three months' worth of Dominion Post political reporter Andrea Vance's phone records and emails between herself and former minister Peter Dunne to an inquiry trying to find who leaked a report about the Government Communications Security Bureau's illegal spying on New Zealanders. Mr Dunne, who insists he was not the leak, might have been a legitimate target for the inquiry; Vance certainly was not.

That the emails were recalled within an hour is irrelevant. They should never have been accessed in the first place, let alone passed to David Henry's inquiry team. They were recalled only when whoever sent them realised Mr Dunne's permission was required. No consideration was given to asking Vance.

Of equal concern is the length of time it has taken for the full extent of the breaches to be made public – assuming the truth has now been laid bare and there is not more to come. Cocking up is one thing, but this now has the whiff of an attempt to cover up.

It took weeks for the Parliamentary Service to admit Vance's phone records had been supplied, and only then after Speaker David Carter had assured MPs they had not. As a result, Parliamentary Service general manager Geoff Thorn was forced to fall on his sword.

It also took far too long for details about the involvement of Mr Key's office to come out. It emerged only last week that his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, involved himself in the decision to hand over minister's phone records. Although he did not ask or intend it to supply Vance's records, his involvement at all is highly questionable. The Parliamentary Service answers to the Speaker, not the government of the day.

The circumstances that led to Vance's emails and phone logs being handed over is now before Parliament's privileges committee. It is essential it gets to the bottom of how much Mr Eagleson's intervention influenced decisions, who authorised the release of Vance's information and whether and to what extent it was made clear that her communications and records were off-limits

The Dominion Post