Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Brazil had had a "very measured response" to news reports that New Zealand spied on its campaign to get Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo elected as Secretary General to the World Trade Organisation in 2013.

"Obviously it is an issue of sensitivity to them," Mr McCully told the Weekend Herald last night. "Their response to the media coverage in New Zealand has been very measured and we appreciate that."

New Zealand's ambassador in Sao Paulo, Caroline Bilkey, was called in for discussions by the head of Brazil's foreign affairs, Sergio Danese, Mr McCully confirmed.

Asked if he thought New Zealand's reputation had been damaged by the stories about spying, Mr McCully said: "No. I think that this is an area that is sensitive for a lot of countries and a lot of governments and for that reason we don't take it lightly but I think New Zealand is well thought of and the responses have been measured and the discussions have been constructive."

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The diplomatic call-in for a "please explain" discussion was a result of a Herald report on Monday saying New Zealand's foreign intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, had intercepted emails about the other eight candidates for the job using the United States' National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance system, XKeyscore.

The story was based on documents taken from the NSA by former analyst Edward Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia.

Brazil's candidate won the post from a shortlist of five including New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser and candidates from Mexico, Indonesia, and South Korea.

Indonesia and Brazil are sensitive about spying given past revelations from the story that was based on a top secret GCSB tasking document, showing that Australia had tried to listen to cellphone calls of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and that the US had listened to phones calls of the presidents of Brazil, Germany and Venezuela.

Before Brazil called in the New Zealand ambassador, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying the Government was surprised at the news and was determined to have the facts clarified in consideration of the friendship between the two countries.

The Herald report was written by Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher of the US site The Intercept.