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. 

Comments (8)

by James Green on June 13, 2018
James Green

I think police culture is too insular. The diversity of thought and opinion seems low in the police force. This is just one example.

by Thomas Beagle on June 13, 2018
Thomas Beagle

Good article but you missed a question.... when. When will the responsible Police officers be charged with breaking the law? When will they lose their jobs?

We seem to have a real problem with holding people to account in New Zealand.

Those decisions to deceive and lie to get private data they weren't entitled to weren't made by "NZ Police" but by individuals working within the police force. And, by their actions, they've shown that they're exactly the sort of people who shouldn't be working in the police force.

by Lee Churchman on June 13, 2018
Lee Churchman

Well, there are other cases involving investigations that were embarrassing to the previous government that would make interesting comparisons, but the courts have made sure we can’t. 

The message is pretty clear: the deck is stacked. 

by Ross on June 14, 2018
Ross

Those decisions to deceive and lie to get private data they weren't entitled to weren't made by "NZ Police" but by individuals working within the police force. And, by their actions, they've shown that they're exactly the sort of people who shouldn't be working in the police force.

The decisions may have been made at a high level. There's an old saying: a fish rots from the head, and I suspect that also applies to dysfunctional organisations. Who's to say political pressure wasn't brought to bear upon the Police Commissioner, pressure that was filtered down to those tasked with investigating Hager?

by Dennis Frank on June 14, 2018
Dennis Frank

Thomas is right, but his point ought to be made more precisely.  The evasion of accountability in our corporations and public service has been entrenched in Aotearoa by both the political left and right during the past century.  Our politicians ensured that the person who changed the computer program directing the airliner to fly into Mount Erebus was not held accountable - nor whoever in management of the airline authorised that change.  They ensured that the public servant who authorised the Cave Creek platform construction with nails instead of bolts was likewise not held accountable for the consequent deaths.

Our media proved insufficiently competent to even ask the right question:  why are these people allowed to kill lots of our citizens and get away with it?

When police go rogue, we expect the police hierarchy to impose accountability.  When the command structure fails to do so, we expect our politicians to demand that the police minister direct his department to rectify their error.  When our politicians also fail to act appropriately, we lose faith in our entire governance system.  It's happening, folks, as we watch.  Younger generations become alienated from the political process as a natural result.  No point in voting, eh?

This dire outcome is easily avoided: the person in the police hierarchy who officially authorised their illegal raid on Hager ought to be made to publicly apologise for their mistake.  Any consequent demotion is up to the commissioner.  We need to see accountability actually happen.  Instead, we got the usual sham apology in which the identity of the wrong-doer was once again covered up.  Pathetic.  Will the current police minister ensure that the wrong-doer is held accountable?  He's a leftist, so I bet he fails the test.

by Anne on June 14, 2018
Anne

Thank-you Thomas Beagle and Dennis Frank for hitting the nail firmly on the head. 

As a former public servant who was on duty on the afternoon/evening of the Erebus disaster - and who was subsequently questioned about the role I played in the immediate aftermath - I can attest to the accuracy of Frank's statement. It  was a truly disgraceful episode in NZ history. I can also attest to the fact that the cover-up began within 24 hrs of the tragic event occurring, when those of us who found ourselves involved were advised... to be careful what we said.

I can't speak for the entire "century" but certainly in the time I was a part of two separate government agencies (60s,70s, 80s and 90s) there was a hierarchal culture where those perceived to be at or near the bottom of the heap were invariably scapegoated by middle management whenever anything went wrong. If an employee dared to poke their head above the parapet and protest then it was the modern day equivalent of "off with your head" for them. In other words, they were hounded out of their jobs.

I appreciate this situation may well have also existed in the private sector but I suspect not to the same extent. The lack of accountability over the decades is an indictment on successive governments who were happy to let the cover-ups and the subsequent injustices prevail without carrying out any meaningful investigations. 

 

 

by Ross on June 15, 2018
Ross

Anne/Dennis,

Cover ups and a lack of accountability are not peculiar to NZ.

The Hillsborough tragedy where 96 soccer fans died is a good example. Various inquiries said the deaths were accidental, though blame was usually apportioned to the fans. Police looked into the criminal past of the deceased knowing full well that they could be blamed and couldn't defend themselves. Police had their own statements altered, to remove any hint of culpabilitity on their part. The changes were made in many cases I think without the individual officer's knowledge. Yes, some police officers have since been charged but there is no guarantee they will stand trial let alone be convicted. Their trials are due some 30 years after the tragedy.

by Dennis Frank on June 15, 2018
Dennis Frank

Yes, Anne, our public service seems designed to ensure that ethical decision-making is penalised and outcomes that deliver natural justice are prevented.  The solution would be to allow public servants the right of free speech, so they can inform the public when someone in the hierarchy attempts a cover-up.  I agree with Ross re Britain - that's where our system was imported from.

We do have whistle-blower legislation nowadays but no cops blew the whistle on the Hager raid so it may be poorly designed.  Someone should ask the Police Association if cops feel it protects them sufficiently.  If a cop hears that someone in police management is planning an illegal raid, and the law requires them to report that to management internally before blowing the whistle to the public, you can see why they'd be paranoid about persecution.

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/88543013/how-whistleblowing-in-new-zeal...

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