Hard News by Russell Brown


Doing over the witness

Whoever compromised Cameron Slater's computer and copied some of his private communications almost certainly committed a criminal offence. The police should investigate Slater's complaint about the incident and, if they can confirm the identity of that person and have sufficient evidence, mount a prosecution and let them make their case in court.

What the police absolutely should not have done in a democracy was what they did last Thursday: send five officers to Nicky Hager's house when they knew he was absent, and have them spend 10 hours doing it over, remove what he described as "a large collection of papers and electronic equipment belonging to my family, including computers, drives, phones, CDs, an iPod and a camera" -- and then basically dare him to get his possessions and documents back via the courts.

Let's be clear here: Hager is not the accused. He is a witness. And the implications of what the police have done are very, very troubling.

It seems extremely unikely that the police will find the identity of "Rawshark", the source for Hager's book Dirty Politics and (presumably) the hacker, amid the property they have seized. Hager is meticulous about source protection and will have been especially so in this case.

But Hager also typically works on several investigatve projects at once (he referred recently to an ongoing project on secret tax havens). It's possible that the material taken could compromise sources, or embarrrass the very authorities who have seized it. The very fact of the search may deter future whistleblowers.

At any rate, this seizure by the state will now make it more difficult for Hager to work, and for members of his family to go about their business. If it was not a deliberate attempt to intimdate a journalist, it unquestionably functions as one.

Anyone in any doubt about Hager's legal position in using the material he received in the public interest should bear in mind the comprehensive failure of Slater's civil action to retreive similar material from the Herald, Fairfax and Mediaworks. Slater recently abandoned the action altogether, leaving himself on the hook for what may be substantial legal costs. Even his one small win -- an undertaking from the media companies not to publish personal material -- is now void. I gather the media organisations involved will nonethless take the high ground -- which is a courtesy Slater's victims have never enjoyed.

Those who welcomed the raid on Hager's house -- Bill Ralston included -- are effectively saying that the state should now visit the same punitive action on those media companies, whose journalists have also made contact with the hacker. They should then ask themseves exactly what kind of country they actually want to live in.

That won't happen, of course. Which makes what happened last Thursday look all the more like intimidation.

The police have also set themselves a potentially unfortunate standard with respect to the criminal complaints made against Slater -- including those with respect to his accessing of private data from a Labour Party computer and, more seriously, an apparent conspiracy to undermine the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Markets Authority, and intimidate a witness with whom they were dealing. Will the police now turn up and search, say, the Prime Minister's office?

If Hager's work has been impaired for the time being, the other journalists will continue theirs. At least one of those journalists has now completed a substantial post-election story based on Rawshark material. It's just a matter of when it will be published.

Slater will, no doubt, continue to profess his virtue. His curious distance from his own actions was captured neatly in his post on Whaleoil yesterday:

Journalists call people they write stories about. Journalists give people a right of reply. Journalists tell the whole story, not massaged narratives that suit their politics.

Yeah, really.

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