A university sociologist told a disturbing story on our pages yesterday. Dr Jarrod Gilbert revealed academic researchers who need data on crime and policing have to sign a contract giving the New Zealand Police the right to see a draft report, "improve" the researcher's results and at the last resort, "veto any findings from release".
Police deputy chief executive Mark Evans has since explained that academics seeking privileged information have to sign a contract that states expectations of accuracy, balance and purpose in the use of the information and reserves the right of police to discuss the findings if the researcher had misunderstood or misrepresented it.
But data is often open to more than one interpretation. If sociologists draw different conclusions than the police from information provided to them, they should be able to do so. The police do not lack resources to challenge what they believe is misrepresentation or a misunderstanding. They have the advantage in popular debate because their public standing is deservedly high in this country. The department does its reputation no good with this defensive attitude to its data.
Evidently, these contracts are not new. Dr Gilbert says researchers have been signing and complying with them - and fearing to complain about them - because they need the data and do not want to lose access to it in future. Dr Gilbert has less to lose. When he applied to the police for information to assist research for a Government agency on alcohol-related problems, he learned police deemed him unfit to receive it because of his "association with gangs". He had associated with them to write a book on them.
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Dr Gilbert does not hide his approach to his work. "Criticising public bodies is an important part of my job," he says. He takes seriously the fact that one of the statutory roles of a university is to be a "critic and conscience" of society. The police may not be alone in wondering whether this is the most objective approach to social research, but that would not justify withholding facts and figures that ought to be public knowledge.
Of course there will be operational information they cannot release to any researcher, but none with academic credentials should be denied data because the police do not trust them to use it dispassionately. The police have no right to make that judgment. They are a public body obliged to be open to scrutiny.
These disturbing contracts seem symptomatic of an unfortunate attitude that has permeated the public service under this Government. Its "no surprises" principle seeks to control the release of any information which might be awkward to explain. The Official Information Act 1982 aimed to change the default setting of public bodies from instinctive secrecy to a presumption that their knowledge is public knowledge unless there is a specified reason to withhold it. Suddenly, the act seems a long time ago. It has seemingly become subservient to a culture of information control, or "spin" in the vernacular. When the culture has permeated even the police, it is time to take stock. The police are better than this.
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