Editorial: Email blunders rebound on public rights

Red-faced and nervous public servants are looking at adding to the list of exemptions to a citizen's right to know what's going on

Our courts are meant to represent open justice to ensure the community knows laws are being applied fairly and without favour. Photo / File
Our courts are meant to represent open justice to ensure the community knows laws are being applied fairly and without favour. Photo / File

The email mistakes that embarrassed the Earthquake Commission and ACC are having ramifications for the public's right to access information from the state.

Bureaucrats around the country have been reviewing how they hold and handle information about individuals and some are taking fright at their own shadows.

Whether sincerely or for convenience, the police are citing privacy concerns arising from those email failures to tell at least one regional newspaper that they will no longer supply it with the list of people convicted of drink-driving in that district.

Such lists have been commonplace in newspapers in provincial cities and towns for many years.

They are published as a public service, reinforcing society's distaste for the offence and its awful consequences.

They name and they shame those who have appeared before the courts over a given month.

They had been thought to reinforce the campaign by the police and broader criminal justice system to cut drink-driving rates.

Police headquarters confirms a review of the information release is under way nationwide; its Central Districts chief cited improper disclosure of personal information by other government agencies as the reason for the new approach to disclosure.

However, the headquarters' statement perhaps let the real reason out of the bag when it said the amount of work required to assemble the drink-drive lists was a factor in the rethink. It was all a bit hard.

Now police are trying to pass the task to the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the courts, and that ministry simply refuses to make the information public.

So, in a neat bureaucratic pas de deux, the public's right to know is curtailed.

The cover story about individuals' privacy is risible.

Those convicted of drink-driving had appeared already in front of the public in court rooms. Their neighbours or employers could have been there, had they been able.

Anyone whom the court had deemed worthy of name or identity suppression would not be on the list.

Our courts are meant to represent open justice to ensure the community knows laws are being applied fairly and without favour.

The breaches of privacy at the Earthquake Commission and the ACC were quite distinct human errors in email procedure and security.

The newspapers' requests for monthly summaries of convictions are limited to already available public information.

They are standardised, regular and no complaint has been made over privacy issues.

A broader concern is the regular shutting of doors in the face of the public.

The police succeeded in having access to the motor vehicle register, which holds number plate information, removed from the general public.

The judiciary, under pressure from the Law Society and with noisy commentary from the Justice Minister in the background, is "reviewing" the practice of allowing cameras into courtrooms.

The Government has rejected Law Commission recommendations to make Parliament itself subject to the Official Information Act and to consider a new authority to ensure the public gets access to information from the state.

The sharemarket listings of state energy companies and the creation of charter schools will see more entities exempt from that law.

The list goes on.

Doors are remaining shut, or progressively closing on access to information, at a time when a globally interconnected world should make it easier for a citizen to source public data, documents and facts on smartphone or computer.

Knowledge is power, and some do not want to give that away.

- NZ Herald

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