Alison McCulloch: MPs foolish to expect privacy


While the jury is still out on exactly who did what in the Brendan Horan affair, it didn't save the embattled MP from the ultimate political punishment this week when he was kicked out of his own caucus.

After news first broke of some possible shenanigans over the estate of Mr Horan's mother, there was disquiet, and some cautionary cries of "innocent until proven guilty".

But in the wake of Winston Peters' pronouncement and the subsequent drip, drip, drip of leaked titbits, those concerns dwindled to the occasional squeak from the sidelines.

The courts of public and political opinion showed yet again that they mete out their justice so much more swiftly than do the real courts, primarily because they're free to rule before all the facts are in.

A few people along the way have raised the issue of privacy, including Mr Horan himself.

"Please respect our privacy," he asked early on in the piece. The editor of this newspaper demurred, writing in an editorial that "Politicians cease to have privacy when they run for Parliament and any serious allegation is a matter of public interest".

Versions of the public interest defence pop up quite regularly when the media feel the need to defend their pursuit of certain people and stories.

It was used in 2007 when secret police evidence that led to the so-called terror raids in the Ureweras was leaked and published in several newspapers. The Dominion Post said at the time it was "acting in the public interest" even while acknowledging that "publishing the material could have huge repercussions".

But as commercial pressure drives the "public interest" ever closer to being simply "what interests the public", this defence can be a dangerous one.

That's part of what's been going on in Britain, where parts of the media have come to see privacy not as a right to be respected but an obstacle to be overcome.

The extraordinary depths to which journalism sank there culminated in the phone hacking scandal that took down the News of the World, and prompted the Government to set up an inquiry into media practices which finally reported back last week.

In what could charitably be called refreshingly honest testimony, Paul McMullan, a former News of the World journalist, told the inquiry "in 21 years of invading people's privacy, I've never actually come across anyone who's been doing any good". Privacy, he said, was for bad people, like paedophiles. "No one else needs it."

The chairman of the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson, ended up recommending the establishment of an independent body to regulate the press that would be kept at a distance from both the Government and the media.

Talk of regulation is anathema to journalists, and invariably unleashes a flurry of headlines about threats to the freedom of the press.

Those kinds of concerns were raised here earlier this year, after our own Law Commission released its proposals for dealing with new media - particularly cyber-bullying - and came up with an idea similar to Leveson's.

There's no dispute that the freedom to practise journalism in the public interest is an essential good, but in some corners of the British press it became little more than a high-minded excuse for low-brow behaviour.

In New Zealand, the media have special exemptions from privacy laws, even as their own codes of conduct encourage respect for personal privacy. It's a constant and healthy tension, but one on which both the press and the public need to keep a close eye.

And however the Horan saga turns out, it's clear that whether MPs are entitled to any privacy or not, they at least should know they're not going to get any.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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