More questions from the Nicky Hager case

Our police force are yet to fully discharged their duty in the Dirty Politics case, which raises further questions about government agencies' respect for journalism

The mea cupla is fulsome and the apology - however hard won - is on the record. Nicky Hager has won an important victory for the rights of journalists to go about their business without intrusive oversight from the police, who have been shown to be less than honest. But questions remain.

In October 2014, Hager's house was searched by police looking for evidence tying him to Rawshark, the anonymous source of material hacked from the website of Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater. That material was given to Hager and he used it as the foundation for his 2014 book Dirty Politics, that cast such a shadow over that year's election and raised serious ethical and legal questions around the behaviour of National Party MPs and staff in Prime Minister John Key's office.

Slater had reported the hack to police and quite properly, the police began investigating. However, they began investigating with such vigour they broke the law and were not honest with the courts. It's a remarkable series of events that appears to go beyond ineptitude, to something more deliberate.

Yesterday, they were forced to admit their failures and apologise.

As Andrew writes so well in his post yesterday:

"The police admit that they misled a court by omission into giving them apparent legal authority to raid the house of not a suspect in a crime, but a witness to it. That witness, they knew, was a working journalist whose efficacy depends upon being able to assure his sources (be they law abiding saints or malefactor demons or somewhere in between) that their identity will remain confidential".

What's more, they went to third parties such as airlines and told them Hager was suspected of fraud.

In a country where victims of burglary often complain about the slow response from police and around the time that the national burglary resolution rate (2015) was a record low 9.3 per cent, it's curious that police would expend such resources on this computer.

But most notably there were other dodgy dealings with computers in the news around the same time, as well. Dirty Politics itself revealed that Slater and National Party staffer and others had been rooting around in the back-end of the Labour Party website. Hager had alleged that one of those who had been in the site was a staff member in the Prime Minister's office. While Police admitted in their statement yesterday that Hager "was not a suspect of any offending", there were questions being asked at the time about the legality of that behaviour. Yet nothing so rigorous was undertaken.

Also around the same time, the victim of Rawshark's hack - Cameraon Slater - was himself commissioning Ben Rachinger to hack The Standard website to establish whether Labour MPs and staff were anonymously writing for the Labour-aligned blog. Rachinger turned whistle blower, leading to a story by me and Lisa Owen that saw Slater finally charged with attempting to procure a hack. He admitted guilt and received diversion.

I know from my work on that story and my repeated calls to police how slow they were to act on Slater's actions. Quite reasonably, police have pointed out that Rawshark's actual hack (with the potential for a seven year prison sentence) was a worse offence than Slater's attempted and failed hack (with a maximum sentence of two and a half years).

But when you consider such extensive efforts on one side (where there was serious public interest in the behaviour of people in and around government) and such reluctance to investigate on the other (where, while embarrassing, the 'crime' of writing anonymous blog posts was much the lesser justification for a hack), it does raise questions.

The biggest being: Why? Police have issued their apology and statement, but have refused interviews. But what they still need to answer is why the went so disproportionately hard and broke so many rules on this one case? Why were they dishonest with the court? Why did they lie to third parties about their investigations into Hager? Why?

The next question is who: Who made the decisions to deceive the court and the third parties? Who made the decision to conduct the raid in such a way that breached his rights to journalistic privilege? Who breached the Bill of Rights by their approaches to third parties?

The dark shadow hanging over all this is political. The police investigation was into a journalist who had made serious allegations against the sitting government of the day. Those are the times when police have to be at their scrupulous best, their most transparent and their most even-handed. Yet they were not.

It was in precisely this investigation that police chose to over-reach in such an unprecedented manner. They broke rules and deceived. At the very least the public needs clear assurances from Police bosses and the Police Ministers around that time - Anne Tolley and Michael Woodhouse - that the politics at play did not influence the investigation. Without honest and frank interviews addressing these questions, how can the public's trust in police not be effected. Police officials have not fully discharged their duty yet.

This comprehensive apology should not be dismissed lightly by them or us. It certainly shouldn't be snorted at by former Police Minister Judith Collins, with the wholly inappropriate demand that Hager apologise for his part in the affair.

It is another example of agencies of the state failing to respect and understand the role of the fourth estate in this country. The constant abuse of the Official Information Act by state agencies is another. Add in the frailty of the free press globally today and it is time for a complete overhaul of the public sector's understanding of what journalism means and does. That includes politicians themselves and their advisors.

The one beacon of hope in all of this is that at the end of the Dirty Politics saga (if this is indeed the end), the journalist Nicky Hager has an apology and a legal victory for free speech and the protection of sources. The muck-raker Cameron Slater was forced to admit his guilt in an attempt to procure a hack and received diversion. There is some small justice in that.