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SOAPBOX: Unwanted Privacy, Unwanted Publicity

Unwanted privacy, unwanted publicity
Matthew Thomas
Soapbox 0041, 1999-06-27

`To tell our own secrets is generally folly, but that folly is without guilt; to communicate those with which we are intrusted is always treachery, and treachery for the most part combined with folly.'

-- Samuel Johnson, Rambler #13, 1 May 1750

It's amusing, if not a little disconcerting, to notice just how often the biggest news stories explode like cluster bombs from the tiniest beginnings.

Such a bomb was inadvertently lobbed by Prime Minister Jenny Shipley on TV1's Crossfire programme on Monday night, when she claimed that former TV1 newsreader John Hawkesby had been paid $1 million to leave TVNZ.

Although designed to shock, such a claim was rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. In the days that followed, however, the story developed a life of its own, through no little fault of Mrs Shipley herself.

On Tuesday in Parliament, Wyatt Creech defended the Prime Minister's comments, saying that the $1 million figure was `certainly within the range of what has been discussed' by TVNZ. Later, Shipley apologized for making the inaccurate statement. That could quite possibly have been an end to the matter, except that the Prime Minister added the throwaway comment that she `reaffirmed her hope that the dispute between Mr Hawkesby and TVNZ could be resolved quickly and in a manner which results in the public knowing the true circumstances which led to his departure and the amount of any compensation which is paid or awarded'.

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This was, like the Hawkesby comment in the first place, simply careless media handling on Jenny Shipley's part. It gave the story new life, in raising questions about whether the relitigated payments made to recently-left public servants such as the Tourism Board's Bryan Mogridge and Michael Wall, and the severance payment made to the NZQA's Doug Blackmur, would also be publicized -- just as Shipley wanted John Hawkesby's to be.

Worse was yet to come. Several TVNZ staff claim to have heard Jenny Shipley say, in their informal discussion with her after the Crossfire interview back on Monday, that she `made it [the $1-million figure] up ... you people do that all the time'. TV1 didn't report this, however, until Thursday, because of something called the Chatham House Rule.

The Royal Institute for International Affairs in London (then known as Chatham House) developed the Chatham House Rule (not, as it is widely called, the Chatham House `Rules') in 1927. The Rule states, and I quote:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speakers, nor that of any other participant may be revealed; nor may it be mentioned that the information was received at a meeting of the Institute.

The Rule was devised so that informal meetings on sensitive issues could take place within the Institute without people having to constantly take into account the risk that they might be quoted on what they said. And the Rule, or variations on it, is now used in a variety of governmental and commercial organizations.

In the case of Jenny Shipley's reported comment, TV1 could, while still following the Rule, have reported something to the effect that `we have it on good authority that the Prime Minister knew that the million-dollar figure she was quoting was wrong'. They would not, however, have been able to say who had given them this information (in this case, apparently Jenny Shipley herself), or where the comment was made. Would this have made such a good news story? No, but it would have been nearly as good, while maintaining TV1's claimed ethical standard. So why didn't they do this?

Well, this is where things get murky. One of those few who were present to hear Jenny Shipley's alleged comment leaked the information, either directly or indirectly, to IRN's political editor Barry Soper. Since Soper wasn't at the meeting, he didn't consider himself to be bound by the Chatham House Rule, and he publicized the report -- even though he should have known, in my opinion, that he was doing the ethical equivalent of profiting from the proceeds of crime, in that the information got to him by a breach of the Rule in the first place. But once he broke the story, and Labour raised the issue in Parliament on Thursday, TV1 then dropped their use of the Chatham House Rule, on the basis that their editorial integrity was at stake.

The construction of a fairly simple conspiracy theory to explain who originally leaked the comment, and for the benefit of whose ratings, is left as an exercise for the reader.

As I said before, this was simple bad media relations on the part of the Government, because they let one ill-advised comment on a television programme turn into a major scandal in the news media for the best part of a week. But while it unfortunately obscured the original issue of the severancy payments made to Mogridge, Wall, Blackmur et al., it raised a larger issue which is just as important: people's right to privacy in what they do and what they say.

Many people seem to think that people have an inherent right to privacy. I disagree. I disagree because as soon as you try to work out just how much privacy it is that people are allowed, you suddenly find that there is no logical boundary to determine what is private and what is public. I do, however, think that people have an inherent right to the same amount of privacy. The difference between these two ideas is crucial.

If no-one was allowed to know anything about any other person unless that other person wanted them to, that would be fair, as long as the same restrictions applied to everyone. (That it would be completely unworkable is irrelevant here). If, in contrast, everyone had Web cameras set up in every room of their house, which anyone could look at at any time, that would be fair too, as long as everyone had the same ability to do the same snooping on everyone else. But as soon as you start determining specific levels of privacy for specific people or specific areas, you get into a very sticky situation indeed.

Tony Ryall, the Minister who jumped to Jenny Shipley's defence on Friday by announcing that it was he who told Jenny Shipley about the supposed one-million-dollar payout to John Hawkesby in the first place, has been discovering this difficulty this week in a completely different issue, and one which is -- in my opinion -- far more important than the severance payments issue in the long run: the Government's `home invasion' legislation.

The home invasion bill was ripped to shreds by the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee, forcing the Government to reintroduce it clause by clause in Parliament this week. It was rejected so emphatically by the committee primarily because it doesn't make sense. It places arbitrary distinctions on what is a person's private residence, and what is a public domain, and specifies different maximum terms of imprisonment for crimes committed in each. There are no logical reasons why different punishments should apply to crimes committed in these two areas, only emotive reasons. But it's the emotive reasons which are working.

Thankfully for the Government, and as I have noted previously in Soapbox, many in the public have a visceral lock-the-bastards-up approach to criminals, in spite of constant evidence that such an approach just doesn't work. Locking criminals up for longer and longer just seems so just, so right, that logic just disappears and we forget the primary reason for exacting punishments from criminals in the first place -- lowering the crime rate.

So when Tony Ryall was interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio this week, he was able to duck and dive with the greatest of ease around her repeated comparison with longer sentences for rape, which had actually resulted in more, not fewer, reported rapes. Mr Ryall was able to get away with repeating `and we're locking them up!', as if that was all that mattered, without the slightest embarrassment.

It was frightening.

Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).

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