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What an attack on journalism feels like

Nicky Hager describes how police targeted his daughter's mobile number and even his TradeMe records of tadpole purchases in their hunt for the sources behind "Dirty Politics". He explains the chilling effect of the police raid and why it should never happen again.

I was in Auckland to give a university lecture about my new book Dirty Politics when the phone rang from my daughter. Our home was full of police. A ten-hour raid had begun to try to identify the Dirty Politics source. By that night all my work equipment had been seized (gone for 17 months), our personal lives had been raked through and gloom hung over a usually happy house.

Over the following three years, we gradually learned more. The police had got 10 months of my bank transactions without a warrant. They made up that they were investigating me for fraud. They said the same to Paypal to get my data there. They went after my airline travel data, phone and email, overseas mail, and even TradeMe records (secret tadpole purchases?) In total 35 police officers were involved in the case. This is more resources than are put into some murder investigations.

The worst part for me personally was knowing that my family and especially my daughter were suffering as a consequence of my work. In February this year, for instance, a new bundle of police documents were released containing a copy of a warrant (“production order”) we had not seen before.

As I read, I suddenly realised I recognised the mobile phone number being targeted. It was my daughter's phone number. When the police hadn't been able to find a mobile phone of mine to monitor, they went after her instead, seizing ten months of her texts and phone records: a totally pointless and wildly disproportionate intrusion on a young person's privacy compared to the minuscule likelihood of finding the information they were seeking.

The source knew that there could be interview notes from our meetings in the house and was very distressed. The person decided to cease all contact with me.

It was also having an effect on my work. At the time when the book Dirty Politics was first published I was having occasional meetings with the person who would become my main source for the following book Hit and Run. Early in our time of getting to know each other, the police search on my home occurred. The source knew that there could be interview notes from our meetings in the house and was very distressed. The person decided to cease all contact with me.

It took many months and much reassurance before we started to meet again. If this person had not agreed to resume contact, the book would never have been written, the current government inquiry would probably not be occurring and the Defence cover up might have continued undisturbed. This is what a “chilling effect” on confidential media sources means. It is entirely real and understandable for the individuals involved.

It's worth remembering why the book Dirty Politics, which was made possible by another confidential source, was important for New Zealand. The supposedly independent WhaleOil blog, run by Cameron Slater, son of a former National Party president, had become an industrial-scale smear machine. An Auckland PR firm, presumably paid by the tobacco and alcohol industries, paid Slater to publish blog posts relentlessly attacking prominent public health experts. Factions of the National Party paid Slater to smear other factions: MP Mark Mitchell, for instance, was a client, selected for the safe seat of Rodney after equally relentless attacks on the other National Party candidates (Chapter 5, Dirty Politics).

I knew I was taking a personal risk. They were well known for personal attacks and smears. They have hurt many people. I expected retaliation

Most controversial, the book revealed that prime minister John Key had a full-time dirty tricks person in his office researching and writing nasty attacks on opposing politicians, quietly sent through to Slater to publish as if they were his own. Slater was genuinely powerful at that time because the media, to which he fed many stories, knew he was friends with Key and justice minister Judith Collins. The book's subtitle was “How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand's political environment.” Does anyone think these aren't issues deserving sunlight?

'A boil that needed lancing'

When I decided to research and write about Slater and his associates, I knew I was taking a personal risk. They were well known for personal attacks and smears. They have hurt many people. I expected retaliation. But I knew what I was taking on and felt strongly that this boil needed lancing. I did not expect the most difficult and time consuming repercussions would come from the police.

First, something was driving the intensity and scale of the police actions, presumably something political. Making things worse, the police clearly had little sympathy for or understanding of the role of an investigative journalist.

The rest is up to the public. If we want to know what's going wrong at the hospital, what really happened in Afghanistan or who is behind orchestrated attacks and smears, we need to understand and protect the role of confidential journalist sources.

Journalists have special powers with which to play their role in society in the same way that police have special powers to play their role. News media seek and receive information from sources, leaks and whistle blowers, including in many cases people who are breaking undertakings to their employers or breaking the law to do so.

But society specifically protects journalists performing this role because of the public value of exposing and deterring unethical behaviour and wrongdoing, and generally providing the information that a democratic society needs to function. Journalists' sources are people like the doctors who tip off media about dangerous problems in a hospital, soldiers quietly admitting wrongdoing in Afghanistan, council workers who have off-the-record talks to journalists.

'If only they'd thought harder about the role of journalists'

I believe that if the police at national headquarters, and the South Auckland officers they assigned to the case, had thought harder about these issues, years of fruitless trouble (for me and them) would have been saved.

It ended finally last week with the police apology and the remarkable list of admissions of unlawful things they had done. They also paid damages, which I am regarding cheerfully as a NZ Police Writing Fellowship.

The reason my lawyers (who were outstanding) bothered with the long legal battle was primarily to make all this less likely to happen again – to me and others. The police can't have enjoyed the apology and admissions. They should be much more careful with media in future. The police racket of getting people's data from banks and other third parties without warrants is also greatly reduced.

The rest is up to the public. If we want to know what's going wrong at the hospital, what really happened in Afghanistan or who is behind orchestrated attacks and smears, we need to understand and protect the role of confidential journalist sources. We need to make sure they can safely pass on information to the public when those in power would rather they did not.

Lots of people do care about this. They spoke up in support of my case. Many helped fund it. I hope they are sharing in the pleasure and relief of seeing it work out well.

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