Gordon Campbell on the Vance phone scandal

Pity the poor Prime Minister. The phone records of Fairfax reporter Andrea Vance? Don’t look at him. Once again, John Key has been let down by his minions, or by the people who were misled or intimidated into compliance by his staff’s overtures, either through fear or ignorance. Not Key’s fault either way. Scout’s honour, he never asked for, looked at, or did anything improper with respect to that woman. Even though his own chief of staff Wayne Eagleson had asked the hapless Parliamentary Services staff to supply all of the relevant information being asked for, to the Henry inquiry. Nothing to do with Key. Eagleson must have gone rogue. Or David Henry – can we blame him? Some faceless Parliamentary Services contractor? Anyone?

Thus we have the latest example of alleged prime ministerial ignorance of what is happening in his own office (over Vance) in his own portfolio areas (over the GCSB’s involvement in an unprecedented FBI /NZ Police raid) and in his own electorate, over the presence of a certain German billionaire. Didn’t know, can’t remember, not his call, don’t blame him. Quite some time ago, these professions of prime ministerial non-responsibility became literally incredible. Do we really have a PM and SIS/GCSB minister whose attention span on the job seems comparable to Homer Simpson at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant? Pass that man another doughnut.

There’s a simpler explanation. Whether you read the Vance phone records scandal as (a) the product of a hands on, top down attempt to nail the culprit who leaked the Kitteridge report, or (b) as an error sparked by a bullying demand emanating from the PM’s office – Key is ultimately responsible. Either way, it illustrates just why the GCSB Bill should be scrapped or sidelined. Because plainly, the current political masters of the security services cannot be trusted not to use private information for their own political ends.

These failings are on many levels. The gathering, handling and storage of the metadata that comprise the Vance phone records leak is not dealt with properly in the GCSB Bill, as Thomas Beagle of Tech Liberty pointed out in his submission. There’s also a wider, attitudinal problem as well. Vance is dead right. The politicians responsible for this affair have no respect for the media that goes beyond its role as an obedient cog in the government’s publicity machine. Usefully, Vance reminds us that this latest example is symptomatic of a pattern of what she calls “casual disregard for [the] media’s true role as an independent watchdog.” As in:

Journalists were dismissed in a tantrum as “knuckleheads”. The teapot tapes fiasco – when Key laid a complaint about eavesdropping on a personal conversation – led to police raids on newsrooms. This week, the Defence Force stood accused of monitoring the phone calls of war correspondent Jon Stephenson – a man whose credibility Key has previously impugned. That contempt for the press continued yesterday with the obfuscation around what Henry had actually requested. He might not have asked for details of all the phone calls I made – but he certainly asked what calls I placed to ministers and their staff. It amounts to the same thing. Crucially, Key ordered that inquiry and he can no more shrug off responsibility for how it was conducted than Henry can.

Yet instead of fronting up, Key is busily dancing on pinheads:

Mr Key said on Wednesday his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, emailed the Parliamentary Service on 9 May to confirm the Prime Minister wished it to make available to the inquiry records in relation to ministers and their staff.

“At no point did he ask for information about journalists. That would not have been appropriate or right. He didn’t do so, nor did the inquiry want that information.”

No no, of course that shrinking violet running the inquiry – David Henry – wouldn’t want that sort of information. Hopefully, this incident close to home will have sensitised the Press Gallery to the dangers posed by the GCSB Bill to them, and to everyone else. In that respect, Vance has pointed the finger of blame right where it belongs. Lamentably, others have heaped all the blame onto Parliamentary Services.

While the media has a special role in a democracy – one we can always perform better – the violation of Vance’s privacy is a prospect now facing every citizen in the country under the GCSB Bill. The boundaries of privacy are being erased for no discernible reason, and in the abscence of any proportionate threat. Peter Dunne, who holds the casting vote on the legislation, feels OK about that. But who will be watching the watchers? Why, it will be the same kind of people – in key respects, the very same people – who brought about the Andrea Vance scandal.