4. An abject apology to Nicky Hager

Journalist Nicky Hager's 2014 book Dirty Politics led to police raiding his home in search of his source. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Four years after the book Dirty Politics was released, author Nicky Hager has won damages and an extraordinary apology from police for raids on his home that sent shivers through the media.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s fight for journalistic freedom has finally come to an end.

The author, whose books have long been a thorn in the side of the state, has been embroiled in legal action after police raided his home in 2014.

His book Dirty Politics, which linked former Prime Minister John Key’s office with right-wing bloggers such as Cameron ‘Whaleoil’ Slater, was a pre-election bombshell and led to the resignation of then-minister Judith Collins.

After the book was released, Slater complained to police that he had been hacked by Hager’s source - a person referred to only as Rawshark.

This led to police raiding Hager’s home in October 2014 to try and find the mysterious hacker’s identity.

But that search, which took place while Hager was in Auckland, was deeply flawed.

In a statement released today, police admitted they failed to mention Hager was a journalist and they were seeking to identify his sources when applying for a search warrant.

They also apologised for mining his banking data with only an informal information request and obtaining his information from third parties including Air New Zealand, Paypal, Customs, and Jetstar without telling the companies Hager was a journalist who could claim privilege.

In a stunning admission, police also apologised for telling some companies they suspected Hager of fraud when seeking the information, despite having no basis to do so.

“Police acknowledge that Mr Hager had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to information that could be used to identify his confidential sources,” the statement read.

“Police also acknowledge that there are legal protections in relation to such information that can only be waived by a High Court judge. As such, it was not appropriate for the police to seek such information from third parties without a suitable court order.”

Police raids on media organisations are rare, but searches of their individual homes are almost unheard of.

When detectives knocked on the door of his Wellington Hager’s daughter was the only one home.

After speaking to Hager on the phone, who soon claimed journalistic source protection privilege and received a promise it would be respected, police searched the home for ten hours and seized a raft of items including Hager’s daughter’s laptop and phone.

Hager later learned that police had broken that promise and photographed documents including login information for web and cloud storage accounts, which were later used to try and gain access.

Cell phone records were also taken and used to get records from phone companies.

The apology follows a High Court ruling late last year that the warrant used for the raid was “fundamentally unlawful”.

As part of the apology Hager will receive damages and legal costs, the size of which will remain confidential but, as the journalist stated, will “help support important work in years to come”.

The real value of Hager’s victory though is for freedom of speech.

A journalist’s right to protect their sources is central to their role in holding power to account; without it democracy is weakened.

“This has been a long fight, but we stuck at it because we believe what we were fighting for was important,” Hager said.

“This sends a vital message that people can share important information with journalists with confidence that their identities will be protected. The police have apologised for threatening that confidentiality and trust.”

National leader Simon Bridges had not seen the details of Hager’s statement, but said police had to make amends if they had used the law incorrectly.

“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.”

Bridges said it was incorrect to suggest ministers in the previous National government had placed any pressure on police to investigate the leak to Hager. Decisions in the field were “for police, not for politicians”.

“What we know in New Zealand is police act on any matter like this with operational independence, so it’s them, not ministers...that should cop the appropriate blame.”