Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Reporters given right to stop their details being released

Andrea Vance, right, says she's "mad as hell" over the release of her phone records to an inquiry into who leaked the GCSB report. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Andrea Vance, right, says she's "mad as hell" over the release of her phone records to an inquiry into who leaked the GCSB report. Photo / Mark Mitchell

MPs and political reporters will have the right of veto on the release of information held about them by the Parliamentary Service, the committee which investigated the unauthorised release of Fairfax journalist's Andrea Vance's details to a leak inquiry has decided.

Parliament's Privileges committee today issued its final report on the incident which saw Ms Vance's phone and swipe card details released to the Henry Inquiry which in turn had investigated the leak of the Kitteridge report on spy agency the GCSB last year.

Folllowing on from its earlier report which established the facts around the incident, the committee had now developed a protocol for the release of information held by Parliamentary Service which is responsible for the operation of Parliament.

That protocol "specifically sets out the presumption that information about members of Parliament and the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery must not be released" unless the individual involved consented in writing to the release of their information.

The only exceptions were when the disclosure of that information was required or compelled by law, such as under a search warrant, court order, or under either the Inquiries Act which was passed last year, or the Ombudsmen Act.

Any requests for information held by Parliamentary Service which did not relate to particular individuals were to be ruled on by the Speaker of the House.

Under terms of reference approved by Prime Minister John Key, the Henry inquiry sought ministers' email and phone logs held by the Parliamentary Service. After initial resistance they were provided, after the intervention of Mr Key's chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson.

In its report, the Privileges Committee said: "We continue to be troubled that incident arose, particularly as there are clear protocols guiding the release of information from these systems to the NZ Police, the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Minister in Charge of the NZ SIS."

"It seems peculiar to us that information from these systems was more easily accessed through a request from the Executive (which the Parliament is responsible for holding to account), than it would have been had the New Zealand Police been investigating a criminal act."

The report also notes that when deciding whether to release information about Members of Parliament to the Henry inquiry, Parliamentary Service initially attempted to seek their consent first.

"However, the Parliamentary Service made no attempt to seek consent of the journalist involved, and did not seem to consider the role of the journalist when making its decisions about releases."

Parliamentary Services head Geoff Thorn quit when it emerged that his agency had passed across Miss Vance's phone logs to the inquiry without being asked to do so, let alone consulting Ms Vance.

Former Revenue Minister Peter Dunne resigned his portfolios after the Henry Inquiry pointed the finger at him as the likely source of the leak.

This afternoon in a response to the report, he tweeted it was `"fair, balanced and reasonable, unlike (the) Henry report that led to it."

In its initial report, the committee found "failures on many levels"that led to the unauthorised release of information which had exposed "significant gaps in the policies and principles guiding the Parliamentary Service in relation to the information it holds"'.

Parliamentary press gallery chairwoman Claire Trevett said the gallery was pleased with the recommendation for much stronger protection of the information Parliament held on political reporters.

"It is also pleasing to see the committee's strong acknowledgement of the important role of journalists at Parliament and the legal protections for their sources.

"Journalists working at Parliament need to be able to carry out that work effectively and without fear that their movements and communications can be tracked and released without consent or authority."

The release of Vance's information was "a deeply disturbing development".

"I hope the proposed protocol serves to prevent any similar incidents in future."

She noted that while Parliamentary Service could release information if it was legally compelled to do so, such as under a search warrant or Inquiries Act order, "where there is such a search warrant or order, it also requires Parliamentary Service to consider the special rights journalists have to protect sources under the Evidence Act and Search and Surveillance Act".

"Those rights include giving journalists a reasonable opportunity to claim privilege over certain information that could identify a protected source."

She also noted the committee recommended Parliamentary Service draw up guidelines for dealing with such requests, and had suggested drawing on the process Police currently apply for search warrants on media organisations.

"We look forward to working further with the Speaker and Parliamentary Service on this matter."

- NZ Herald

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