Hard News by Russell Brown


Extraordinary Powers

Public Address readers will have a range of views on the National Business Review, but anyone who cares about a free press should have been cheered by publisher Barry Colman's stand against the Serious Fraud Office's bid to grab confidential material from the paper under its extraordinary powers of search and seizure.

The SFO was seeking evidence around the story turned up by NBR reporter Matt Nippert, about South Canterbury Finance. Specifically, that Peter Symes, the retired brother in law of a key South Canterbury Finance figure, Edward Sullivan, had at one time been the sole owner of the Auckland luxury hotel The Hyatt.

In the event, NBR provided only information that was available to readers of the paper anyway. Nippert and his employers were not faced with having to surrender the confidentiality of their sources.

But as the above story notes, they still could be – with bells on:

The Serious Fraud Office Act 1990 gives the SFO powers to execute search warrants on media offices and to charge journalists who attempt to "obstruct investigations" with imprisonment for 12 months or a fine of up to $15,000; with publishers facing a $40,000 fine ..

Mr Colman said today the SFO’s blatant intimidation was appalling and counterproductive.

“We are not the enemies of the SFO. We want the bad guys investigated as well,” he said.

“However, no news service is going to be able to get crucial information from its sources or whistleblowers if they face public exposure. We have taken legal advice and been told the act is so draconian that it is impossible for us to refuse to co-operate without risking serious penalty.

“We have decided to hand over the material they are asking for today because it doesn’t compromise any of the sources of Matt Nippert, the reporter who carried out the investigation.

In his editorial for the paper, Nevil Gibson says that Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who established the SFO, "has since changed his mind on the search rules and this was the reason he supported the now-abandoned merger with the police into a new organised crime unit."

Gibson also says that there is another, similar case at play, but its details are suppressed.

On this week's Media7, I'll be joined by Matt Nippert and Nevil Gibson to talk about this case and the issues it raises.

I'll also be talking to commentator Cindy Mitchener about the new strategy at Mediaworks TV, which will see its two main channels targeting the same demographics as the two TVNZ channels, with C4 being rebranded as Four and competing directly with TV2 while TV3 take on One.

Intriguingly, Mediaworks CEO Jason Paris seems to be at pains to make clear that he's moving where the market is – suggesting that the advertising agencies themselves now seem to be seeing merit in the older viewers they long spurned.

Also, I commented when the news broke for a 3 News online story, and it came out like this:

Mr Brown says part of the C4 revamp may be due to the fact that some shows were rating poorly – he uses The Daily Show as an example.

Mr Paris admits The Daily Show – which is one of his favourites – did rate poorly and says the environment it was in just didn’t work because it is so niche.

“But The Daily Show will probably be a real slam dunk on FOUR, now that it’s a broader, wider entertainment channel.”

Mr Paris wouldn’t be drawn on the financial cost of such an upheaval, but says the “multi-million dollar investment” will enable MediaWorks to be profitable very quickly.

Did he just say The Daily Show – which recently disappeared from Comedy Central, along with the Colbert Report – is coming back to free-to-air TV? We'll find out for you.

Also in this week's show: Jose sums up the Chilean miners telenovella, and I'll update the Hobbit saga.

If you'd like to join us for the recording tomorrow, we'll need you at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ by 5.30pm tomorrow. Try and drop me a line if you're coming.

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