On one level the police search of author Nicky Hager's home and their seizure of his electronic files can be argued as standard measures in a criminal investigation. A complaint of theft had been made and Hager had been identified as the eventual user of the stolen material. The missing information was email and social media data and therefore Hager's computers and devices could be suspected of holding it.
Hager's response has been standard, too, in its way. He has claimed a right to protect journalistic sources, forcing the police to seal the seized material and let him argue that right before a court.
Yet the case, with the police actions and the ensuing battle to prevent officers examining the material, are far from straightforward. In response to a complaint of theft - common old theft - five police officers spent the best part of a day searching the Hager home and taking away everything from computers to an iPod. Not because Hager was considered a "suspect" but because he could be a "witness" to the crime.
If every theft complaint made to police resulted in this kind of response, searches under warrants of houses and businesses would be constant and not much else would be achieved by our constabulary.
The theft complaint was made by Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater, whose emails and social media chats formed the basis of Hager's pre-election book Dirty Politics. The book caused political problems for the National Party and in particular Slater's friend and former Cabinet minister Judith Collins. Slater claims his messages were stolen and Hager acknowledged they had been hacked, by a person unknown, and given to him unsolicited.
It is unlikely anyone else reporting a theft would have resulted in the police raiding the receiver of the stolen property quite so readily. Perhaps the word "hacking" has added a level of excitement to the police inquiry that the taking or copying of a paper file might not have elicited; the political controversy also puts overt public attention on the case. Neither of those factors ought to result in over-reactions of the sort we have seen.
It was well-known that Hager - like Slater - sees himself as an investigative journalist, experienced in dealing with sensitive information from whistleblowers and political operatives. The book was published a month before the search took place, making the chances of Hager storing the details of his source around home next to nil.
This is the second election controversy in a row which has resulted in the police obtaining search warrants against media or journalists. Warrants were obtained against Radio New Zealand and TV3 after the "teapot tapes" row in 2011.
It is not a good look for the police or for their political masters. Inconvenient and embarrassing disclosures do not justify police actions to uncover journalistic sources. The effect of such raids is to intimidate such people from approaching media to disclose uncomfortable truths.
Hager says nothing in the seized equipment could lead to the identity of the hacker, known as Rawshark, but he fears for the confidentiality of other, unrelated, sources in his files. He now has the opportunity to convince a judge that the undertaking of confidentiality to his sources, and the importance of that to the public's right to know, overrides any need for the police to fish through his work on a highly politicised case.
It would be good if that judge took a stand for freedom of expression. He or she will not be deciding whether the hacking was a crime, just whether the police treatment of Hager and his sources can be justified in the pursuit of that relatively minor criminal offence.
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