Winston Peters has targeted two journalists in his legal action over the leak of his super-sized superannuation, alarming media freedom advocates.
Last Wednesday, the surprising news broke that Winston Peters might go to North Korea as part of an international effort to ease tensions with the rogue nuclear state.
If that does comes to pass, one thing he won’t have to worry about is pesky questions from local media. North Korea is last place out of 180 nations in the most recent World Press Freedom Index. It is coloured jet black on the Reporters Without Borders' world press freedom map.
By contrast New Zealand is one of the cream-coloured countries, like Norway, Finland and Denmark.
Incursions into media freedom here did not make many headlines when Reporters Without Borders' compiled its latest index last year. (The most recent action of New Zealand’s Media Freedom Committee Mediawatch could find was an objection to the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Bill prohibiting the recording of any rocket or spacecraft that crashes here. Hardly a huge threat to our democratic way of life, but good to know the body representing the mutual interests of NZ media was on the case for our right to know.)
But New Zealand plunged eight places to number 13 when the World Media Freedom Index for 2017 came out earlier this year. Maybe Reporters without Borders knew it was an election year, when the heat always comes down on the media from a political source at some point.
In 2011, John Key called the cops on the media over the so-called Teapot Tape.
In 2014, there was a now-notorious police raid on the house of Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager. The raid has since been ruled illegal and unjustified - not to mention totally ineffective.
In 2017, the election seemed to come and go without the media being investigated by police or journalists appearing in court.
But while deputy PM Winston Peters was overseas this week, his lawyer Brian Henry was in court pushing forward Mr Peters’ bid to sue those he thinks might responsible for leaking details of his super-sized superannuation to the media during the election campaign.
In August, after inquiries by the media, Mr Peters revealed he had been overpaid for a number of years because he was on a single person's rate while living with his partner. Mr Peters had paid the money back in July, and said neither he nor the Ministry of Social Development could figure out how the mistake was originally made.
Winston Peters has a track record for taking action over media coverage he objects to.
After a TVNZ investigation in 2004 of irregularities in the scampi fishing industry he launched a defamation action which ran for nearly seven years and ended with an out-of-court settlement.
Earlier this year, Winston Peters also sued AM Show presenter Mark Richardson for defamation. Mark Richardson said Mr Peters was a “political predator” seeking out injuries like a “political white blood cell”, or pus.
Winston Peters legal action over the superannuation leak has zeroed in on nine people, including two journalists - Tim Murphy of newsroom.co.nz and Lloyd Burr of Newshub - who got tipped off about the story which Brian Henry described in court as "a political set up from woah to go".
Brian Henry also said journalists were “charading" as reporters - a challenge to the protection they enjoy from section 68 of Evidence Act which allows them to “withhold information that might disclose the identity of an informant”.
In other words, Mr Henry alleges reporters were acting politically rather than as journalists by pursuing leaks of Winston Peters’ superannuation over-payment.Then there’s the long list of what Mr Henry wants the two journalists to cough up: draft notes, meeting notes, emails over a ten week period - a request described as "preposterous" by Tim Murphy on RNZ.
The media seem united in the view that Mr Peters shouldn't be casting the net so widely in this fishing expedition.
"It’s an ogreish and futile act for any politician, as Peters has done, to demand that journalists disclose sources,” said the Listener.
“It is disturbing that Peters seeks to have journalists reveal their sources through court discovery procedures. His attitude to news media going about their job leaves a lot to be desired and may come to pose a threat to press freedom” said the New Zealand Herald.
Out of order?
Mr Peters is legally entitled to ask for that stuff in order to work out who he really wants to sue for what he regards as a serious breach of his privacy.
The court may well say in the end that there’s no need for the journalists to turn over all that information, either because the superannuation disclosure was not "highly offensive" as the Privacy Act stipulates, or because the disclosure is deemed to be in the public interest.
If the case returns to court next year, they’ll have to argue that they do deserve the protections offered under section 68 of the Evidence Act.
The fundamental, mutual interests of New Zealand's news media are the business of the New Zealand Media Freedom Committee, until recently chaired by Fairfax media’s chief editor in the South Island Joanna Norris.
However, she left The Press in Christchurch two months ago to become the chief executive of Christchurch NZ, the agency that promotes Christchurch to the world.
The Media Freedom Committee currently has no leader, though Mediawatch understands nominations are currently under consideration for a new one to get the sole body dedicated to defending the freedom and independence of our nation’s new media back on track.
Hopefully that will happen and before Mr Peters legal push returns to the courtroom next year – or before Reporters without Borders starts drawing up its World Press Freedom index for 2018.