30 May 2015

The dubious reporting practices of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids, exposed by the News of the World phone hacking, got a further airing last week when a Sun reporter was given an 18 month suspended sentence for buying information from a police officer.  Over a period of four years the reporter had cultivated a Heathrow counter-terrorism constable, paying him more than £22,000 for details about newsworthy incidents at the airport. The police officer who pleaded guilty in 2014 to “misconduct in public office” is serving a two year prison sentence. The reporter was convicted of aiding and abetting that misconduct in public office.

The Bribery and Corruption provisions in Part 6 of the New Zealand Crimes Act provide a seven year maximum sentence for corrupting officials and the same regarding an official wo acts corruptly (although corrupt acts by a judge or a Minister have greater maximum penalties).  By implication, paying an official to disregard their responsibilities and abuse the trust placed in them is as harmful as the actions of the suborned official.

The Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services include as part of the obligation to be responsible, an explicit standard to “….treat information with care and use only for proper purposes”.  Understanding the code of conductGuidance for State Servants  comments that

“…the proper management of information is central to the integrity of the State Services. We have a duty to handle official information appropriately and ensure that personal privacy rights are preserved. We must all be familiar with legal obligations relating to the protection and release of official information. Statutory privacy principles must always govern the handling of personal information…”

Information that officials learn in the course of their employment may be released only where they have authorisation to do so. Often that authority is implied because of the role and responsibilities. Although most agencies have explicit delegations controlling contact with the media, there is seldom certainty about the extent to which agency information may be disclosed in activities beyond the confines of the agency.

This is recognised in Understanding the code  –

“It is a breach of trust for us to make use of information that we have learned through our work, or to disclose it in any way, unless we have permission to do so. We should always be very circumspect about discussing our organisation’s information when we are not directly engaged in organisation business, and be aware that, unless we have authorisation or it is a matter of public record, we do not disclose official information at external meetings (despite any claim to “Chatham House” rules) or in any academic activities we undertake…”

State servants always need to be conscious that information known to them may be of commercial interest to others.  Engaging with officials in settings where that information may be shared is part of the reason why sector groups invite participation in training and other activities.  Associated hospitality, like all gifts, can engender an obligation of reciprocity.  The Auditor-General expects the taking of great care in accepting any gift or hospitality as “… a sensitive issue …that entities need to manage carefully. It is especially important that receiving a gift does not alter an individual’s decision-making, as this could be perceived as acting without impartiality or integrity…”

Over the last few years nine British police officers and 18 other public officials have been convicted of selling  information they acquired through their work to journalists, receiving sentences of up to three years imprisonment (although recently a reporter, and a police officer and his wife, had convictions quashed).