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Herald on Sunday Editorial: PM's apology is long overdue

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John Banks and John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Banks and John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The announcement that police would not charge freelance cameraman Bradley Ambrose over the so-called "teapot tapes" affair should have been both a victory for the man himself and an end of the matter. It was neither.

Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said police would issue Ambrose with a warning "but we are clear that [his] actions ... were unlawful". But such a declaration is not for the police to make in a democratic society: the police allege illegality; a court, after following due process, decides whether the allegation has substance.

Likewise, the Prime Minister, who laid the original complaint against Ambrose, was quite wrong to tell police that he "did not believe a prosecution was now necessary". He said this after Ambrose wrote a letter to him and Act MP John Banks expressing his "regret for how this matter has unfolded" but conspicuously not apologising for the recording of the conversation, which he has always maintained was inadvertent.

It is, quite properly, standard practice for police to seek the views of victims of alleged crimes before deciding whether to proceed with prosecutions. But this matter had become so highly charged - and its implications for relationships between the media and the executive so broad - that the PM should have told police it was entirely their decision. To do otherwise created the undesirable impression of collusion between police and politicians.

The PM's behaviour in this matter has been questionable throughout. He and his lieutenant Steven Joyce were quick to compare this newspaper to the News of the World, whose staff hacked the cellphone of a murdered schoolgirl with the connivance of managers who now face criminal charges. He said he sought to save us all from falling down "a slippery slope".

That cheap slur is quite at variance with the facts. A searching internal investigation, whose results we lay out today, found several aspects we could have handled better and we have reviewed our systems to make sure that those matters are addressed. But there is nothing to sustain, even by the wildest stretch of the imagination, the idea that we behaved unethically, much less with the cynical and criminal intent that characterised the excesses of the Murdoch tabloid.

Key's comments were potentially extremely damaging to a fledgling newspaper - at the time, the Herald on Sunday was barely seven years old - and as events have transpired, the least that might be expected of the Right Honourable Member is that he would withdraw and apologise. That there has been no sign of such an apology is regrettable. Surely he does not still claim that we deliberately set out to bug a private conversation with no evidence to back that up (the paper's managers were not even interviewed by police)? The sole focus has been on the freelancer who handed us a tape.

In lodging a complaint, Key used valuable police resources which saved himself from a political embarrassment. In the event he was only partly successful, since - thanks partly to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who addressed the contents of the tape without actually revealing them - the contents became pretty widely known anyway. And with hindsight, it seems unlikely that the published conversation would have significantly influenced the election outcome.

But that was never the point.

The important question was always whether the news media of this country should be allowed to pursue matters of public interest.

In the end, let it be remembered, this newspaper declined to publish the content of the recording after being given it.

We regularly make judgment calls on such matters, such as when we published the name of Bronwyn Pullar, the woman at the centre of the widening ACC scandal.

We do so without any assistance from Key or his spin doctors.

He may not be entirely happy with that, but we make no apology for it. The alternative is a slippery slope indeed.

- Herald on Sunday

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