22 July 2011

News of the World has been thrown to the wolves.  The Police team investigating its phone hacking has increased from 40 to 60 officers.  The activities of other News International assets will be subject to similar scrutiny for months to come. But the capacity of the media to challenge any misuse of power and profligate public spending must not be diminished.

Healthy societies have open government and strong mechanisms that protect the rule of law. A report published last month by the World Justice Project  measures the commitment of 66 countries on over 400 variables. Where rule of law is strong, citizens have ready access to information, encouragement is given to officials to report impropriety, there is no arbitrary use of power, and judicial processes are fair and efficient.  Governments are accountable, with clear law, fair law and effective law enforcement.

New Zealand scores well.

The United States does less well.  The end of a trial on Friday of a former security agency official accused of leaking classified information to a newspaper illustrates why. After 4 years and the high costs associated with US litigation, the case ended with the judge castigating the prosecution. The case showed up the absence of clear, fair and effective justice.

The judge, described as ‘visibly angry” criticised  the government for putting the defendant through “four years of hell” and in an “unconscionable” fashion abandoning major charges at the courtroom steps.  It wasn’t justice.  It didn’t pass the sniff test.

The case involved a senior officer with an admirable service record who was concerned about an incompetent and ineffective programme being developed by his agency.  When internal referrals made no difference, he made complaints to both Congress and the Defense Department inspector general. Unheeded, he then ‘leaked’ to the Baltimore Sun. He was charged with 10 breaches of the Espionage Act, although his defence was that the circumstances involved unclassified documents.  By the time the case concluded, despite the contract providers being paid more than $1 billion,  the programme had been abandoned as unworkable.

The Protected Disclosures Act was put in place to provide an approved whistleblowing process for New Zealand officials. Its use is very infrequent, possibly because there is poor awareness of it.  The statute requires agencies to periodically republish information about it.  Guidance from the State Services Commissioner is that this should be an integrity priority.  It doesn’t seem to happen!