Out of over 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, New Zealand consistently comes in the top ten. This ranking is closely linked to our rating by Transparency International, that we are one of the best countries in the world for lack of corruption.
Although a vigilant press and anti-corruption go hand in hand, Transparency International has noted that most kiwis do not trust the media. Journalists are not held in high regard, often ranked at the lower end of trusted professions.
A concentration of media outlets, superficiality in reporting and the desire to achieve ratings by scandal, have lead many kiwis to turn an increasingly harsh eye towards the media. This harsh eye had hardened due to a number of high profile incidents in which journalists have acting wrongfully overseas with their industrial scale, indiscriminate hacking of celebrities, public figures and even victims of crime.
Further to the middle of the debate of pushing boundaries to give information to the public, Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon are now seeking asylum in either Russia or Ecquador due to their industrial size dumping of secret information. This dumping brought light into some dark corners, but also pain in many others, as the dirty washing of the State got laundered over the internet.
In New Zealand, we have seen some of our own foremost journalists such as Nicky Hager, Jon Stephenson and Heather du Plessis-Allan, all collide directly against the powers of the State after reporting information in which it, or the methods by which it was adduced, have caused great concern to some. Although Stephenson has successfully settled his defamation case, and Hager has successfully defended the right to keep his sources confidential, the broader debate about far journalists should go in reporting the public interest has been avoided.
This point about public importance is critical. Public interest is not necessarily the same thing that some members of the public are interested in. Interesting news is not the same as important news. Invasions of privacy to collect tittle-tattle or harrass notable people are not in the public interest, whereas journalism which gives people the information they need to achieve a safe, healthy and functioning democratic society is.
Public interest reporting encompasses correcting a significant wrong. It also includes bringing to light information which affects public well being and safety, or seeking greater accountability and transparency in public life. For over two hundred years in the West, it has often been journalists who have the front line on these issues, digging where others are either ignorant or afraid.
It is possible that this matter of what is public interest journalism will come to the fore with Heather du Plessis-Allan. This journalist allegedly broke the law to show that a bigger problem, namely that the selling process in some instances for the purchase of firearms, was not as robust as it should be. Coincidentally, it is due to very similar concerns in the United States that President Obama has recently acted with his executive powers, trying to ensure that the regulation of firearms sales in America are as tight as possible.
Given that there are probably 100,000 firearms in New Zealand who have drifted away from licenced holders, and maybe a quarter of these are with criminals, and tens of thousands of new firearms entering the country each year, it is difficult to imagine a more pressing public issue. This is especially important for the 4.3 million kiwis who are without gun licences and have no intention or desire to keep such items.
How the du Plessis-Allan case will play out is not certain. The problem is that press freedom in New Zealand is guaranteed by convention and statute, rather than constitutional right, and some matters can create great difficulties. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, are much more advanced in this area, such as with their Guidelines for Prosecutors on Assessing the Public Interest in Cases Affecting the Media.
The overall test that emerges from such guidelines is the need to assess whether the public interest in what the journalist was trying to achieve is outweighed the overall criminality. Until New Zealand advances to such a point and we have greater clarity, we need to be extra vigilant in this area as if journalists become unduly scared of reporting on matters of public interest, we are all at risk.
Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Otago.