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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: The bullying of the media

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

The Government and public servants are bullying journalists. That's the impression you get from the two essential reads from the weekend - Colin Espiner's Free press more important than GCSB and John Armstrong's Govt betrayal on a monumental scale. Both columns deal with the controversies over state surveillance of the media. Espiner believes that the Government's recent action 'reveals a growing disregard for one of the cornerstones of Western democracy - a free press', and that it's 'part of a wider effort by governments both here and abroad to exert greater control over what the public sees and hears about'.

And it's not only the current National Government, says Espiner: 'contempt for journalists is endemic throughout the public service'. Similarly, Armstrong says that the recent surveillance of political journalist Andrea Vance, is not a mere 'pin-prick on the fabric of democracy' but instead, the 'prevailing sound was of the democratic fabric being ripped asunder'.

The 'breach of trust' is of 'mega proportions' and will have ongoing implications for journalist-politician relations. Today Brian Rudman joins the fray to say that the 'Unleashing of the oppressive power of the state in trivial incidents should alarm all democrats' - see: Big Brother's agents keep bumbling on.

If these commentators are right, then we should be worried. When it comes to holding those in power to account, the public watchdog is already more of a Spaniel than a Rottweiler. This isn't to say that there aren't some brilliant individual journalists, both in the parliamentary press gallery and amongst investigative journalists and political columnists. But as an institution, the New Zealand media isn't particularly dominant, bold, or challenging, tending to go along with the status quo rather than against it, and often concentrating on the trivial over the substantial. Partly this is due to economic constraints brought about by a crisis in the business model of mainstream media, suffering declining revenues and shrinking audiences, especially for news and current affairs. Meanwhile, the PR resources deployed to influence journalists in favour of government and corporate interests seem to be ever increasing. Just in terms of resources the media already appeared to be losing their ever-vigilant watchdog status.

Now, with the Fourth Estate having its strength and independence eroded by a government and public service that is more aggressive towards it, things could get worse. This threat to the media was most recently evidenced, first by the military surveillance of journalists, then in the evolving saga of the Henry inquiry's breach of Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance's privacy. Now, it has also been revealed that the Police have had warrants to obtain journalists' text messages - see Bevan Hurley's Police seize Cuppagate texts. This important article reveals that when the police investigated the 'teapot tapes' scandal, they were legally able to get hold of all of journalist Bradley Ambrose's text messages from the time - including those to his lawyer and to others in the media. The article says that 'Auckland University associate professor Bill Hodge said it was "mind-boggling" police would intercept text messaging over such a minor charge, especially when the Evidence Act 2006 provided clear protections for journalists to guarantee the freedom of the media'.

Media commentator Russell Brown has blogged to say that such police behaviour is 'completely outrageous' - see: It's worse than you think. Brown also notes the disturbing parallels between that saga and the current one: 'In both cases, the complaint was the Prime Minister. In both cases, the public servants tasked with investigation were complicit in gross and puzzling over-reaches. In both cases, the truth has had be extracted from those responsible. And in both cases, Steven Joyce has been drafted in to bully and harangue'. And for an example of Joyce in action over the latest media breach - see his very interesting interview (and transcript) with Rachel Smalley on TV3's The Nation: Joyce believes Henry not Dunne. Also worth watching from the same programme, is the five-minute panel discussion, Is the Government spying on our media?.

For other expert commentary on the precarious position of the media, see Bevan Hurley's Chilling attacks on freedom, which reports that 'Willy Akel, New Zealand's leading media lawyer.... believes the privacy of the individual and the autonomy of a free media are under grave attack. The Otago Daily Times, says 'Monitoring of the media in such a way is the first step to controlling the media. It is easy to make the media the bad guy - but knowledge is power and the media is instrumental in informing citizens. Taking any of that away makes the country more vulnerable to abuse, corruption, and will make our lives more fearful and uncertain' - see: Murky dealings abound. The Nelson Mail says that the recent privacy breach is 'an outrage. It is an affront to our democracy and we should all be concerned about it' - see: Insult to democracy must be laid bare. The Taranaki Daily Times columnist, Rachel Stewart likens the scandal to Nixon's Watergate - see: Clink of ice in a toast to freedom of the press. And Newstalk ZB's Felix Marwick explains why 'Media cannot be free if it's monitored by the state' - see: Why media freedom matters.

The public isn't usually interested in discussing the state and health of the media, but perhaps that is changing as there's certainly a vigorous debate going on at the moment amongst commentators. Michael Laws has provided a counterview to the opinions expressed above, providing a trenchant critique of the role played by journalists, and particularly the parliamentary press gallery: 'a gaggle of competing egos, and any number suffering a God complex. TV3's Patrick Gower was a perfect example last week, claiming that his job "is to hold the Government accountable . . . we're the eyes and ears of the public". No, it isn't. And no, he's not. His job is not to act as judge and jury - it is to relay the facts and let us make up our own minds. That's the fatal misstep that so many journalists make: they really do believe that they're our moral arbiters and secular priests' - see: Journalists can't handle the truth. Interestingly, Gordon Campbell sees some merit in Laws' argument.

Cameron Slater is also challenging much of the media campaign about freedom from surveillance, with numerous blogposts blaming the journalists for their predicament, and suggesting they're being precious - see, for example, Media continue the faux outrage. There's lots more like this, but a more interesting post on his Whaleoil blog is one about media influence on politics, in which Slater's own strong role is emphasized (with some evidence) - see: So Whaleoil is number one blog - but where does it rank as an opinion maker?.

Ex-EMA boss, Alasdair Thompson is also expressing dissatisfaction with the media on his blog - see, for example, GCSB Bills impact on our privacy. Thompson says, 'Many people don't seem to give a hoot about the GCSB Bills. The impression I have got from Wellington beltway journo's and Opposition MP's is that they are all more interested in being professionally outraged by it all, turning it into a political circus which they are loving and of which they have become both the leaders of, and the prize acts too. Centred themselves, in some cases, in the story itself'. He also complains about the quality of the media analysis of the proposed GSCB reforms, and suggests that John Key be given a TV 'half hour slot to tell the whole story about the GCSB Bills'.

The latest revelations about Andrea Vance's emails being made available to the Government's Henry Inquiry are explained in Claire Trevett's Stunned MP weighs legal action. And for details on Fairfax's response, see Vernon Small and Tracy Watkins' Adviser knew of privacy breach.

Fairfax's political editor, Tracy Watkins has also provided a useful insight into how the parliamentary press gallery is 'subjected to probably some of the most intrusive surveillance in any workplace in the country', and that amongst such journalists there's a 'sneaking suspicion' that politicians regard the media as a security threat to Parliament. She also says that 'mounting perception is that a wild west approach to private information is endemic across officialdom and the government's security agencies' - see: Spy bungles start to entangle PM.

The civil liberties of the public in general - rather than just the media - are also said to be under threat, and there's some useful discussion of this in Michael Fox's Kiwis seek reassurance on state surveillance. In this article, the head of the Telecommunications Users Association is quoted as believing the public has now reached a 'tipping point' of suspicion about the proposed spy agency changes. Peter Dunne calls for a 'massive public debate' about privacy. And Winston Peters worries that the reforms 'spit on the liberties of New Zealanders'.

The spy agencies received some much-needed support in the weekend from former PM, Helen Clark, who declared that despite recent suggestions to the contrary, the spies had always acted appropriately under her watch - see No spying on Kiwis under Clark. However, on Twitter, Blaise Drinkwater (@BKDrinkwater), made the obvious point: 'Apparently, Helen Clark didn't bother reading the Kitteridge Report before commenting'. And blogger Pete George discusses the issues in his blogpost, Helen Clark - spying on New Zealanders "wasn't their remit".

All of this could have been avoided, says Dave Armstrong today, if only John Key had never allowed the raid on Kim Dotcom - see: Cosying up to Americans brings big costs for Key. It's the British too, of course. And Steve Kilgallon has written an interesting feature on a Christchurch couple that has been labeled 'delusional' by the authorities for their claims of being spied upon by both New Zealand and British intelligence. Are they victims or delusional? See: Spies, lies and murder.

Finally, for some light relief on the state surveillance topic, see Steve Braunias' very clever Secret diary of John Key.

- NZ Herald

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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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