Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Big Brother's agents keep bumbling on

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Unleashing of the oppressive power of the state in trivial incidents should alarm all democrats.

John Key's demand for access to minister's emails following the leak of the GCSB inquiry resulted in the emails of Andrea Vance (right) being passed on to investigators. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key's demand for access to minister's emails following the leak of the GCSB inquiry resulted in the emails of Andrea Vance (right) being passed on to investigators. Photo / Mark Mitchell

With one of his million-dollar Colgate smiles, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters looked skyward, inviting the journalist to watch the pigs flying past.

It was his succinct reaction to claims that the prime ministerial team probing into a leaked report had returned, without reading, copies of the emails to and from the press gallery journalist who got the scoop. Emails which had been extracted and dispatched to the investigators by another branch of the parliamentary bureaucracy.

From the documents now coming to light, it appears if the emails were not read, it was because they didn't have the right computer programme at hand.

Agents of the state have always had an insatiable appetite for snooping.

Whether it be by steaming open envelopes, stretching suspects on the rack, or shoving slivers of bamboo under fingernails, our governors have always felt the need and assumed the right to spy on those they rule over.

The Big Brother crisis rapidly enveloping John Key's Government is deliciously highlighting that our present masters are carrying on an old tradition. If not very adroitly. Every day brings another bumble.

Yesterday, the Herald on Sunday exposed how the police obtained, with a search warrant, a dossier of 323 text messages sent and received by Bradley Ambrose, the cameraman at the centre of the ridiculous "Teagate" incident during the 2011 election campaign.

The Prime Minister and Act leader John Banks had staged a hugely public photo opportunity in Mr Banks' Epsom electorate to signal to local National voters that Mr Key wanted them to vote for Mr Banks, to ensure National gained a support party in the new Parliament.

During the arrival melee, Mr Ambrose left his camera microphone on the meeting table. Full of faux-outrage when he discovered there was a third party at his "secret" tete-a-tete, Mr Key called in the constabulary.

As it turns out, the emails are said to prove Mr Ambrose innocent of any deliberate intent to record the meeting. But included in the emails was correspondence with his lawyer, which should have been protected.

The incident shows how easy it is for the police to get a search warrant on a minor charge. Law professor Bill Hodge calls it "mind-boggling", which is a good summary of not just this incident but the procession of invasions of privacy that has been unfolding under the present Government.

That the oppressive power of the state has been unleashed to intimidate the media in two trivial incidents should alarm all democrats, especially as Mr Key seems naively oblivious to the potential repercussions.

In the Epsom "Teagate" episode, he somehow considered that an alleged invasion of his privacy in the middle of his carefully managed media circus was crime enough to unleash all the invasive powers in his hands.

The second episode involved the leaking of the official inquiry into the extent of illegal spying by Government agencies, which was due for release at a stage-managed event a few days later anyway. Mr Key reacted by demanding access to all ministers' emails, and when United Future leader Peter Dunne refused to reveal all of his, he was sacked from the Cabinet.

As well as tracking her swipe card movements within Parliament, it's now been revealed that all journalist Andrea Vance's emails around that time were illegally passed on to Mr Key's investigators as well.

If ever there was a time for an inquiry into privacy and the role of our spy agencies, it is now.

With a growing number of journalists and politicians addicted to revealing every skerrick of gossip and insight they come upon, on Twitter and Facebook anyway, there must be many outsiders wondering what all the fuss is about.

Or, as Mr Key has said a hundred times, if you've got nothing to hide, what have you got to worry about?

He only has to think back to his angry reaction to finding the microphone on his table at the Epsom tea party to know the answer to that facile quip.

Everyone has secrets they prefer not to share - particularly not with the all-powerful Big Brother John Key and the state apparatus.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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