Spying, privacy, intrusion, and media

Stephen Franks blogs his thoughts on the media own goal currently in progress with the investigations and committee deliberations surrounding the leaking of the Kitteridge report.

[T]he short-sighted journalists baying for privilege from investigation even incidentally will have strengthened the trends and the climate that will some day justify shutting them out of their most vital public function – that is searching out, by fair means or foul, and making public, the embarrassing and significant information that Parliament’s denizens would most wish to keep secret.

In other words, by inventing new categories of privacy intrusion, this time to make sacred the email traffic data of Ministers who do not want it known, and their own, they bring forward the day when it will be a sufficient justification to exclude them, or to criminalise their publication of unwelcome disclosures, simply because they are not officially supposed to have the information, or have failed to apply formally through the proper channels. That seems to be the gist of the accusations against Mr Henry, Mr Thorn and others) on the basis that the release of information was not wanted by its subjects. People who live by discovering and publishing truths that the subjects would rather keep secret or ‘manage’,  score a massive own goal in the long term by asserting essentially that privacy is a sufficient reason to block disclosure.

I am aware of the rationalisation and fine rhetoric seeking constitutional protection of privilege for journalists. Their arguments should not extend to protecting them from the kind of disclosure that they themselves rely upon. It would be outrageous for MPs to assert that journalists be forbidden from reporting on who is seen to visit MP offices. Sure, an electronic record of visits is more convenient than staking out doors and offices.  But the swipe card records are just a technologically efficient form of observation. Any of Ms Vance’s fellow journalists should have been free to report on her visits to Minister Dunne’s office around the critical time that the Kitteridge Report was leaked, if they had seen them.

I do not argue that they should necessarily have had automatic access to the swipe card records, but it is not at all obvious that even such transparency is any more remarkable than the OIA disclosure now imposed on most written public officer communication. 

The very people who thrive and survive on picking through other peoples private information  all of a sudden got the all high and mighty when their communications and private information was sifted through.

As Corporal Jones intoned “They don’t like it up ’em”.

The fourth estate plays a critical role. But it should claim no greater, and no less privilege than the public it serves. Their freedom of speech is ours. And they should be as vigilant to protect the freedom of others to discover the truth, however reluctant the subjects, as they are of their own freedom to find out and to report. Journalists should hate privacy law as cats hate dogs.

The public have a substantial interest in knowing whether Ministers are untrustworthy with confidential information. We have a similar interest in a Prime Minister being able to institute simple and direct processes to test his Ministers’ trustworthiness and veracity. The Ministers may invoke privileges against self-incrimination if criminality is involved, and there may be categories of communication that are privileged. But there should be no newly invented  impediment to finding out and publishing the information that casts light on a disturbing breach of trust.

There is an old saying – “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – literally “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or in the vernacular…Who watches the watchmen…that needs to be extended…who watches the watchmen doing the watching?


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  • CommonSense404

    Post of the week.

  • Reason1

    Very well said!
    I challenge any of the outraged journalists or indignant ministers to reply with why they are special and not subject to the type of inquiry that is warranted when a major leak has occurred. Many of them were calling for the inquiry and routinely try and subvert release of sensitive or embargoed information.

  • blokeintakapuna

    Since the internet and the birth of the information age – the “4th Estate” has now become more of a “tenement patch” they’ve lost so much market share… and even then, it’s a poorly kept tenement at that too.
    Their patch is now so over-grown with tumble-weeds and useless caretakers who have become so irrelevant, they even need to try and invent the news to get some traction on their own TV entertainment shows…

  • tarkwin

    I remember the good old days when journalists reported the news. Now they want to manufacture it.

  • Jman

    Our “journalists” would hate privacy laws if they weren’t a bunch of feckless, left-leaning activists posing as journalists.

  • niggly

    Another thoughtful Stephen Franks masterpiece – cutting through the self-serving histrionics and looking at the issue objectively. And he is right.