The question from a BBC journalist to a Wellington-based reporter this week spoke volumes. Was it true that one week before a general election, the police in New Zealand were about to search and seize material from the newsroom of the state radio service, at the behest of the Prime Minister? When "yes" was the obvious reply, it was received with evident incredulity in London.

That the police have been called into the so-called "teapot tape" issue by the Prime Minister carries its own comment. That they are now advising up to four news organisations that they seek information - and it is important to note here that it is not the actual tape recording or transcripts at this stage - should be resisted not only by the media but by all citizens who value a free media and its duty to the public.

Police inquiries, led by a detective inspector and a team that police will not quantify, are purportedly at a formative stage. The unfortunate officers who have been handed this poisoned political teacup seem to want to gather any video that broadcasters have of the notorious "cuppa tea" meeting between John Key and Act's John Banks a week ago to see what they can see. Furthermore, they seek from Radio New Zealand any extended recording of an interview which it broadcast with the cameraman who left the microphone on a cafe table while the men talked.

There is no question that, as framed so far, the police inquiry is a fishing expedition to establish if there is anything that might help them understand just what the Prime Minister alleges was breaking the law. Such fishing expeditions are regularly decried by the courts and defenders of the public's rights.


The Court of Appeal, in a notable case involving Television New Zealand in 1995, set out principles for the granting and execution of search warrants to be used on the news media. The first was that "a search warrant should not be used in trivial cases". Given that the recording in this case arose during a media photo opportunity in a public cafe, and that it has neither been played nor published, this case surely remains in the realm of trivial allegations. The Appeal Court also said "the material sought by police should have a direct and important place in the determination of the issues before the court". As police now want video and sound from organisations which have never had the actual disputed recording, this principle cannot be validly met.

Many in the public have chosen to give Mr Key the benefit of the doubt, taking a view negative towards the media and endorsing a popular politician's criticism of the recording. Yet the prospect of newsrooms being searched for standard news coverage is surely not tolerable for an affair which the same public views as minor, and which centres on a discussion Mr Key terms "bland".

The cameraman, Bradley Ambrose, has now sought High Court intervention to make a statutory declaration that the cafe venue and conversation were not, and could not have been, private. Should he succeed in a hearing likely to be next week, the police inquiry will be redundant as no law could have been broken. Police should hang up the fishing rod and spare themselves the reputational damage Mr Key has invited this week.