John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Violation speaks ill of our democracy

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The Speaker, David Carter, has been hugely embarrassed, especially in having had to yesterday change his version of what occurred. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Speaker, David Carter, has been hugely embarrassed, especially in having had to yesterday change his version of what occurred. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That someone working for Parliamentary Service could consider it okay to release the private phone records of a Press Gallery journalist to an inquiry sanctioned by the Prime Minister truly beggars belief.

It certainly gives new meaning to the word "service" in the bureaucracy which runs the parliamentary complex and looks after MPs' needs.

It also speaks of something very sick and rotten at the heart of the country's democracy. Whether the release was motivated by malice or ignorance, it adds up to a fundamental breach of press rights.

It is to be hoped that the book is thrown at the culprit or culprits - preferably the one written by Edmund Burke who spelled out the role of the Fourth Estate more than two centuries ago.

Sadly, though, what has happened does not come as a great shock. The Greens claim a culture has developed under John Key's prime ministership where rules and rights are treated as expendable.

But a different kind of "culture" must take responsibility for this disgraceful episode - a culture which developed long before Key became Prime Minister.

The truth is that the relationship between Parliamentary Service and Press Gallery journalists is not so much toxic as non-existent. All the gallery's dealings with the service are through the Speaker. There is little opportunity - and little effort made - to build trust and respect between the bureaucrats and journalists.

Journalists have long thought parliamentary authorities view the gallery as a nuisance that has to be tolerated rather than an essential part of the democratic fabric which should be given every assistance to do its job - and get it right.

The gallery's long but ultimately futile campaign to have the offices of its member news organisations located much closer to the parliamentary chamber is testimony to that. Those efforts to have the gallery returned to the second floor of Parliament Buildings - where it was before the complex was quake-strengthened in the early 1990s - have been blocked at every turn.

Combine that disdain for the gallery with the willingness of Parliamentary Service to bend over backwards to please its political masters and you long had the ingredients for an accident waiting to happen.

Some good may come of all this though. The Speaker, David Carter, has been hugely embarrassed, especially in having had to yesterday change his version of what occurred.

His referring to Parliament's privileges committee of the issues raised by the release of phone records and swipe-card movements of the Dominion Post's Andrea Vance around the complex is to be applauded. As is his forthright and very genuine apology.

Likewise the intervention by the Prime Minister by way of a letter to the Speaker. But Key realises what is at stake here.

The last thing he - or any politician for that matter - needs is the media really turning feral, especially when he has highly contentious spy laws to pass.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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