Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The angry parliamentary press gallery

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Press Gallery in the Debating Chamber. Photo / File
Press Gallery in the Debating Chamber. Photo / File

Political journalists are livid. They're angry with the Government and the arrangements that have led to the state surveillance of journalists such as Andrea Vance (and to a lesser extent, investigative journalist Jon Stephenson). Vance herself has finally spoken out in a column today that is an absolute must-read for those interested in issues of privacy, media freedom and politics in New Zealand - see: I'm angry at my records being released. Vance appears to be particularly unhappy with John Key, Parliamentary Service, David Carter, the GCSB leak inquiry boss David Henry, as well as with politicians in general who she believes have helped threaten the status of media freedom in New Zealand.

Vance's point of view appears to be shared by many journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. On Twitter, her colleagues - amongst many others - have been retweeting and endorsing her column. And a number of Press Gallery journalists are also writing their own important columns and stories on the issue.

Vernon Small's column, Parliamentary Service in need of shakeup is particularly important because he explains why the Parliamentary Service is dysfunctional, and relates this to the fact that the organisation has been given an exemption - by politicians - from Official Information Act.

Leading political columnist John Armstrong has also unleashed a harsh critique of the situation in his opinion piece, Violation speaks ill of our democracy. He says that the saga over the release of Vance's phone records 'speaks of something very sick and rotten at the heart of the country's democracy'. The political editor of TV3, Patrick Gower, is also visibly angry in his analysis of the situation. Watch and read the TV3 item, Gower slams 'cowboy spying operation' and also, Prime Minister adamant over Vance emails - both are recommended as they give very good explanations of what has happened and what the issues are.

Journalists are receiving some seriously heavyweight support from constitutional lawyer and ex-Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer - you can watch his five-minute interview on Campbell Live - see Sir Geoffrey: Why phone record gaffe matters. He says that what has occurred is an indirect attack on the freedom of the media. Also listen to his 10-minute Radio NZ Nine-to-Noon interview: Phone records handed over during GCSB investigation. Palmer argues that the ministerial inquiry ignored the protections that journalists have under the Evidence Act, and that Henry has a made a 'terrible constitutional error'.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, newspaper editorials have come out very strongly on the issue of media freedom. The Dominion Post says that the matters are so serious that the newspaper has reconsidered its previous support of the Government's GCSB bill - see: Speaking truth to power. Today's Herald editorial is scathing of John Key's role in the scandal, and outlines why he is responsible for the latest saga, and why he should have learnt his lesson from the 2011 'teagate' fiasco - see: PM should take care when flexing his muscles.

Today's Southland Times editorial, Nice of them to inquire, is also very critical, and invokes Noam Chomsky in explaining why its important that the media is free to scrutinise those in power. The editorial also comments humorously on the latest inquiry announced, saying it 'puts us in the rather giddying situation of having an inquiry into who released, perhaps illegally, information about a journalist... to an inquiry into who leaked information to that journalist... about an inquiry into what turned out to have been illegal spying'. Similarly today, Claire Trevett has a go at showing the absurdity of the trail of events: 'Once upon a time there was an inquiry into the spy agency the Government Communications Security Bureau. Then there was an inquiry into the inquiry after the first inquiry was leaked to Vance in advance. Now there is yet another inquiry, by Parliament's privileges committee, into the issues thrown up by the second inquiry, which was the inquiry into the inquiry' - see: GCSB saga becoming National's version of hell.

Trevett's column is also important in explaining how the current privacy scandal is helping opponents of the Government's GCSB reforms, because it validates 'claims that the Government cannot be trusted with the personal details of New Zealanders'. This is also the point made today by Gordon Campbell: 'it illustrates just why the GCSB Bill should be scrapped or sidelined. Because plainly, the current political masters of the security services cannot be trusted not to use private information for their own political ends' - see: On the Vance phone scandal.

So how much trouble is the Government in? A lot, says Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking - see: Potentially plenty of trouble over phone records. He agrees that 'this has been a disastrous breach that goes to the very heart of the freedom of the press and basic democracy'. Today, John Armstrong stresses how much trouble this scandal is for John Key, relaying that in Parliament, he received 'one of the severest grillings... in his near five years as Prime Minister - see: Behind Key's cucumber cool, a man who knows he's in a pickle.

The changing stories and versions of events from Parliamentary Service make the whole event very mysterious. Was it a 'cock-up' or conspiracy? Danyl McLauchlan has put forward a very plausible conspiracy theory in I am never right about these things.

The recent revelations are obviously changing how many think about the health of the media and press freedom in New Zealand. I've just written an in-depth report for the Berlin-based NGO, Transparency International, about the health of the media here, and will now need to make some changes to the report. You can see my draft report here, my Draft report for Transparency International on the state of the New Zealand Media, which I'm still very keen to have further feedback on. And related to this, I'm also giving a public lecture on Friday August 16 at Victoria University of Wellington on the topic of 'Does New Zealand Need Media Reform?' - see: Upcoming Events at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

Of course, it's not just Andrea Vance who has a beef with state surveillance. Jon Stephenson's experience is still being examined in a number of important columns and blog posts. Chris Trotter in particularly is delving into the issues, with his most important post on the topic being No Friend of Democracy: To Whom is the NZDF Answerable?. Other important items from Trotter include The Contagion Of Evil and Lone Wolf: Jon Stephenson and his Search for the Truth. John Minto has also surveyed the issues in NZDF, Jon Stephenson and Freedom of the Press, and Paul Buchanan writes in detail on the Long and short of the NZDF spying scandal. Crucially, however, the New Zealand Defence Force has publicly denied the allegations about Stephenson - see Kate Shuttleworth's Defence Force denies having journalist's phone data. The jury is out on the credibility of such denials.

Are journalists being too precious about what has gone on with Andrea Vance and Jon Stephenson? Unsurprisingly, Cameron Slater thinks so, saying that 'The media are still carrying on like it is the end of the earth that someone gave an inquiry a list of dates, times and phone numbers. They are being exceedingly precious and considering the general impression most people have of journalists they are at a serious disconnect as is usual' - see: Why the circus and carry on in Wellington is just a beltway issue. Slater has also published a 'meme' challenging the idea of the Fourth Estate being entitled to special protection from spying - see: Balanced reporting according to Hager. In a similar way, the NBR's Jock Anderson claims such journalists are hypocrites: 'They scramble through Hell to expose everyone else's secrets but don't anyone dare come near ours. Details of other folk's chats and emails are splattered over the front pages and the air waves in pursuance of a media-driven notion the public has "a right to know".... But journalists then consider their own communications with people to be no-one else's business' - see: Revealing the juicy secrets of journalists [paywalled].

In answer to such arguments, Jane Clifton writes about the media freedom scandal in the latest Listener - see: Abuse of trust [paywalled]. She says: 'We journos can seem self-important and precious about our rights. But those rights are a proxy for the public's rights, so it's worth getting a bit pompous about them. Members of the public have a right to know what our elected and unelected officials are doing - for them, to them, despite them, and with their money. Anything that unreasonably blocks our ability to find out such information is an attack not just on some smarty-boots reporter with a nose-probing microphone and too much hair gel, but on blameless, hard-working Mr and Mrs Brown of Taita'. Clifton also details how the Parliamentary Service has a history of working against the interests of political journalists in Parliament.

But is the media quite as heroic as is being suggested? A recent Colmar Brunton survey, commissioned by Transparency International (NZ), had some alarming results, suggesting that much of the public sees the media as being corrupt. I covered this recently in my own blog post, Corruption in New Zealand survey. This story was essentially ignored by the New Zealand media. Instead, the best coverage of the issue was from the Samoa Observer, which declared, New Zealand media among four most corrupt. Radio NZ's Mediawatch also dealt with the issue in the weekend - listen here.

Of course, it shouldn't be assumed that it's just the Government that is eroding press freedoms. After all, it was the opposition parties of Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First who recently called for the Police to launch a criminal investigation following Andrea Vance's publication of information from the leaked GCSB report. This was an act with the potential to seriously impact on the Parliamentary Press Gallery and so it appears somewhat hypocritical to now have those opposition politicians campaigning as 'friends of the media'.

A pivotal role in this whole media freedom scandal, is undoubtedly played by the numerous political spin-doctors working for all the parliamentary parties and Government - a point well made today by Rosemary McLeod in her column, Journalists subversive? That really takes the cake. She says that journalists everywhere have to 'deal with the growing armies of obfuscators called media advisers and press secretaries paid to stop unflattering or unpleasant information getting out, and to sit tight on any information that could pique curiosity. This is why we no longer have the confrontational current affairs interviews of the past and also why politicians and senior bureaucrats are now routinely groomed in the art of the sound bite, in the hope that they'll avoid slips of the tongue, or - god forbid - give ingenuous answers'.

Indeed, the numbers of ministerial spin-doctors is on the rise. Utilising the Official Information Act, Felix Marwick reports that 'there are more media advisors now working for the Government than there were back in 2009, and more of them are on higher salaries' - see: The wages of spin high in the Beehive.

Finally, for the cartoonists view of these issues, see my blog post of Images of state surveillance of the media in NZ.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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