Who's to blame for the abuse on Andrea Vance?

We're not at the bottom of this story yet, but I can't help but wonder if those of us in the media need to have a good hard look at ourselves

The blur of revelations around Andrea Vance, the Henry inquiry's investigations into her movements and the government's whole attitude to information, privacy and spying can make it hard to know which are the most telling points in this saga and exactly when we should be surprised and appalled.

I have serious reservations about governments passing what amount to retrospective laws to justify past failings and intrusions into the lives of New Zealanders that aren't justified by genuine threats (even if there are New Zealanders who hav trained with Al Qaeda!). I don't like the use of fear for political purposes but I do like oversight. On the other hand I'm not sure how bothered I should be about the SIS being able to contract the GCSB to do some of its domestic work if the GCSB has the right kit and expertise.

Similarly I look at the email tabled by the Prime Minister yesterday to much bluster and outrage and can see how both sides can interpret it differently. Yes, "any contact between" the listed ministers and Vance opens the door to spying on the Fairfax journalist, but I can also understand how someone could write that sentence meaning just contact FROM ministers TO Vance. And the email reply the next day expliciting saying the info from Vance's phone records wasn't requested or read suggests the latter meaning.

Further more, I can't look at this debate and pretend that politicians and journalists haven't always been at odds, that politicians have often disrespected what journalists do (and vice versa) and that politicians haven't always been driven first and foremost by power. And, as I've written before, I'm not surprised that the certain looseness that defines Key's modus operandi is again creating problems for National.

But what does appall and (largely) surprise me is that all those historic tensions can turn into the abusive actions we've learnt about in recent days. It's one thing to call a journalist "a little creep" or a "knucklehead", quite another for the entire 'system' to be willing to look into a journalist's movements and phone records.

Andrea Vance has every right to be mad as hell about her treatment - and all New Zealanders should be mad along side her. As Matt Nippert tweeted the other day #Iamandreavance.

The "intrusive and outrageous" inquiry, as Vance calls it, initiated by John Key and conducted by David Henry clearly got out of control. It was an inquiry of limited importance into a report that was to be made public anyway, but boundaries were crossed in trying to find the leaker at all costs. Like Vance I'd be worried that the data was stored for so long even after an inquiry person had said they didn't want it. Like her I'd be dubious of assertions that it was all under wraps and under control. And most of all, I'd also be concerned about what this means for press freedoms. Can we trust politicians and the public service to understand the importance of those freedoms?

But as I say, contempt for the press and obfuscation is nothing new in politics. So the question I'm asking is what's changed? How has the rivalry and even contempt turned into this kind of intrusion and abuse of power?

Two reasons leap to mind. First, we live in a time when principle is little discussed. Issues are most often presented and debated in the light of how they impact on me and my family, not in a wider social or principled sense. For example, we debate the GCSB bill in the context that "if you've got nothing to hide then you've got nothing to fear". I suspect polling would show most New Zealanders see the issue from that viewpoint. It's too hard to think about the principles of privacy and the rights of others and more complicated civil liberties. We aren't as willing to engage as much in debate about what this says about our tolerance level as a country. Most people are just too busy and tired to think through those big hoary Thomas Paine-type arguments.

The other, related, reason is that journalists have slipped down the credibility ladder. Press freedoms aren't valued by non-journalists because journalism isn't as valued by them. If we're just purveyors of gossip and outrage, why do we need special privileges? Some might say we even get what we deserve; a bit of our own medicine.

The court of public opinion just doesn't have the same power these days, in part because of the kind of news we report, the way we present it, the fragmentation of the market and the shrinking newsrooms that can no longer do the sort of stories that earned public respect.

And when we do, the interest isn't what it was. 3rd Degree ran an important story last night about Teina Pora, in prison for 20 years for a crime he likely didn't commit. Not unreasonably it was argued this is the worst miscarriage of justice in New Zealand history. The police shrugged off the flaws exposed in this case, the concerns from their experts and peers, the leading questioning that they took to amount to a confession... Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess simply said it had gone to court twice, juries had convicted, end of story.

What about the evidence the juries didn't see? The flaws in the police work? Again, shrugged off. And Burgess can get away with that because not enough people care.

Three times as many New Zealanders chose to watch The Big Bang Theory over 3rd Degree. It's depressing, but it's also indicative of how and why some public servants and politicians have lost sight of some of the core principles of democracy and decent accountability.

The public doesn't have the same appetite for eternal vigilence that they used to. Modern lifestyles don't allow for it, other alternatives are more appealing and the media has in part given in and played along. So we must take our share of the blame.

So when Vance complains about weakening press freedoms, we as her colleagues must look at our own role in that and the way journalism has changed in the past generation.

Hopefully this might be a teaching moment, when we can stress again some of the reasons for the principles we as journalists are trying to uphold. The profession and the whole country could probably do with a reminder.