Politics

Who leaked? Journalists’ views differ

The court case over Winston Peters' superannuation leak has focused largely on the MP's errors and omissions in applying for the pension, but yesterday also touched on how the overpayment came to public notice.

So, whodunnit?

Winston Peters' court action seeking $450,000 in damages from five defendants over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment entered a key phase yesterday.

The High Court at Auckland finally heard evidence of what might have motivated a whistleblower to leak the embarrassing news of the New Zealand First leader's seven years of undeserved gains.

Peters' lawyer Brian Henry had compelled via court subpoenas two prominent journalists, NewstalkZB political editor Barry Soper and Newsroom's investigations editor Melanie Reid, to give evidence on how they came to learn of the $18,000 overpayment.

Soper blamed the National Party but Reid said her anonymous informant had imparted unhappiness at the fate of former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei over welfare payments when Peters' overpayment had been quietly tidied away.

Soper, a longtime associate of Peters in the press gallery, went first, claiming he had been told "in strictest confidence" ahead of the public revelations that there had been a Peters overpayment but he had been unable to verify the information.

Soper declined to say who had told him of the Peters issue but he believed the leak had come from the National Party, which had wanted to wipe out Peters' New Zealand First Party at the 2017 election a month later. "I think I'm on record saying where I believe the leak came from."

He said "clearly the information being made public was done deliberately to damage [Peters'] election prospects" and was consistent with a statement by former National Party leader Bill English made a month later than voters should "cut out the middle man."

Cross-examined by Bruce Gray QC, for former National ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, who Peters is suing with government agencies and officials, Soper could not recall a range of instructions from Brian Henry about what he should and should not bring up in his evidence.

For example, Gray said a 'will say' brief of what Soper would address at court had been provided by Henry to himself and the Crown lawyer and appeared to rule out any reference to the pre-2017-election downfall of Turei. Soper said: "I cannot recall about Metiria Turei. I cannot recall ever having received that sort of instruction."

In another instance, Soper was asked if he had been instructed ahead of his evidence to "ignore information after the press statement" issued by Peters in August 2017 to get ahead of any bad publicity.

"I'm sorry I do not recall," the veteran of 39 years in the press gallery said.

Gray asked if Soper "began with a presumption of a political motive?"

"Of course," Soper replied.

When Gray asked about Soper's source, the journalist said the information was brought to his attention in the strictest confidence, "which is how we operate and how I have done for many years. That's the way it remains".

Gray said Soper couldn't suggest the information was correct, then decline to allow that to be tested in court. "This is a matter on which you cannot have half a drink."

Soper: "You just have to take my word for it under oath."

Gray: "Well I don't actually. Either I get to test it or I don't."

The lawyer reminded Soper he had gone on record the day after the overpayment revelation to say "I do not think it is politically damaging at all" and, later, that it would backfire on National. That seemed to bring into question whether that party would have leaked the information, as Soper claimed..

Asked if supporters of Turei, rather than of National, could have been motivated to leak the information, Soper said "Maybe" but stuck to his view that "primarily the people who wanted to take NZ First out probably had more motivation than the Greens or others".

After his evidence Soper sat at the rear of the court with Winston Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.

Melanie Reid also appeared, but Henry had failed to serve the subpoena papers on her so when her name was called she declined to enter the courtroom to take the witness stand. Justice Geoffrey Venning invited her in and assured her he would record that her evidence had been given under the direction of the court.

"That's important to me professionally," Reid said.

Henry asked if she had received an anonymous call about Peters' overpayment, which Reid confirmed. Asked to explain what the caller had told her, Reid said to Justice Venning: "Do I have to?" The judge said she would not have to talk about the source but should summarise what she was told.

"There had been a substantial overpayment over a certain period of time and it was over whether he was single or whether he was in a relationship with someone."

Asked by Henry if the caller had commented on having spoken to other media, Reid said the person said they had also spoken to TVNZ and Newshub.

Cross-examined by Gray on whether the caller expressed any concerns or reasons for passing on the information, Reid said: "I was left with a concern that there was an issue.... there was a concern that it seemed unfair that a Green MP had stood down over [welfare] payments."

She confirmed the name raised had been Metiria Turei.

A third journalist, Newhub's political reporter Jenna Lynch, is due to appear in court Wednesday morning under subpoena to answer questions on taking an anonymous call about the Peters' overpayment.

Two officials who worked in 2017 in the office of then-National's Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, and whose names are suppressed, also appeared yesterday. One said Tolley had been told of the Peters overpayment by the chief executive of her department and had then, in turn, confidentially briefed him. He said he then told two other senior officials in the ministerial office, one who was an adviser and one in case the matter came to public attention and a response was required.

The second official, who agreed with Henry that she had formerly worked at Parliament for two National MPs, said the Peters' information was "operational and private information" and she did not consider it something that should get into the media. When the news eventually broke, Tolley's office told media it was inappropriate for her to comment and referred queries to the ministry.

As well as Tolley and Bennett, Peters is suing the Attorney-General (on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development), its former chief executive Brendan Boyle, and the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes for breaching his privacy and acting in bad faith in advising the two ministers.

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