Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Brownlee questions media privacy rights

"So you want us to have a policy but the gallery has no policy?" Gerry Brownlee questions why reporters feel their privacy should be protected. Photo / Greg Bowker
"So you want us to have a policy but the gallery has no policy?" Gerry Brownlee questions why reporters feel their privacy should be protected. Photo / Greg Bowker

Cabinet Minister Gerry Brownlee has questioned why political reporters' phone, email and swipe card records should be protected when they frequently publish classified information or the private records of others.

Mr Brownlee's questions came as Parliament's privileges committee continued its investigation into the release of reporter Andrea Vance's records to the Henry inquiry into the leak of a report on the GCSB.

United Future Leader Peter Dunne resigned his ministerial portfolios after refusing to release details of his email correspondence with Ms Vance just before she published an article detailing the report's findings of potentially illegal spying on New Zealanders by the GCSB.

However it emerged that the Parliamentary Service, which runs Parliament and answers to Speaker of the House David Carter, released Ms Vance's phone records and swipe card access records to the Henry inquiry without her knowledge or permission.

The swipe card records allowed her movements around the parliamentary complex to be tracked. Parliamentary Service also released records of Mr Dunne's emails to the inquiry which included information about emails sent to, and received by Ms Vance, again without her permission.

Parliamentary Service boss Geoff Thorn also resigned over the matter.

The committee this morning heard from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the body representing New Zealand's political reporters.

Press Gallery chairwoman and Herald deputy political editor Claire Trevett told the committee the Parliamentary Service had no authority to hand over swipe card information - which could be used to track Ms Vance's movements around the parliamentary complex - or logs of which numbers she called from her office phone.

As well as asking Parliament to recognise the central role of the news media in a healthy democracy the Press Gallery has asked that, where in future Parliamentary Service was asked for information it holds on any accredited political reporter, it referred the request to the Speaker for further consideration and consultation with the reporter, their employer and the Press Gallery.

But Mr Brownlee said he found it "slightly ironic" the gallery was asking for that protection when Ms Vance had published details of a report that at the time was "clearly not in the public arena and not at that point for public consumption".

"What is the difference here?"

Ms Trevett said the Kitteridge GCSB report wasn't personal information, she presumed the person who passed it to Ms Vance had lawful access to it, and the classified status of the document didn't extend to it being a matter of national security.

The sensitivity of the report related to "just political inconvenient timing" of its release.

Mr Brownlee asked at which point the gallery believed it would acceptable to release information about a journalist held by the Parliamentary Service.

Ms Trevett said at issue was the protection of a journalist's source, a matter which is covered by law.

"If they're required to by the courts I assume they would have to hand it over but they can't go out willy-nilly handing that information out."

Mr Brownlee went on to question whether if similar information about a person other than a reporter came into the possession of a reporter that they would seek permission from that person to use it in a news report.

Ms Trevett said that was up to individual reporters and news outlets.

"So you want us to have a policy but the gallery has no policy?", Mr Brownlee asked.

But Ms Trevett said journalists didn't have the same obligations to those they had information about as Parliamentary Service did to those whose email, phone and swipe card access records it held.

"If the information is of public interest it's our responsibility to report it. People make judgement calls but we don't hold the information ourselves we're not in control of releasing it."

Ms Trevett told the committee it had been argued by Mr Thorn that he decided to release Ms Vance's swipe card records to the Henry inquiry because the GCSB report leak was considered a security issue.

"We strongly object to Geoff Thorn's decision making on this which was nothing less than arbitrary.

"In his evidence he said there were no precedents for him to act on but he was aware of previous incidents relating to the Press Gallery and the Press Gallery rules.

"Those incidents were unrelated to the recent incident and had he read further through the rules Mr Thorn would also have seen he should refer all such matters to the Speaker."

- NZ Herald

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