31 Jul 2013

PM won't take responsibility over phone records

10:26 pm on 31 July 2013

The Prime Minister maintains he is not personally responsible for a journalist's phone records ending up with a ministerial inquiry into a leaked spy agency report and won't be apologising to her.

John Key established the inquiry, led by David Henry, to find out who leaked the Kitteridge report into the Government Communications Security Bureau to Fairfax Media reporter Andrea Vance.

Prime Minister John Key.

Prime Minister John Key. Photo: RNZ

The Speaker of the House, David Carter, has apologised to the journalist after her phone records were provided to the inquiry by Parliamentary Service.

Last week, Mr Carter said the records were not handed over, but on Tuesday revealed he had been made aware that a Parliamentary Service contractor inadvertently provided three months' worth of her phone records to Mr Henry.

John Key on Wednesday said his Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, emailed the Parliamentary Service to relay his wish that it release all relevant information required by the inquiry, and it was always clear that this referred only to ministers and their staff.

Mr Key was questioned about another email in which the inquiry asked for records documenting any contact between ministers' phones and Andrea Vance's landline, her parliamentary extension, and her mobile. He denied that could have been misinterpreted as a order to release the journalist's information.

"No, because it was quite clear on a number of emails that I've seen - quite clear - the information was about ministers and their staff - quite clear. And absolutely everyone would've understood that because I put in the public domain those terms of reference."

The Prime Minister said the release of the records is not his responsibility.

"The inquiry did not request the phone records. A person at Parliamentary Services made a mistake in sending that information. And when that information was sent the inquiry absolutely understood that that was outside the mandate of the inquiry and did not access that information at any time. So it's not really my job to apologise for a mistake made by Parliamentary Services."

The Speaker has referred the matter to the Privileges Committee and instructed the Parliamentary Service to look at its procedures to ensure the release of private information cannot happen again. The committee is also looking at the way in which journalists' activities around Parliament are monitored.

The public hearings of the Privileges Committee investigation into what MPs and journalists records were received by the Henry inquiry will start on 21 August. Witnesses who could be called include MPs, David Henry and Wayne Eagleson. Andrea Vance will also be invited, but won't be compelled to appear.

Inquiry 'ignored legal protection'

Former Labour Party Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says the ministerial inquiry completely ignored the protections within the law afforded to journalists and their sources.

Sir Geoffrey told Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme on Wednesday the Parliamentary Service made a serious error, as it is supposed to be independent of the Cabinet and the executive, and David Henry may have also overstepped the mark.

"It seems to have been assumed here that the coercive powers that the inquirer had could be used in any way he thought fit, even though he's not legally qualified, and of course what he did was to make a terrible constitutional error by asking for phone records of MPs at all."

Sir Geoffrey said the inquiry completely ignored the fact that journalists have a legal right to protect their sources under the Evidence Act.

Call for Speaker to act as watchdog

Fairfax Media's political editor says decisions on Press Gallery journalists' private information need to be made only by Parliament's Speaker, not low-level bureaucrats.

Tracy Watkins says the release of Ms Vance's phone records puts Press Gallery reporters' confidence in their own privacy at risk and the handling of their information needs to be better managed.

"It really cuts to the heart of our ability to operate around Parliament and talk to MPs and bureaucrats as well and be confident that that's not going to be somehow tracked for the purposes of finding out who our sources are," she told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme.

Ms Watkins said there must be firm protocols and clear understanding that decisions on records aren't made at a level lower than the Speaker.

Russel Norman.

Russel Norman. Photo: RNZ

"If for instance we were asked would we ever hand over details that might in any way compromise a source, we would never do that. So we need a watchdog in place to make sure our rights are protected - and that needs to be the Speaker, ultimately."

Parliamentary Press Gallery chair Clare Trevett said the ability of journalists to do their job should be sacrosanct and she was shocked that the phone records were released.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the release of the journalist's records, claims another journalist's phone calls were monitored by the Defence Force and progress through Parliament of GCSB legislation which could allow metadata to be collected on journalists amount to a systematic attack on the media.

Dr Norman said the committee needs to find out who in the Parliamentary Service decided it was acceptable to release the phone records as well as Independent MP Peter Dunne's emails.

Deputy leader of the Labour Party, Grant Robertson, told the House on Tuesday the handing over of the phone records was a serious and disgraceful action.

Prime Minister John Key said the Government has enormous respect for the fourth estate. He said he doesn't think journalists should be subject to surveillance, and they are not.

Media Freedom Committee chair Tim Murphy said the wider issue in the release of phone records to the ministerial inquiry is that different arms of the State seem to think they can get information any way they wish. He said the fact a contractor decided to pass along the records, which were not requested, defies rational belief.