I am surprised the print media haven’t made more of the Salient vs Victoria University case. Remember the interminable, day-after-day bellowing about which and how many TV cameras should be allowed into the Parliamentary debating chamber? Remember all the hand-wringing about the High Court’s decision to force TV3 to include Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne in its leaders’ debate?
Why hasn’t there been the same outrage from newspaper editorial writers and columnists and media freedom organisations (e.g. Commonwealth Press Union) about the Salient case, which was undoubtedly a much more serious assault on media freedom than either of those previous cases?
Matt Nippert, a former deputy editor of Salient, explains exactly what was at stake in an op-ed in the Herald this morning:
In New Zealand, those who have a beef with the press normally resolve it in one of two ways: a letter to the editor, or a complaint to the Press Council. Other regimes use prison cells and bullets.
Victoria University’s actions fell somewhere in the middle. Inevitably, such heavy-handedness garnered calls of overkill, and immediate sympathy for the underdog. What was essentially a student issue became a national one. A story about university operating in secrecy became an issue of media freedom.
A hypothetical example should suffice in illustrating how worrying a precedent this case may have set.
Imagine if Michael Cullen, beavering away in Cabinet, produced a document proposing that all tax rates be raised by a uniform 10 per cent. Imagine if these papers were leaked to the Herald, and a justifiably outraged front page was drawn up. Then imagine Government agents arriving at the printers and locking all 230,000 copies of the paper away in a mysterious vault (that presumably also houses the surplus).
Well, were this to happen, I’m sure that the Government would be toppled in a fiery media storm. Yet reaction by the mainstream media to the Salient case has been muted. Sure, they’ve covered it. But there have been no indignant editorials intoning about a grave threat to freedom of the press, and there haven’t been prominent stories in the papers, day-after-day, in an effort to ratchet up the pressure on those responsible.
Had Salient lost to the university in court, then all stories based on leaked documents would have become potentially illegal. That’s a fundamental assault on the freedom of our press, yet our finest papers appear to have hardly noticed.