Gordon Campbell on the Police surveillance bailout   20 Sep 2011

It would be easier to respect the law if – repeatedly – the Police and SIS didn’t seem so willing to break it whenever it suits them, while relying on the politicians to come along and clean up the mess they leave behind.

Ordinary citizens don’t have that luxury. They have to respect the law that exists. Yet that isn’t the sort of thing that seems to bother Mr Plod unduly, or our Spy vs Spy operatives. Perhaps they have more important things in mind.

Currently, the Police are in the spotlight for their use of covert – and illegal, as the Supreme Court has now ruled (Supremem Court Judgment [PDF]) – video surveillance of the accused in the Urewera cases. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the charges against thirteen of the seventeen Urewera accused have been thrown out. (The nub of the matter was that the Police had installed motion sensor video gear on private property to covertly record what transpired there.)

The government has now decided to rush through legislation to allow the Police to essentially become the arbiters of when covert video surveillance on private property is legal – by dialling back the situation to the day before the Supreme Court ruling, and until such time next year as the government can permanently bestow such powers on the Police via the controversial omnibus bill of search and surveillance measures now before Parliament.

According to Prime Minister John Key, some 40 pending court cases and 50 police investigations would otherwise be in jeopardy. For that reason, the temporary law change would also be retroactive, and would thus sanitise the police actions in all the pending cases and investigations.

Incredible. The Police had been warned by the Law Commission back in 2007 that it was on shaky ground with such forms of surveillance – and could not rely on their interpretation of the Evidence Act to wing it safely. Why then, were they pressing on with the cases and investigations in question, when they knew the definitive answer was yet to be delivered by the Supreme Court? Did they, in fact, push forward knowing that each added case would make it that much more likely that the politicians would have to bail them out, if they should end up losing their gamble on the legality of the procedures in question?

The reality is that we’ve been here before, well before the Law Commission warnings in 2007. In 1996, the SIS thought it had the power to burgle the home of anti-globalisation campaigner Aziz Choudry – but the courts then found the SIS actions to be illegal, and the government of the day dutifully changed the law. The Police, mindful of the outcome of the Choudry case, should have taken extra care to ensure it was not breaking the law this time, especially after the Law Commission had added its 2007 warning.

One can only conclude that neither the SIS nor the Police have much respect for the law. There seems to be no accountability when they break the law in such cases, or misinterpret it, or screw up. Perhaps this is because they know they can hold the politicians hostage, and get the law changed after the fact.

In essence, they get rewarded for breaking the law, by having extra powers enshrined in fresh legislation. Who guards the guardians indeed – and why should ordinary citizens respect the law when the guardians in question seem to regard the law as an irritant that can be bent to their convenience ?

 

***

Morning Report : Bark, But No Bite. Years ago, when Metro magazine did its parody of RNZ’s Morning Report, it depicted the programme’s stalwart presenter Geoff Robinson as an Old English Sheepdog – ie, as a hairy bundle of woofing decency and goodwill to all men.

Perhaps for that reason, the RNZ producers have customarily seen the wisdom of balance, and have routinely twinned the Old English with a succession of Dobermans and Rottweillers down the years such as Lindsay Perigo, Kim Hill, and Sean Plunket – with the occasional Afghan hound thrown in, in the form of Mike Hosking. How then, to fathom the current team on Morning Report, which appears to have teamed the reliable Old English Sheepdog with a fairly skittish and excitable Red Setter?

The decision seems particularly puzzling because Morning Report is RNZ’s flagship current affairs show – and given the failed state that TVNZ has become, that makes Morning Report the last bastion of quality public broadcasting in this country. The programme’s current lack of gravitas should therefore be of concern to every New Zealander – and especially when it is not due to any lack of suitable talent from within RNZ’s own ranks. Occasional host Susie Ferguson for instance, has filled the role of sharper, more incisive interviewer to good effect, and has relevant overseas experience (with the BBC) to boot.

If one was looking for someone regularly able to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire, it is also hard to ignore Checkpoint’s long time host, Mary Wilson. I know, some people find Wilson a bit of a pitbull in an enclosed space. Yet that edge – and related ability to quickly penetrate the smokescreen thrown up by politicians and officials who have been media-trained within an inch of their lives to conceal information – is absolutely necessary in current affairs interviewing. Right now, it is lacking in Morning Report’s current pair of all too amiable hosts – both of whom seem more than willing to go bounding after whatever rabbits their interviewees offer up, by way of diversion.

 

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