Spy scandal journalist speaks out

21:31, Jul 31 2013
andrea vance
Journalist Andrea Vance.

In other circumstances, I could probably find something to laugh about in revelations that the journalist who broke a story about illegal spying was snooped on by Parliament's bureaucrats.

Let alone the irony that the reporter previously worked for the News of the World, the tabloid at the centre of a privacy violation scandal.

But I am that journalist and I'm mad as hell.

Anyone who has had their confidential details hacked and shared around has the right to be angry.

My visit to Speaker David Carter's office on Tuesday left me reeling.

My jaw dropped when he sheepishly confessed that a log of all calls I placed to people around Parliament over three months was released to an inquiry focused on the leak of the Kitteridge report on the Government Communications Security Bureau.

After weeks of Parliamentary Service dodging Fairfax Media's questions about the phone records, I was finally assured on Thursday - thanks to questions lodged by Greens co-leader Russel Norman - that my calls hadn't been scrutinised.

It was a small comfort, after learning my movements around the building had been tracked using the security swipe card that hangs around my neck most days.

On Tuesday, an IT staffer showed me pages of "metadata" - a record of hundreds of calls I made between February and May.

The conversations, of course, aren't disclosed, but you can glean a lot from matching numbers, time and the dates of published stories.

After the news broke, I fully expected my phone to fall silent as sources shied away from being burned. Thankfully, it hasn't.

Now the Speaker and Prime Minister John Key claim a cock-up (by a low-level contractor) over conspiracy.

Forgive me if those assurances ring hollow.

Details of inquiry head David Henry's intrusive and outrageous behaviour have had to be dragged from all parties. (He, curiously, omitted any reference of the swipe card records from his report.)

Can I, and my sources, be confident the records weren't viewed? They were held on a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet server up until Tuesday night.

Why - if they had acted so properly - did the Henry Inquiry not notify me of this intrusion? It rankles that Key was told days before I was.

I don't know who had access to my records, and I'm suspicious why, on June 5 - less than a week after the unauthorised release - NZ First leader Winston Peters was making some startling allegations in the House about phone records.

The prime minister's office, the Speaker, and Parliamentary Service have been unable to offer a guarantee that there was no leak to Peters.

However, all this is not really what's got me fizzing.

What has got my goat is the casting aside of something we journalists hold very precious: press freedom.

I watched with horror at the news, in May, that the US Justice Department had quietly obtained records listing incoming and outgoing calls, and their duration, of Associated Press reporters.

It chilled me to the core that the identity of journalists' sources were laid bare to investigators, with no opportunity for AP to put up a fight.

Rather naively, I assumed it could never happen here. Surely, not in little old, top-of-the-transparency-index New Zealand?

What was I thinking?

Key insists that he "values the role of the fourth estate".

He might well cherish the opportunities it gives him to beam into our living rooms at teatime, but it has become rather obvious that this government has a casual disregard for media's true role as an independent watchdog.

Journalists were dismissed in a tantrum as "knuckleheads".

The teapot tapes fiasco - when Key laid a complaint about eavesdropping on a personal conversation - led to police raids on newsrooms.

This week, the Defence Force stood accused of monitoring the phone calls of war correspondent Jon Stephenson, a man whose credibility Key has previously impugned.

That contempt for the press continued yesterday with the obfuscation around what Henry had actually requested.

He might not have asked for details of all the phone calls I made, but he certainly asked what calls I placed to ministers and their staff.

It amounts to the same thing.

Crucially, Key ordered that inquiry and he can no more shrug off responsibility for how it was conducted than Henry can.

I don't want an apology.

But I wish both men would do New Zealand's media the courtesy of taking responsibility for the unreasonable activities undertaken by that inquiry, which undermined the freedoms I and my colleagues hold so dear.


Fishing News