Political Roundup: Nicky Hager strikes a win for media freedom and democracy

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Do New Zealand state spies unlawfully surveil the government’s political critics? Do they spy on critical journalists? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And yesterday the government domestic security agency was forced to apologise for one instance when they were caught spying on investigative journalist Nicky Hager.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) has paid Hager $66,400 in compensation and legal fees for breaching his privacy, and made an extraordinary apology to him. In return, Hager has agreed not to take the Government to court.

The payment and apology were for unlawfully obtaining two months of Hager’s phone records in an attempt to uncover the sources Hager used in writing his 2011 book Other People’s Wars. The publication was about New Zealand’s involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book focused on the role of New Zealand military and intelligence activity that caused the deaths of civilians in Operation Burnham, and was based on information obtained from confidential sources.

Hager’s win is not just a victory for him personally, but more generally for freedom of the press and the ongoing vigilance against state authoritarianism.

Dirty politics from security services?

It was the NZ Defence Force that sought to discover who had provided Hager with the information for his book. They apparently suspected a particular Defence Force officer, but failed to find any evidence in their search of the employee’s home and mobile phone records. So they then requested that the SIS obtain Hager’s personal phone records on the basis of the journalist being involved in “espionage”.

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The SIS obtained Hager’s phone records, but the information proved useless in helping the defence forces find his source. Hager suspected that he was under surveillance, and when he officially requested information about this from SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge she refused to confirm or deny anything.

Hager took the issue to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which oversees the SIS as well as the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). The SIS was forced to confirm the spying against Hager, but Kitteridge denied any wrongdoing, argued the surveillance was justified on the basis of Hager being involved in potential “espionage” and because he was prejudicing New Zealand’s national security.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security ruled in Hager’s favour. Three years later the SIS has finally agreed to compensation and a proper apology.

The Extraordinary apology from the spies

Yesterday the SIS issued a statement that is worth quoting at length: “Investigative journalists such as Mr Hager play an important role in society, including to provide an additional check on executive functions and powers. The role of Mr Hager is considerably more difficult given his subject matter of expertise and the difficulties of obtaining information which is protected by various and numerous confidentiality mechanisms. NZSIS recognises that its actions in 2012 could have resulted in a chilling effect on such important work. Accordingly, NZSIS apologises unreservedly for breaching Mr Hager’s rights”.

In addition to the apology, the SIS said, “We recognise the important role that journalists play in a free, open and democratic society – the very society the New Zealand intelligence agencies exist to uphold.”

One of Hager’s lawyers, Steven Price, responded to say that “it is nice to see this recognition by the NZSIS of the importance of journalism to our democracy… Journalists need to be able to convey to the public important information from well-placed sources. That process should not be undermined by intelligence officials trying to unlawfully ferret out those sources.”

There is a need to have investigative journalism, and the media in general, as a properly functioning mechanism to hold the powerful to account, including the defence forces. This case shows the SIS have clearly undermined that mechanism.

Hager’s other lawyer, Felix Geiringer rightly said the decision was an “important result for journalism”. He argued that “Our intelligence services are given substantial powers for use to protect New Zealand from harm… Those powers cannot be used to go after a journalist’s sources just because the government does not like what that journalist is saying.”

It should go without saying that journalists depend on being able to assure their sources that they will remain confidential. And the state shouldn’t be allowed to interfere in this by using its immense powers of subterfuge.

Will the state spies reform themselves?

What happened to Hager was dangerous for democracy, and should never have happened. But it’s not clear that it won’t happen again.

The SIS is claiming that it has reformed itself and is now more careful with following the law and will be more transparent. But there are already signs that they are failing to live up to this.

The spy agency claims to have established a new policy for how they deal with the work of journalists. But Hager’s lawyers point out that the SIS is refusing to release that policy. Geiringer says: “The NZSIS needs a clear policy stating when the use of its powers against a journalist would be justified. There also needs to be a rule that only someone sufficiently senior in the organisation can make such a decision. And there is no basis for keeping such a policy secret.”

Hager argues: “The NZSIS needs a clear policy stating when the use of its powers against a journalist would be justified.”

Hager’s lawyers argue that their negotiations with the SIS suggest “that nothing had really changed in the internal culture of the NZSIS”.

They also point out that things might be about to get worse. Geiringer said yesterday that “there is a Bill before Parliament which would prevent our courts from reviewing decisions of intelligence services to withhold documents on national security grounds.” This is a problem, because “External oversight is essential in a democracy”.

Rottenness in the state?

This isn’t the first time Hager has received apologies and compensation from the state. He also got a “substantial” settlement from the Police due to their unlawful raid of his Wellington home after the publication of his book Dirty Politics.

Commenting on the latest state settlement, the chair of the Civil Liberties Council, Thomas Beagle tweeted yesterday, “So now both the Police and SIS have had to apologise to Nicky Hager for misuse of their powers against him. There is something very rotten here.”

Others have commented on the lack of personal accountability from those in the Defence Forces and SIS. The fact that SIS head Rebecca Kitteridge has since received a promotion to become deputy head of the Public Service Commission will also rankle.

There is a concern that some agencies of the state are becoming too politicised. And when these institutions are vested with such strong power, then this can be open to abuse that diminishes democracy. With publicity about the SIS’s abuse of the law, hopefully there will be a greater awareness of the need for more scrutiny of these institutions and this latest incident will serve to create a chilling effect on their propensity to over-reach when dealing with intimidation of the media.

Unfortunately, politicians have so far been entirely silent on the Hager controversy. But there is a need for politicians of all persuasions to come out in condemnation of what has occurred. Regardless of what anyone might think of Hager’s work, reasonable people should be able to see that there is something rotten about the way that the police and the spies have acted in these cases against a journalist. We should all be uncomfortable that someone who is seeking to expose corruption and misuse of authority by the powerful gets treated in this way.

The good news, of course, is that the payout from the SIS will now fund Hager to continue producing his important public interest journalism.

Further reading on SIS unlawful activity and national security

Thomas Manch (Stuff): Nicky Hager receives $66,000 settlement from Security Intelligence Service over phone record spying
RNZ: NZSIS agrees to pay Nicky Hager $66,400 over phone records privacy breach
1News: Journalist Nicky Hager to get $66k settlement from spy agency
BusinessDesk: Nicky Hager gets $66,000 for spy agency’s unlawful activity
No Right Turn: The SIS: spying on the government’s political critics
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Latest SIS case against Hager a reminder to the woke the secret police are not your friend
Thomas Manch (Stuff): New Zealand’s terror threat level drops from ‘medium’ to ‘low’
Kurt Bayer (Herald): New Zealand’s national terror threat level drops for first time since 2019

Other items of interest and importance today

THREE WATERS
Peter Dunne: When sorry seems to be the hardest word
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): What’s at stake and what happens next in Three Waters constitutional spat (paywalled)
Oliver Hartwich (Herald): Three Waters bill, Covid fund allocation may be legal but not in spirit of democracy
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Full steam ahead on Three Waters reforms: bill before Christmas (paywalled)
Thomas Cranmer: Questions remain over the appointment of Tuku Morgan

POLITICAL FINANCE, DONATIONS TRIALS
Toby Morris (Spinoff): It’s time we closed the political donation backdoor
George Block (Herald): National and Labour political donations trial: Chinese-NZ businessman, brothers sentenced to community work
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Businessmen given community detention for unlawful donations to National Party
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): National the winner as donations trio sentenced
Jonty Dine (RNZ): Three businessmen guilty of political donations deception avoid prison
Maria Slade (NBR): Political donations trio sentenced to community service (paywalled)

PARLIAMENT, VOTING AGE
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): National MPs campaigning for votes with Kiwis in Australia on parliamentary-funded travel
Sam Sachdeva (Newsoom): ‘Not achieved’: Civil society grades Hipkins on open government work
Henry Cooke: A defence of the gotcha question
Mike Hosking (Herald): Is the Government no longer trying? (paywalled)
Michael Neilson and Chris Knox (Herald): Poll shows what Kiwis think about lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 (paywalled)
Tom Hunt (Stuff): 16-year-olds will vote in 2025 local body elections, Wellington councillor and mayor reckon
Thomas Brocherie (Stuff): Even as a 14-year-old, it’s easy to tell my generation is worried
The Standard: What Is Labour’s Purpose This Term?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS; FINNISH PM MEETS ARDERN
Bridie Witton (Stuff): The not-so-subtle sexism that followed Finland’s Sanna Marin from Helsinki to Auckland
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): Why are some media organisations ok with such unashamed, casual sexism?
Anna Rawhiti-Connell (Spinoff): Ten things you can say about Finland’s prime minister that don’t use the word ‘party’
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Finnish PM Sanna Marin wants to go ‘next level’ with New Zealand, as she rallies against autocrats
RNZ: Jacinda Ardern and Finland PM Sanna Marin hold media briefing
1News: Finland PM Marin meets Ardern – ‘Our countries are aligned’
Eva Corlett (Guardian): Jacinda Ardern and Sanna Marin dismiss suggestion their age and gender was reason for meeting
1News: Ardern pushes back at ‘similar age’ question in Finland PM conference
Jamie Ensor and Isobel Ewing (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern hits back at suggestion she met with Finnish leader Sanna Marin due to similar age
Don Rowe (Spinoff): A brief look at the harm Australia’s 501 policy has caused
Sarah Robson (RNZ): When New Zealanders get into trouble overseas

ECONOMY, COST OF LIVING
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): Reserve Bank just landed final blow to Labour’s election hopes
Gordon Campbell: On the gaslighting about inflation
Daniel Smith (Stuff): ‘We made our children poorer’: How a previous generation became rich and left their kids to foot the bill
Nona Pelletier (RNZ): Reserve Bank seeks public feedback as part of monetary policy review
Jenny Ruth (BusinessDesk): RBNZ wants housing removed from its remit (paywalled)
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): The hidden inflation trap of an ageing population
Chlöe Swarbrick (Herald): Let’s create a fairer fiscal system for all New Zealanders
David Hargreaves (Interest): ANZ chief economist says RBNZ ‘deserves kudos for not shirking their responsibilities’
Rob Stock (Stuff): Missed payments on home loans rise as household costs increase, Centrix says
Cameron Smith (Herald): Number of Kiwis missing personal and home loan repayments increasing (paywalled)
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Consumer loan arrears on the rise
RNZ: Demand for personal and vehicle loans increasing sharply – Centrix
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): New survey shows parents are cutting back spending, under considerable strain due to skyrocketing cost of living

EMPLOYMENT, BUSINESS
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Fair Pay Agreements: Bargaining process begins after passing of controversial legislation
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Fair Pay Agreements: Hospitality workers to make first application to start negotiations (paywalled)
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Fair Pay Agreements: Bargaining process begins after passing of controversial legislation
Isaac Davison (Herald): Stuff strike: Reporters to walk off job, picket offices today
RNZ: National Party holds ground on raising superannuation age to 67
Trent Doyle (Newshub): Unionised Stuff journalists protest nationwide against latest pay offer
RNZ: Business confidence continues to drop – ANZ survey
David Hargreaves (Interest): ANZ: ‘The strain is showing for Kiwi businesses’
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Cost increases remain ‘relentless’ for New Zealand businesses, employment intentions negative for first time since 2020 – ANZ
Nicholas Pointon (NBR): Business sentiment plunges to ‘dire levels’ – ANZ (paywalled)
Fiona Rotherham (NBR): Why Sir John Key is joining the board of Kiwi company Oritain (paywalled)
Herald: Young New Zealanders want Māori language, tikanga and Te Tiriti principles honoured at work
RNZ: Foodstuffs stores to trial new facial recognition cameras
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Goodbye, home phone line: Disputes scheme prepares for more complaints about copper withdrawal

PRIMARY INDUSTRIES
Brent Edwards (NBR): Government’s olive branch to farmers over sequestration
Richard Harman: Government makes concessions to farmers on methane (paywalled)
Keith Woodford (Interest): Moving forward on methane levies
Rebecca Howard (BusinesDesk): Government backs down on sequestration for emissions trading scheme (paywalled)
 Fieldays agenda (paywalled)
Karen Rutherford (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern heckled at Fieldays as Government unveils projects to cut emissions
Gerhard Uys (Stuff): Government will bring native forests into the emissions trading scheme
Riley Kennedy (BusinessDesk): Govt reveals plan to grow forestry (paywalled)
Guy Trafford (Interest): The source of the confusion
Tina Morrison (Stuff): Fonterra and farmers risk not being able to get debt funding from banks if they don’t meet sustainability expectations
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Bumper export earnings year predicted for primary industry against backdrop of inflation
Brent Edwards (NBR): Farmers might be pessimistic but export revenue still rising (paywalled)
RNZ: US court orders ban on New Zealand exports of several fish species
Alexa Cook (Newshub): New Zealand seafood industry says US import ban on fish caught in Māui dolphin habitat not needed

HOUSING
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Falling house prices all bad news for Labour, Fitch says
RNZ: Falling house prices: Wellington leads with 15.9 percent drop in November – CoreLogic
Miriam Bell (Stuff): By the numbers: Here’s what the latest update tells us about NZ’s housing market downturn
Greg Ninness (Interest): Average value of NZ homes down $84,369 from March peak
Newshub: Property prices continue downward slide, Porirua values plunge 4.7 percent in a month
Anne Gibson (Herald): Six reasons why house prices could continue falling: ANZ revises 18% drop to 22%
Brent Melville (BusinessDesk): Home buyers paddle, as mortgage rates hit high water mark (paywalled)
Jonathan Killick (Stuff): No more nimbys? What new housing bill might mean for developers
BusinessDesk: Housing consents down 12%, as sector faces higher build costs (paywalled)
Greg Ninness (Interest): Big drop in the number of new homes consented in October
Benn Bathgate (Stuff): Businesses’ call for ‘immediate resolution’ to Rotorua’s MSD motels issue
Robin Martin (RNZ): Homeowners turn to motorhomes to avoid unruly Kāinga Ora tenants

HEALTH
Adam Burns (RNZ): Parents refusing vaccinated donor blood for baby should consider decisions carefully – Little
William Hewett (Newshub): Christopher Luxon won’t commit to Māori health outcome target
RNZ: Primary mental health care programme misses target by thousands
Hannah Martin (Stuff): Health system ‘desperately’ needing doctors won’t let new grads start til 2023 – union
Chris Lynch: “The environment we work in is killing us” ED nurse writes powerful letter to Andrew Little
Tom Taylor (RNZ): Urgent care clinics under strain
Herald Editorial: GP nurses pay parity puzzling (paywalled)
1News: Amount low-income Kiwis can claim for dental treatment increases
Helen Harvey (Taranaki Daily News): Petition to drop age of bowel cancer screening delivered to Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere at Parliament
Greg Hurrell (BusinessDesk): Objectors to supermarket pharmacies ‘disgruntled competitors’, high court told
Georgina Campbell (Herald): More women come forward with ‘nightmare’ birth experiences

COVID-19
Brent Edwards (NBR): Health response to pandemic no longer a political issue (paywalled)
Jamie Morton (Herald): Covid 19: Will NZ’s wave peak before summer holidays?
RNZ: Covid-19: End-of-year function season likely to be risky with cases on the rise

LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Herald: Wellington council spending millions on half-empty office space (paywalled)
Stephen Forbes (Local Democracy Reporting): Auckland Council’s cost-saving committee cancels first meeting as it has nothing to discuss
Rachael Kelly (Stuff): Gore council to meet behind closed doors on Thursday to discuss mayor’s $300k governance structure
RNZ: Newly elected Kaipara mayor Craig Jepson shuts down councillor’s karakia request

CRIME, POLICE, JUSTICE
1News: Reinstating three strikes law won’t curb offending – law expert
Liz McDonald and Olivia Caldwell (Press): Gang fight at Christchurch Town Hall cited as businesses call for action on crime
RNZ: Canterbury businesses ‘menaced’ by smash and grabs and antisocial behaviour
Emma Hatton (Newsroom): Tactical response model puts pressure on police staffing
Andrew Lensen and Marcin Betkier (The Conversation): We built an algorithm that predicts the length of court sentences – could AI play a role in the justice system?
Ashley Jones (Spinoff): My marriage is finally over. My fight against New Zealand’s archaic divorce law goes on

ENERGY
Craig Ashworth (Local Democracy Reporting): Hapū and Greenpeace back to court for stricter hydrogen rules
Ian Llewellyn (BusinessDesk): Exporting hydrogen will force policy and economic decisions

TRANSPORT
Richard Harman (Politik): Brown backs heavy rail (paywalled)
Nikki Mandow (Newsroom): Auckland’s free EV chargers won’t be free much longer

EDUCATION
Kristie Boland (Stuff): Sex and relationships education in NZ schools not good enough, new research shows
Niva Chittock (RNZ): Little priority given to sex education in schools, teachers say

OTHER
Guyon Espiner (RNZ): Wasted
Guyon Espiner (RNZ): How a US President set NZ’s drug laws
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): Does cronyism exist in our public service?
Dana Johannsen (Stuff): Public Services Commission opposes Sport NZ’s involvement with sport integrity agency
Nona Pelletier (RNZ): Significant migration to New Zealand expected in early 2023 – Kiwibank
Ankur Sabharwal (Stuff): The $57 million IT disaster at Immigration NZ
Morgan Godfery (Stuff): In Whakatāne, another Ihumātao is in the making
Melanie Carroll (Stuff): More migrants good for businesses but a headache for Reserve Bank: Kiwibank
Luke Kirkness (Rotorua Daily Post): Rainwater tanks should be mandatory on all new builds in New Zealand (paywalled)
RNZ: Treaty settlement agreement will address housing, energy issues on Chatham Islands, iwi says
Tom Kitchin (RNZ): Questions remain over mysterious Te Urewera hut fire
RNZ: Means-testing NZ Super payments one way to address scheme’s rising cost

4 COMMENTS

  1. “Unfortunately, politicians have so far been entirely silent on the Hager controversy.”

    Perhaps true if we only consider this particular “controversy” involving Hager.
    On more than one occasion John Key has basely attacked Hager and others for their investigative work on the Defence Forces, the National Party covert political operations and other topics.

  2. 66K is not much for what our secret service lot did, and didn’t this happen under Johns keys watch, our privacy being breached and the SAS doing revenge missions and tarnishing our reputation. Someone needs to be held accountable Kitterage should have got the boot.

  3. Shitty, shitty till this day. The lack of comments for our fifth estate in one person. Even the money is crap.

    The lad is so intense into research into dull matters the silly superficial communication of the modern internet age swept by him. Hence his validity.

  4. Nicky H has integrity and stamina and not a little prescience. Congrats Nicky, 2011 to 2022. Keeping calm and carrying on must be your watchword. Nil desperandum carburundum illegitami.

Comments are closed.