Friday, July 11, 2014

Protecting the press gallery

Last year we learned that Parliamentary Services had spied on journalist Andrea Vance, tracking her movements around the Parliamentary precinct and turning over her phone records to the Prime Minister's office in an effort to uncover one of her sources. As I noted at the time, the case raised serious constitutional issues. Spying on journalists at Parliament impedes their ability to fulfil their democratic functions, and has a tendency to impede the ability of MP's to do the same. It is therefore a breach of Parliamentary Privilege.

The Privileges Committee agrees. Today they released their report into Question of privilege regarding use of intrusive powers within the parliamentary precinct, in which they suggested guidelines for future inquiries touching on Parliment. Naturally, they protected themselves, with a requirement that MPs approve any release of information of any sort about themselves. But they also extended that to journalists working in Parliament:

Journalists working in the parliamentary precinct should retain complete control over the release of any information that relates to them. That is, material relating to a journalist or group of journalists who work in the parliamentary precinct should only be released with their specific authorisation.

Its a good rule, and it will help protect the vital role our media plays in ensuring democratic accountability. And hopefully it means that the Vance spying will never happen again.

The Privileges Committee also reported back the Question of privilege concerning the agreements for policing, execution of search warrants, and collection and retention of information by the NZSIS in which they recommended various amendments to those agreements. The SIS will not be allowed to spy on MPs without the approval of the Speaker - though as the Speaker is essentially appointed by the government and the current one is a partisan hack, that's not much protection. Given the revelations from the Dotcom case, they also recommended that a similar agreement be made with the GCSB.

These protections are not enough. While the SIS is legally required to be politically neutral, given their powers and the secrecy they operate under, we can't trust them to actually obey that (and we'll never know if they're obey it or not). Our democracy would be much safer if we amended the SIS and GCSB Acts to absolutely prohibit security or interception warrants on MPs, officers of political parties, or political candidates. Its a simple amendment, and I'd love to see it put up as a Member's Bill.