Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Chilling attacks on freedom

Willy Akel, New Zealand's leading media lawyer. Photo / Doug Sherring
Willy Akel, New Zealand's leading media lawyer. Photo / Doug Sherring

Going into battle with the New Zealand and US governments at the Supreme Court this week, Kim Dotcom deployed the heavy artillery.

Paul Davison QC argued passionately for Dotcom to be told of the US legal case against him. The US, seeking to extradite Dotcom to face charges of copyright conspiracy, racketeering and money-laundering, want to keep the cards up their sleeve.

Sitting quietly, observing everything, was the grandfatherly figure of Willy Akel, New Zealand's leading media lawyer.

Akel has been advising Dotcom every step of the way during his rollicking New Zealand adventure.

Back in February 2010, when Dotcom had quietly arrived in New Zealand and moved into his Coatesville mansion, the Herald on Sunday was first to report his presence there-and first to face the fury of Dotcom and his high-powered legal team.

We reported Dotcom was under investigation by the New Zealand Transport Agency over his number plates, and revealed some of his criminal offending.

With no complaint, no demand for a correction and no prior threat of legal action, a letter arrived the following Friday from Willy Akel, advising he had filed a defamation suit against the paper. The trouble for the Herald on Sunday was the charges of hacking and insider trading had long been wiped clean under German legislation.

And, it turned out, the Transport Agency had not conducted an investigation after all. We apologised.

Since then Akel and Dotcom have been in the trenches together fighting legal battles on many fronts, and as they are still being waged Dotcom isn't up for discussion today.

But the ripples of Dotcom's case have allowed us an insight into the GCSB's illegal spying on New Zealand citizens.

Kim Dotcom's case has revealed details of the GCSB's illegal spying. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Kim Dotcom's case has revealed details of the GCSB's illegal spying. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Akel, the man who has helped define privacy laws in New Zealand, believes the privacy of the individual and the autonomy of a free media are under grave attack.

It is ridiculous, he says, this "stupid" idea that if you've got nothing to hide, you shouldn't worry. "Of course people don't want their medical records or a text or an email to a lover becoming public, why should that become the property of the state?"


At 64, Akel's slender frame and lanky gait belies the fact he was a former St Kentigern's College 1stXVcaptain and accomplished flanker for the Gallagher Shield-winning University club in 1971.

But Akel has taken his love of rugby's rough-and-tumble into the legal profession.

"In particular today where we have these revelations about NSA trawling all the metadata so where does that come in? What goes on in your home, in your private life? Is there a right to be left alone?"

Akel studied at Auckland Law School and then undertook a postgraduate degree at Oxford University, where he first encountered a thriving, robust media. The breadth of debate of the "quality" British papers inspired his fascination with the media.

Returning to New Zealand, he joined top law firm Simpson Grierson, where he remains to this day as a senior partner.

Akel is dismayed at what he sees as the intrusion on media freedoms after journalist Andrea Vance's phone records were supplied by the Parliamentary Service to the Prime Minister's GCSB leaks inquiry.

As TVNZ's counsel for more than 20 years, he helped to write the rulebook on media freedom through arguments that guided some of the public broadcaster's most significant stories to air.

He helped TVNZ broadcast the courtroom confession of Rainbow Warrior bombers Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur,which had been locked in a High Court vault, in 2005.

And in a landmark case, he argued TVNZ should be able to broadcast the police confession of Noel Clement Rogers when he admitted killing Northland woman Kathy Sheffield - a crime of which he was acquitted.

He also earned TVNZ the right to broadcast a piece about a former British SAS soldier who
was captured in Iraq in the First Gulf War.

He was trusted with guiding the freewheeling early days of the Holmes show through some legal minefields. "I remember in the early days of Holmes, for example, there were a number of injunctions against Holmes, there were a number of defamation cases, because all of a sudden we were starting to do the hard stories which were upsetting people."

He speaks with a fervour about the battle taking place, quoting a House of Lords judgement: "The press discharges vital functions as a bloodhound as well as a watchdog."


Paradoxically, Akel is also the go-to guy for the wealthy who feel they have been defamed; the arrival of a threatening legal letter from Akel can induce a cold sweat on the brow of even the most stoic newspaper editor.

Akel represented Mike Hosking in his fight to keep pictures of his children out of New Idea.

Yet for a man so intimately aware of other people's private lives, Akel is himself a very private person, preferring the company of people in his hometown of Whakatane to the Auckland social scene.

Media law, he says, is the axis where open justice, privacy, media freedom and defamation converge.

"The public's right to know, open justice, privacy, reputation and fair trial-a lawyer's role is trying to balance out all of those issues."


Willy Akel's cases

For a free media

• Willy Akel helped TVNZ broadcast the courtroom confession of Rainbow Warrior bombers Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, which had been sealed by the High Court for 60 years, in 2005.

• Akel successfully argued TVNZ should be able to broadcast the police confession of Noel Clement Rogers when he admitted killing Northland woman Kathy Sheffield, a crime of which he had been acquitted.

• He also earned TVNZ the right to broadcast a piece about a former British SAS soldier who was captured in Iraq in the First Gulf War.

Against intrusive media:

• Akel represented Mike Hosking in the broadcaster's fight to keep pictures of his children out of the New Idea women's magazine.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 31 Jul 2014 20:01:10 Processing Time: 536ms