Espiner: Free press more important than GCSB

20:30, Aug 03 2013
SPEAK NO EVIL: A free press is one of the cornerstones of Western democracy, argues Colin Espiner.

Not bothered by all the fuss down at Parliament over spying? Surely if you've done nothing wrong, there's nothing to worry about, right?

Events of the past week have provided the perfect example of the folly of this argument. Governments monitor the movements of people they are interested in, or who have pissed them off. Whether they have done anything wrong is secondary.

The unseemly haste with which the Government trampled over privacy and skirted the law in its hunger to discover who was behind the leak of a damning report into the activities of our intelligence services reveals a growing disregard for one of the cornerstones of Western democracy - a free press.

Yet there's been scant public sympathy for Peter Dunne, the former UnitedFuture Party leader who had his phone and email records seized without his permission during the inquiry ordered by Prime Minister John Key.

Neither has the public been wringing its hands over the probably illegal seizure of Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance's phone and entry card details at Parliament.

As for veteran war correspondent Jon Stephenson, who believes he was spied upon by the Defence Force in Afghanistan, and whose reputation the army tried to destroy after he revealed it was handing over detainees to be tortured by our Western allies, well, the army reckons he was a "subversive".


Key has dismissed as "complete and utter nonsense" Vance's claim that the Government has a casual disregard for the media's role in a democracy. But I think she's hit a nerve. In fact I'd go one step further. I think contempt for journalists is endemic throughout the public service.

I'm the first to accept that the media don't always cover themselves in glory. I know we sometimes earn our public trust ranking, which sits just above used car salesmen.

But to paraphrase Churchill, a free press might be a pain from time to time, but it's still better than all the alternatives. And unless you have the time or the inclination to spend your life monitoring the goings-on at the Beehive, or what the Defence Force is really up to in Afghanistan, the media are your eyes and ears. When official agencies treat the media with contempt, they are treating the general public with contempt.

The body count from Key's inquiry into the GCSB leak now includes the head of the Parliamentary Service, Geoff Thorn, Key's former ally Dunne, and what was left of Key's relationship with the press gallery journalists in Wellington.

Thorn fell on his sword last week after Key's office refused to take any responsibility for Vance's records ending up in the hands of inquiry head David Henry - despite the fact that the prime minister's own chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, admitted demanding the Parliamentary Service co-operate with the inquiry.

The PM's claim that this demand applied only to ministerial records doesn't cut it. Blaming public servants is a cop-out. It's pretty clear officials felt obliged to offer up whatever they had to assist the inquiry. And Eagleson had no right to demand the Parliamentary Service hand over anything.

In my opinion, this whole episode represents a gross breach of privacy that cannot be simply swept under Parliament's plush red carpets. I think it's also part of a wider effort by governments both here and abroad to exert greater control over what the public sees and hears about.

The supposedly liberal Obama administration has a shameful record in cracking down on whistleblowers, from Julian Assange to Edward Snowden, and, most recently, Bradley Manning, a former soldier who is facing 136 years behind bars for exposing war crimes committed by his colleagues in Iraq.

It's permeated our own Defence Force too. The fact it was prepared to enshrine its disdain for investigative journalism in its own operating manual speaks volumes, while its denials it monitored Stephenson's movements in Afghanistan are hollow in the extreme. If the NZDF didn't track Stephenson then it's a remarkable coincidence that it always seemed to know where he was, whom he was talking to, and what he was doing.

It is in this fairly toxic environment that the Government wishes to pass the GCSB Bill, which will make it much easier for our intelligence services to spy on New Zealanders - and for the Defence Force to use the technical capabilities of the GCSB to track people without having to rely on others to do their dirty work.

It's ironic that Dunne is providing the casting vote to ensure this legislation gets through Parliament, considering what has happened to him. Dunne believes that amendments he is proposing will add additional safeguards that will actually prevent such privacy breaches occurring again. But I don't share his confidence.

The nationwide marches over the GCSB Bill would tend to indicate that the public, too, has a growing disquiet that something just a little bit rotten is going on.

It's a bit rich for the Government to assure voters they should trust our intelligence agencies and officials to take care with their personal information when the experience to date has been precisely the contrary.

Twitter: @cespiner

Colin Espiner is a Sunday Star-Times columnist

Sunday Star Times