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When is a journalist not a journalist? John Edwards
22 December 2015

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Last week’s decision of Clifford J in the Wellington High Court found that in the context of the Evidence Act, Nicky Hager was a journalist in relation to the publication of Dirty Politics, and was therefore entitled to assert privilege under s.68 of the Evidence Act 2006. 

The High Court decision to classify Hager as a journalist echoes my office’s decision to do the same, in a complaint made against him by blogger Cameron Slater. This is important because the Privacy Act only applies to agencies – and the definition of “agency” excludes “ in relation to its news activities, any news medium.”  Journalists working in their capacity in the news media do not come under my office’s remit. 

However, if we accorded Hager the news media protection, why did we flip-flop in another case and deny it to journalist John Roughan?

We don’t usually make public comment on cases that we have investigated. But apparent inconsistencies in approach have been picked up by parties and questioned. Those questions are legitimate, and important, so I’m happy to try and explain, by discussing elements of the complaints to our office that have been placed into the public domain by the parties.

There are three other relevant cases, all with familiar parties:

Dotcom v Attorney-General

The Crown (being sued by Kim Dotcom) asked the Court to force Kim Dotcom to produce documents held by a journalist (David Fisher), who he'd fully co-operated with when Mr Fisher wrote the biography The Secret Life of Kim Dotcom. This is a process called discovery. Usually, one party can ask the other party to give up all relevant information that is within their control. If a third party has information relevant to the proceedings, there is a special process by which they can be compelled to produce information for the proceedings as well. This is called “third party discovery”.

The Crown argued that because Kim Dotcom had a right under the Privacy Act to access personal information held by an agency, any such information was within his control, and therefore he should exercise his right to procure and produce it.

David Fisher was, they said, an agency under the Privacy Act, and Kim Dotcom could get all the information held by him. The Court considered whether David Fisher was an agency, given he was a journalist, working for a major NZ daily newspaper, who had regularly written news articles about Kim Dotcom. 

Then Chief High Court Judge, Justice Winkelmann concluded that in David Fisher’s capacity as an author of a book, he was not “news media” as the definition refers to “articles”, not “books”. The result seemed to be that Mr Fisher would not be subject to the Privacy Act for an article published in the New Zealand Herald, but if a collection of such articles were published as a book, he would be.

Cameron Slater v Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager received a hard drive from an unnamed source with a significant amount of personal correspondence to and from blogger Cameron Slater. He then used that information as source material for his 2014 book Dirty Politics.

Mr Slater made a complaint to my office that the means by which Mr Hager obtained his private communications, and then subsequently published them, breached his privacy

The matter the High Court was addressing in Dotcom v Attorney-General was based on an individual’s right of access (that is, information privacy principle 6). The question we faced in the Slater v Hager complaint was about the means by which an investigative journalist collected and disseminated information (that is information privacy principles 1-4, and 11), so there were differences in the basic facts of the case.

We, and others found the High Court decision in Dotcom troublesome from a number of perspectives, not the least being that it effectively puts my office in the position of having to form a view on what information parties are entitled to have access to for court proceedings, but I have no power to order the production of the information. If the Privacy Act is to be the means for providing third party discovery there will be significant delays in cases before the courts as parties come through my office, and then on to the Human Rights Review Tribunal before going back to the court hearing their dispute.

When lawyers find a precedent case inconvenient, they seek to “distinguish” it from the facts of other cases it might otherwise apply to.

In determining whether Mr Hager was ‘news media’ for the purposes of the publication of a book, my senior investigating officer decided the facts of the complaint were quite different from those in the Dotcom case. He was obliged to take into account s.14 of the Privacy Act which requires that in performing functions under the Act, we have to have due regard for the protection of important human rights and social interests that compete with privacy. 

And he had to think about s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA)  which provides “Wherever an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning“. 

Section 14 of the NZBORA provides for “freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. 

And so we made the decision that the writing and publication of Dirty Politics was the collection and dissemination of news, by a journalist, and that as such we had no jurisdiction to consider a complaint that its publication or research that lead to it, was a breach of the Privacy Act. 

Roughan v Prime Minister John Key

So if Nicky Hager is a journalist when he writes a book, why isn’t John Roughan when he does? 

Mr Roughan wrote a book about Prime Minister John Key.  Lawyers for Bradley Ambrose, the cameraman suing Mr Key for defamation as a result of the “teapot tapes” events asked the Prime Minister for discovery, including material held by his biographer John Roughan. They were asking him to exercise his right under the Privacy Act to access personal information about him, so it could be produced to the Court. Lawyers for the Prime Minister obliged and made the request of Mr Roughan, who refused on the basis that he was a journalist. 

Here, we had a case that was “on all fours” with the earlier decision of Justice Winkelmann. A journalist working for New Zealand Herald writes a book about a well known individual who is a party to legal proceedings. I made the decision that as a statutory officer faced with a case with identical facts to those directly ruled on by a senior judicial officer, I was bound by that precedent. There was simply no “wiggle room”. 

Privacy, freedom of press and the courts 

A freely functioning press is vital to a healthy democracy. Press freedom, and freedom of expression are not absolute values, and are like other rights, subject to limitations. That’s why we have defamation laws, laws against incitement, and limits to protect  privacy.   

This is also why Nicky Hager ultimately succeeded in his judicial review of a warrant to search his property for evidence that might identify the source of the information Hager used for his book Dirty Politics

I agree with critics that consistency in the law and its application is an important value. With the Government committed to reform of the Privacy Act, it could be timely to take the opportunity to clarify the position of journalists, privacy, discovery and the Courts.

 

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