John Drinnan: PM's squabbles come at a cost

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Civil liberties body sees pattern in disputes with freelancers.
Prime Minister John Key announced he had reached a settlement with freelance photographer Bradley Ambrose on Monday. Photo / NZME
Prime Minister John Key announced he had reached a settlement with freelance photographer Bradley Ambrose on Monday. Photo / NZME

On the face of it, John Key has had a remarkably amicable relationship with the media.

But he did not get to be such a dominant politician by being everybody's friend.

In my opinion, there have been occasions when Key has attacked freelance journalists whose stories are critical of the Government.

That sounds like stating the obvious. After all, politicians do clash with the media and are entitled to hold them to account.

For example, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters frequently has a go during election campaigns - it's become part of his shtick.

But there has been an edge to the PM's attacks on freelance journalists Bradley Ambrose, Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties sees a trend.

Incidents involving the three freelancers questioning the Government have led to costly legal action.

Ambrose took a defamation action against the PM and Stephenson sued the head of the Defence Force.

Private individuals have had to pay heavily to fight the power of the state, which is funded by taxpayers.

"The Government is putting journalists on notice," said Council for Civil Liberties chairman Thomas Beagle.

"If they say the wrong things or follow the wrong stories, the Government will attack them in the courts and in the media to undermine their credibility, attack their character, and damage their livelihood." Beagle questions the approach taken by some government authorities such as the Defence Force, which became caught up in Stephenson's defamation action.

"What should worry everyone is why both the police and Defence Force reacted so strongly, using the full force of the available measures to investigate and disrupt their targets." he said.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "The Prime Minister deals with media repeatedly and respectfully, and has done so in his capacity as Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister for a decade."

Overkill

On Monday, Key announced he had settled with Ambrose, a freelance photographer.

Back before the 2011 election, Key was furious when Ambrose taped his conversation with Act party candidate John Banks.

Police acted on the PM's concerns, and there was surprise at the level of overkill when they used warrants to search newsrooms looking for the recording. In an extraordinary move, police raided two big newsrooms - TV3 and the Herald - in their efforts to recover the tape.

Ambrose sued the PM for defamation, after Key suggested he had deliberately recorded the conversation.

In the end, they agreed to a settlement in which the PM did not apologise.

Key's legal costs were paid by the taxpayer, though the amount is secret. However, Parliamentary Services guidelines meant public money could not be used to pay Ambrose. Instead, the money will come from the National Party or private payments.

The financial risks in challenging the PM on a personal level are unbalanced. As National Business Review political writer Rob Hosking said in an online article this week, there are dangers in indemnifying politicians against defamation claims.

The risk is that it makes them incautious.

Crown slips

Last week police conducted the court-ordered destruction of a hard drive that the High Court ruled had been obtained during an unlawful search of Nicky Hager's home.

Hager's book Dirty Politics pointed to relationships between the PM's media staff and the blogger Cameron Slater, prompting Key to question Hager's credibility.

In March last year, on a different matter, Key said of Hager: "His interests are his own self-serving interests, not the interests of the country."

And in October last year, war correspondent Stephenson won a settlement from the chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones.

Stephenson said a Defence Force press release suggested he had made up a story that he had visited a site in Afghanistan.

In May 2011, Key attacked Stephenson's credibility.

The details of the Defence Force settlement with Stephenson are confidential, but he said he was happy.

In all three cases, there were significant costs - and in the end the Crown position was found wanting.

Hager stressed that the three clashes with the Government - his own, Stephenson's and that of Ambrose - were distinct. But they had similarities; they showed how far the PM was prepared to go to dump on journalists, and the approach the authorities would take, he said.

Patsy question

With Dame Patsy Reddy named as the next Governor-General, who will take over as chair of the Film Commission?

The Government may choose to appoint an outsider to the job, but initial speculation is bound to focus on people who are already on the board.

Member Charles Finny is close to the Government, but he has been on the board since 2009.

Another board member, John McCay, is a former legal representative for the commission through the Wellington office of law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.

Both Reddy and her husband, Sir David Gascoigne - who headed the successful Film Fund - had ties to the same law firm.

Another board member, Cameron Harland, is a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive who heads Park Road Post Production, owned by Peter Jackson's WingNut Films.

The most recent appointee on the commission's board is Jane Hastings, who was named in August last year and who exits her role as chief executive of media company NZME next month. As well as media, Hastings has a background in marketing and the cinema sector.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

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