Analysis: Police apologise to Nicky Hager for 'dirty politics'
It has been a long time coming but Nicky Hager’s battle with the New Zealand Police, who badly mistreated him when they investigated his Dirty Politics book in 2014, has finally come to an end. Victory for Hager comes in the form of the police making him a significant apology and a substantial financial payout.
This is not just a win for Hager personally but also one for freedom of the press, for the ongoing vigilance against police authoritarianism and the general fight against injustice. No doubt the payout from the police will fund Hager to continue producing his important public interest journalism.
News of the apology and payout can be read in David Fisher’s report, Police pay Nicky Hager 'substantial damages for unlawful search of his home in hunt for Dirty Politics hacker. In this, Fisher provides some background to today’s outcome: “The settlement comes almost four years after the publication of Dirty Politics, which alleged the office of former prime minister Sir John Key ran a dirty tricks campaign through right-wing bloggers. Hager wrote the book after an anonymous source known only as Rawshark provided information said to have been hacked from Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater.”
Police then sought to discover who had hacked Mr Slater’s computer and, although they didn’t suspect Mr Hager himself, they raided his home, and also obtained information from banks, airlines and phone companies that Mr Hager was a customer with.
The treatment Mr Hager received was enough to unite many of the left and right in condemning the police actions. I wrote back in 2015 about how many on the political right – such as Matthew Hooton and Rodney Hide – were highly supportive of Mr Hager’s case – see: Libertarians against dirty politics.
Mr Hager claimed these police actions were unlawful, and gained a High Court ruling that agreed with him – see also my 2015 roundup of this landmark case: Dirty Politics won't die. This showed many experts agreed about the need to have properly functioning mechanisms – especially investigative journalism – that hold the powerful to account, and that the police actions had undermined that mechanism.
After a court ruling that the police actions were “unlawful,” Hager was then able to take High Court action to remedy the situation. Henry Cooke reports that “A court date – now cancelled – was scheduled in just over a week for the breaches of the Bill of Rights” – see: Police apologise to Nicky Hager over Dirty Politics raid as part of settlement.
It’s also worth noting that Hager’s daughter was the only person at her father’s house when the police raided it, and she also received a settlement from the police in 2016 – see RNZ’s Hager's daughter's police pay-out 'a relief'.
For analysis of today’s settlement, see law professor Andrew Geddis’ blog post, Why the police's apology to Nicky Hager matters. He concludes that what the police did to Hager was “completely unreasonable and dangerous to our democracy. It should never have happened, and should never happen again.”
Professor Geddis gives a comprehensive account of what the police did wrong in this case. Here’s the most interesting part: “The police admit that they misled a court by omission into giving them apparent legal authority to raid the house of not a suspect in a crime but a witness to it. That witness, they knew, was a working journalist whose efficacy depends upon being able to assure his sources … And in what is perhaps the most damning indictment of the police’s actions, they now admit that they told some of these third parties they wanted information about Mr Hager because he was suspected of fraud and other criminal activities. This was what is known in legal circles as a complete and utter lie.”
Nicky Hager has now given an interesting five-minute interview with Newshub’s Emma Joliff, in which he says the police settlement “blew me away” – see: Police apologise to Nicky Hager for 2014 house raid.
In this interview, Hager elaborates on the positive impact that today’s settlement might have for public interest journalism: “What I'm hoping this decision will do is that people who've got really important information that matters to the public and matters in big issues won't be too scared to give it to us. That's what really matters, and we couldn't have got a better result for that.”
This issue is dealt with in more detail in David Fisher’s latest report: Nicky Hager says the unlawful police search on his home sent the key Hit & Run source ducking for cover. In this, Mr Hager explains how the police raid on his home put his next book, Hit and Run (co-written with Jon Stephenson), in jeopardy, as the key whistleblowing source became scared of his confidentiality being safe from the police. Hager says: “That's what the 'chilling effect' means – people are scared to talk.”
Mr Hager has also said that he believes the National government was behind the unlawful police crackdown on him in response to his Dirty Politics book: “I strongly suspect that there was political interference in it but I don’t think I can prove it” – see his two-minute interview with TVNZ’s Katie Bradford: Nicky Hager receives apology from police and 'substantial damages' over Dirty Politics investigation.
Mr Hager adds that “The PM and Judith Collins were very angry” and the Police raid was meant to be “punishment,” “not for breaking the law, but for releasing information that powerful people didn’t want to come out.”
There’s been plenty of reaction to the settlement on Twitter, and here are some of the more interesting responses:
• Nandor Tanczos (@NandorTanczos)
Following on from the shambles & backtracking at the Defense Force over 'Hit & Run', today comes another vindication of Nicky Hagar and his work in 'Dirty Politics'. This is an important outcome for anyone seeking to expose corruption and lies among the powerful.
• Rachel Stewart (@RFStew)
Everybody on the right of NZ politics will be having a septic, shitty little day. And I'm glad. You can't buy integrity, and that's what Nicky Hager has in spades.
• Thomas Beagle (@thomasbeagle)
So, what's happening to the members of NZ Police who authorised and carried out the multiply illegal search of Nicky Hager? #TheNZAccountabilityDeficit
• Meg de Ronde (@MegdeRonde)
Very pleased & proud to see this outcome for Hager & for human rights in NZ. Thanks again to all the amazing people that donated to the Givealittle so we could support this legal action. We all did it!
• Felix Geiringer (@BarristerNZ)
It has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to act for Nicky on the #DirtyPolitics case. I will never meet a person with more integrity.
• Alex Coleman (@ShakingStick)
Hager is lucky he's not on twitter to get inundated with all the apologies from the people who said on here that the raid on his house was absolutely fair game and that he was just being a sook about something he should have expected
• Branko Marcetic (@BMarchetich)
A victory for press freedom in Aotearoa. The police investigation into Hager had the potential to cause a chilling effect on NZ journalism. Instead, this outcome will hopefully have a chilling effect on future police intimidation of reporters
• Lew (@LewSOS)
Nicky Hager still the undisputed champion. Nobody can lay a glove on him, try as they might.
• Branko Marcetic (@BMarchetich)
Further thought on the Hager outcome: this, coupled with the NZDF's dishonesty regarding Hit & Run, is exactly the reason why people warn against vesting sec services & law enforcement with easily abused powers. These organisations can and frequently do become politicised
The politicians haven’t provided much reaction yet. But Shane Cowlishaw quotes National leader Simon Bridges: “Look, if the police stuffed up and they got the law wrong, then the apology is the right thing to do. In terms of compensation where that goes, again, I haven’t seen the detail but there’s a pretty well-worn legal track for that in case law, and I think that’s where the answer should lie” – see: Hager triumphs as police capitulate.
Of course, Mr Hager’s victory has involved much help from others. For example, his initial legal action against the police was made possible by some activists crowdfunding through a Give-a-Little page for some of his legal costs, which raised $65k, and then US journalist Glenn Greenwald raised another $21k.
Finally, this column requires something of a disclosure from the author – because I have championed Nicky Hager’s case, being supportive of his journalistic work, and of his rights. I was an “expert witness” in the legal case that Mr Hager took against the Police. And last year, I wrote in tribute to Hager’s work on the eve of the release of his Hit and Run book, co-written with Jon Stephenson, in which I explain why such work is badly needed in New Zealand: “The real value of Hager's work is that it enhances the democratic process. His research is usually on the powerful in society, and helps us understand how that power is used. Of course it's the nature of the powerful that they seek to wield their influence without raising public awareness. But in a democracy we need to know how society really works, why decisions are made, and how they are influenced” – see: Why we need another Nicky Hager book.
This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.