A change to the rules which give media access to prison inmates is being considered after decisions in the courts making it easier for journalists to carry out jailhouse interviews.

It has brought claims the government is trying to cut the access media has to prisoners for political purposes at a time when the courts have raised freedom of speech as a factor which overwhelms almost all other considerations.

The judgments cleared the way for high-profile media interviews with inmates Arthur Taylor - who has convictions for aggravated robbery - and Scott Watson - who is in prison for a double murder.

In the Watson case, the high court judge said: "Where no concerns of prison security are raised, and where the communication is to a reputable journalist, then that is a circumstance where the rights (to freedom of speech) should almost always prevail."


In a response to an Official Information Act request, Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said a paper to Cabinet in August sought to "amend Corrections Regulations".

He would not say what the Cabinet paper contained or how the regulations could change.

The OIA response showed it followed briefings to the Minister on media interviews with prisoners in June and July this year. Mr Lotu-Iiga also refused to supply the briefings.

The first followed a high court ruling that the Department of Corrections had wrongly refused journalist Mike White permission to interview Watson, who is in prison for the double murder of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart in 1998. White sought to interview Watson over his claims to be innocent of the murders.

Mr Lotu-Iiga, who would not be interviewed on the issue, said he was withholding the briefings and the Cabinet paper because the issue was to be considered again next year.

The OIA response also revealed the apparent political sensitivity around media interest in prisons. Mr Lotu-Iiga said his office received a "daily media summary" which included notification of all requests to interview prisoners. He said his office could not separate out the information his office had received about requests for interviews with prisoners from the daily media summaries because there was too much information to go through.

He said "the decision to approve or decline media requests to interview prisoners is solely the responsibility of Corrections". He also said he had been told there were 53 requests to interview prisoners in 2014 and 11 requests in 2015.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said the briefings of media interest were "in line with the no surprises policy". She said "the minister is updated on many operational issues by the Department of Corrections".


The current process for media wanting to interview prisoners is to make a formal application to the chief executive of Corrections. The decision is made by the chief executive, using a template which weigh risks. The template includes no political elements.

Labour's prisons spokesman Kelvin Davis said he believed there was political concern about media access to prisoners because it would increase the availability of information about problems behind bars.

"It could open the flood gates. That's what their concern is, I think. The walls that keep people in also keep scrutiny out."

White, who writes for North & South magazine, said it was the experience of "many journalists" that it had been harder to access interviews behind bars in recent years. The prospect of a change in regulations meant it was likely to get harder, he said.

"The cynic in me says they will be seeking to close nay gaps and make it difficult for journalists to visit prisoners."

Corrections has increasingly struggled with media interest in recent years. In 2012, it warned a number of reporters off writing letters to inmates. Recent court rulings have endorsed the legal right for letters to be exchanged with prisoners.


It has also refused to allow reporters access to inmates in cases where the requests are made for personal reasons. A Herald reporter was refused access to a prisoner in 2013 in a case which saw then-Minister Anne Tolley's office briefed. A challenge through the Ombudsman resulted in an apology.

In another case, a Fairfax journalist was also refused a personal visit. In a ruling from the Ombudsman in 2014, she was told Corrections' reasons for refusing her request did not exist in law, and it had not followed its own rules.

In both cases, the Ombudsman's intervention led to Corrections being forced to reconsider its position.

Taylor, who has become a jailhouse lawyer, has successfully challenged Corrections in the courts on a number of occasions. In an audio statement from prison, he said he had been up against "everything one of our most powerful government departments could throw against me". He said it was not a personal victory as much as "a victory for freedom of expression and human rights generally - prisoners are at the bottom of the food chain".