Veitch and Holmes – on-the-record is forever

The Tony Veitch saga continues to get front page treatment in the Sunday papers. In this week’s installment the Herald on Sunday reports on its own involvement in the case and a police warrant to search the paper’s office.

The last time I had a serious go at the HoS, I got an irate call from editor Shayne Currie and an offer (or maybe a challenge) that I spend some time in the paper’s newsroom to see for myself how it worked and how the integrity of its reporting is maintained. I was just about to leave on an extended overseas trip, so couldn’t take up the offer, but I fully intend to…as soon as I get the book manuscript off my desk.

Anyway, as I told Shane last year, I am not having a go at individuals, nor do I pick on any particular paper or media outlet in my commentary. My aim is to put on the table some discussion points and to provoke debate. That’s my intention this week and it also happens that there’s a Rosemary McLeod column in the Sunday Star Times on the Vietch story; so I intend to be very even-handed.

The statement that caught my eye in the HoS story (page 3 in the print edition) was:

Editor Shayne Currie said the newspaper would co-operate with police in accordance with police guidelines for media searches, but would not breach any journalistic ethics. He said he would be taking legal advice as well as consulting Holmes before deciding whether the tape would be handed over.  [HoS hit by Veitch search warrant]

I am curious about how this ethico-legal paradox might unfold.

Meanwhile, over at the SST, Rosemary McLeod is sounding off about the use of lawyers to stifle debate – in particular attempts to gag journalists and commentators through the use of legal threats. As reported last week, Veitch’s legal and PR machine is threatening to go after media outlets which, they believe, might be having a go at Tony.

Rosemary is not happy about it:

What the public doesn’t know is how often the threat of legal action silences the media.[Money talks – we are gagged]

Really, is it all that common?

There’s really nothing new in the police’ interest in the interview Tony Veitch gave to HoS columnist Paul Holmes in July/August last year. At the time the cops said they would like a copy of the tape and Shayne Currie said he would cooperate. So it’s really only the fact that it’s taken the police six months to get a warrant to go after the tape and notes of the interview that’s newsworthy.

From an ethical perspective what’s interesting is that back in August 2008, Shayne Currie mentioned that parts of the tape may contain “emotional” comments from Veitch and that some of it might be considered “off-the-record”. I said at the time that to suggest some parts of a recorded interview might be “off the record” after the fact and after agreeing to the recording in the first place goes against the principles of journalism on-the-record.

In an interview with his own newspaper, Shayne Currie today repeated his “off-the-record”  line:

“There are issues to consider, including whether the tape contains any information obtained on a confidential and off-the-record basis.”

This is just twisting to get off the hook. Veitch and Holmes are both experienced enough to know the difference between on and off the record. They would also know that once an interview is agreed to and taped, it’s on-the-record.

In my view there’s no legal reason why the police should not have the tape – the problem for Veitch’s legal team arises if it contains any admissions beyond what has been published from the transcript already. I think it’s this that the HoS is seeking its own legal advice about. The paper cannot, without substantial risk, refuse to hand over the tape, though it remains to be seen what advice they might get about which parts of the interview might be handed over.

The only ethical grounds for not handing over the tape would be if doing so might endanger the life or livelihood of a whistleblower, or informant (source). I can’t see that this applies in the Veitch case, although…hypothetically…the paper might argue that Veitch incriminates himself and therefore handing over the tape might breach some principles of natural justice. I’m shaking my head as I write this and I thnk it’s really clutching at straws.

Meanwhile, I was hoping that Rosemary McLeod might dump on some hidden secrets of New Zealand journalism herself, but the headline, “Money talks – we are gagged”, doesn’t deliver. Instead all we got was this generalised statement:

If you wonder why certain stories aren’t told, that’s why. There’s a hidden network of manoeuvres operating behind the scenes constantly and pay-offs made to avoid the courts, and there’s great potential there for a kind of blackmail of media if you put your mind to it. Being paid to go away could be lucrative and enforcing silence on the matter at the same time would be doubly rewarding. I’d like to believe this doesn’t happen, but I didn’t come down in the last shower.

So Rosemary, if you have any juicy stories that you believe have been supressed because of blackmail or hush money, I’d be happy to hear about them. It would make a great research project for some of my students – we’d be more than happy to hunt for the smoking gun and publish a list of “untold stories” and to gather evidence of corrupt practices.

Are we really living in a country that suppresses freedom of speech? Rosemary thinks so:

It’s not just people in the news who are affected by this country’s suffocation of freedom of speech. This also applies to other prominent people. To be able to write in depth about them after their deaths means having to engage with their families, who, as caretakers of correspondence and other material, are in the position to exert pressure over what is written in exchange for co-operation.

I’m not sure why Rosemary jumped so casually from talking about the Veitch case to complaining about the lack of cooperation from families who wish to protect the memory of their deceased loved ones. Maybe she’s trying to write a biography and is getting grief from a non-cooperating family.

Anyway, I’d love to hear about the hidden behind-the-scenes network that’s suppressing the news. But let me make it clear: not in a dribblejaws’ kind of way that involves massive conspiracy theories. There has to be a simpler and more believable explanation.

One Response to Veitch and Holmes – on-the-record is forever

  1. Sally says:

    I too was bemused by McLeod’s column. As a representative of the dark side, in my modest experience legal threats are more likely to ratchet up a paper’s commitment to publish rather than killing the story. The media organisation usually has at least as high-powered lawyers as my client and unless the journo has been manipulated or truly sloppy (which does sometimes happen) there’s about as much use in it as threatening to pull advertising.

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