Hager has given overseas readers an impression this country is governed by a reign of terror for academics

Nicky Hager has claimed the rights of a journalist in response to the police search of his home, and I suppose he is one. But I am looking at an article he wrote for the Guardian online four days after the election.

He told Guardian readers the New Zealand Government "has worked systematically to close down critical voices: academics, scientists, media and more ... using National Party-aligned blogs to launch personal attacks.

"Hundreds of people found themselves viciously derided by bloggers," he said. "These attacks have had a damaging effect on New Zealand politics, with widespread chilling of critical voices ...

"The tell-tale signs were unusual levels of personal attacks, the use of arm's length allies to conduct attacks and a relentless series of targeted scandals, usually of little ultimate substance and appearing in the news out of nowhere ... "


Hager made this claim about academics, scientists and so forth when he launched his book. News media did not follow up the claim, probably because it did not ring true. Whale Oil was nasty but not quite that terrifying.

It worries me that Hager would write this stuff for an overseas audience, not on account of New Zealand's reputation - that's not a journalist's concern - but from the effect on his readers, which is a journalist's only concern.

It is one thing to over-egg your story in a book aimed at a domestic audience who are in a position to assess your evidence in the knowledge that John Key's reign of terror is not exactly evident around here. It is another thing to put this impression in the minds of readers who are a long way from this country and probably know next to nothing about it.

Guardian readers worldwide give great credence to its name and this may be the only account of the New Zealand election they see.

The website labelled the piece "comment is free", which its regular readers might know to be code for, "we don't necessarily believe this", but Hager does not write in a style of comment on recognised facts. He asserts facts newly discovered.

The day police searched his Wellington home he was in Auckland giving lectures at the university, so he ought to be able to tell us more about the fear gripping the faculties. I think it is time he did some regular reporting and told us the actual experiences of those "chilled" academics and the voices that have been "closed down".

Like a real journalist, Hager says he will refuse to co-operate with the police in their attempt to discover who hacked Cameron Slater's computers and stole his private emails.

"I believe the police actions are dangerous for journalism in New Zealand," he said. "It matters to all people working in the media who could similarly have their property searched and seized to look for sources. People are less likely to help the media if the police act in this way. The police want people to respect their role in society; they should in turn respect other people's roles in society."


It always embarrasses me when we react hysterically like this. To the public we must sound precious, irresponsible and unprofessional. People know we have a job to do and so do the police.

The reason we reserve the right to refuse co-operation with criminal investigations is, as Hager said, because informants may be afraid to talk to reporters in confidence if they think we will comply. But we tend to garnish that practical reason with a great deal of self-righteousness about the public's right to know.

Our case implicitly asserts a right to break the law in the public interest. The law these days is reasonably sympathetic to our needs, though it insists that judges will decide what is in the public interest. They can order a journalist to identify a source or hand over documentary evidence that has been gathered in confidence but they know there is a high probability the journalist will refuse and go to jail if necessary. I would - I think all of us would.

But we shouldn't be self-important about it. We are no better judges of the public interest than anybody else. We think the story we have found is interesting and therefore of public importance. Sometimes it is neither. Sometimes it is interesting only because we are not supposed to have it. Just about all of Julian Assange's Wikileaks disclosures were in that category - candid internal comments of diplomats that were no more than tittle-tattle.

"Investigative journalism" is liable to work under a pact of secrecy with someone who has an axe to grind. That will be a dimension of the story we decide the public is not allowed to know. That's press freedom. Its true practitioners are not perfect, just professional.