Planned? Hardly.

But that was the allegation from the Prime Minister today over the latest revelations about the activities of the GCSB.

The Herald and The Intercept news site yesterday revealed a top secret GCSB tasking document which showed its powerful electronic surveillance equipment was used to sniff out emails which mentioned Trade Minister Tim Groser and his competitors for the top job at the World Trade Organisation.

The news came the day John Key and Mr Groser signed a Free Trade Agreement in South Korea - one of the eight countries to put forward candidates for the WTO job sought by Mr Groser.

Advertisement

Mr Key would not discuss the facts of the story. But when asked if he thought the Herald's WTO stories were timed to coincide with the signing, he said: "Of course they were, it's all part of a particular agenda by Nicky Hager and some others."

These are the facts.

Some weeks ago, Hager and I met to discuss the broad sweep of the issues on which we would be writing. He had done the bridge-building with The Intercept and had been analysing material using the specialist knowledge for which he is held in high regard internationally.

The first few stories were in sharp focus. We knew when they were going to run. The others were less clear and needed more work. It was only as weeks passed that a date of publication for the WTO story became clear - initially, last Wednesday.

As we entered last week, Hager had a draft ready for Monday but there was more work to do.

We were talking on the phone about running on the following Saturday or Monday when it was announced by Mr Key's office he and Mr Groser were flying to South Korea on Sunday to sign the Free Trade Agreement.

Hager had no idea of the trip to South Korea until I told him. Both of us were discomforted by the timing and talked about the possibility there would be allegations it was planned around the trip because the South Korean delegate was one of those competing against Mr Groser.

Hager suggested holding until today or tomorrow, or even waiting a week or more. I argued against holding it because, almost exclusively, news runs when it is ready to run. Holding off on something - unless a matter of life or death - is as bad as planning to run it on a particular day for a particular objective.

I consulted with the editor, explaining the dilemma. He could see the issue but was comfortable proceeding. News was news. It runs when it is ready.

Hager's contribution was done by Thursday. I worked through the weekend - as did Gallagher - to have the story ready for Monday.

Of Mr Groser's competitors, the South Korean candidate was the only one who commented. He was the only one able to be contacted directly as he now works at the University of Seoul and has a current telephone number and email address listed publicly.
The others were approached through press offices or by email.

The first spying stories were said to be timed to target the Government during the Northland by-election. Mr Key has alleged this latest story was timed to impact on the FTA with South Korea.

Not the case. It also landed in a week during which he and Mr Groser are out of the country and unable to be questioned in Parliament. The story ran during a fever-pitch of cricket excitement, the consequence being the story about the "WTO Project", as the GCSB called it, ran on page five of the newspaper instead of its otherwise likely front page treatment.

With future stories, it is likely they will also arrive at an uncomfortable time - but that is because of the facts in the story.

These are uncomfortable issues at any time.