To say someone broke a law when that hasn’t been proven, and without legal defence, is to defame them. It is a particular issue when a government figure does it because they are effectively imposing an extra-judicial punishment by sullying the person’s reputation.
The rules are strict – remember Clark lost a defamation case for saying a man was a murderer when he was actually convicted of manslaughter.
By saying Bradley Ambrose broke the law when that hasn’t been proven and he hasn’t admitted it, Key and the Police are defaming with the power of the State.
Key said he took his compliant on principle (‘the principle that he should be allowed to slag off voters in a public place and not have it come back to bite him).
Well, there’s an actual principle at play now. Key and the Police cannot be allowed to serve up extra-judicial punishments to whomever they choose by branding them a criminal and then not taking them to court to prove it. That undermines our rule of law and division of powers. Only in the case of summary offences can the Executive judge if a person’s actions are illegal. The offence Ambrose was accused of, and which he has not been found guilty of, is an indictable offence, not a summary one.
Ambrose should sue Key and Assistant Police Commissioner Burgess in defamation for saying what he did was illegal. Judging by the media coverage, he would have plenty of friends to help with his legal bills.
Here’s a sampling of the coverage –
No crime had been committed, despite the police attempt yesterday to save face by claiming the cameraman’s action was “unlawful” or, in a telling show of doubt, “at least reckless”. The lawfulness would have been for a court to decide, but no prosecution will be taken…
….It suited the political times, or so Mr Key’s advisers thought, to turn this into a sprawling week of allegations against the media. We were, predictably and unimaginatively, likened to the News of the World, the UK tabloid closed after hacking a murdered girl’s mobile phone, among many other outrages. Then, Mr Key claimed we would publish parents’ private discussions of suicidal children. And when those preposterous attacks fell flat, he shrugged that the police had time to investigate this case because National had lowered the crime rate.
As it happens, the police took months to locate those who also drank coffee near the two politicians that day, to take pro-forma statements from a range of news photographers and journalists – including one whom they didn’t realise had stayed inside the cafe drinking coffee because he considered it a public place – and to work out a way to let the whole sorry mess drop without further embarrassment.
So a letter from the cameraman, Bradley Ambrose, to the two politicians expressing regret and explaining he meant no harm to them or himself was considered adequate contrition and the Prime Minister agreed with prosecutors that that should be that. The letter was consistent with Ambrose’s sworn evidence in a court action he took at the time.
The police announcement conveniently coincided with Mr Key being in Korea, responding through a brief press release. He noted the police claim the cameraman’s actions were “unlawful” but even he could not try to make much out of this sorry business. He did not believe a prosecution was “now necessary” and thought all could now move on.
Sadly, that should have been his view at the time. It was a stance he seemed incapable of adopting because of a misguided mission to stop what he imagined to be a “slippery slope” of media intrusion. There is no slope, slippery or otherwise, in the coverage of political or public affairs. There is a slippery slope, however, in police inquiries arising from political discomfort. As the police walked away yesterday, there was an unnecessary but chilling sting in the tail. The warning to Ambrose “sends a clear message to media that the recording and distribution of conversations that are considered private is likely to lead to prosecution in the future”. But “considered” by whom?
Despite his protestations, it would not have damaged Prime Minister John Key much – had he not inflicted the damage on himself.
He could have shrugged and moved on. Even declared it the political cliche it was begging to be called – a storm in a teacup.
But instead he came over all “line in the sand” and righteous indignation.
Of course the media were an easy target and Mr Key was bound to win that battle, especially with the London tabloids in the news so recently last year.
But the slide in his approval was almost palpable on the campaign trail from the time of the stunt; a cosy cuppa with a party doomed to failure without that deal in Epsom.
In the end the teapot stunt scalded Mr Key the most.
Of more concern is the use of the prime minister’s office in the cause of “principle”, the high-handed raids on media organisations and the police putting a private citizen through the grinder.
When a senior police officer effectively declared Ambrose guilty of intent yesterday, without a trial, it turned a bitter taste into a very bad taste in the mouth.
There is no doubt Mr Key got what he wanted: a threat that lasted long enough to keep the sound on the tapes out of the public ear. Oh, and an announcement when Mr Key was well out of the country.
That happy coincidence only adds to the unpleasant flavour.
a faint stench still hangs over the whole saga. In the police reckoning, the recording was serious enough to pursue with three part-time staff executing search warrants on newsrooms during an election campaign.
But it was not serious enough that police would bother chasing down whoever it was that published what appeared to be a version of the tape online. What’s more, a simple apology letter appears to have been the key to getting the supposed law-breaker off.
The impression left by the comments of police and Key in the wake of today’s decision is that taking matters any further was just not worth it.
Then why all the fuss in the first place, especially if law-breaking has been established by police? Key got himself, via the law, in front of a mildly embarrassing recording being released during his campaign for re-election.
Labour Party leader David Shearer said Mr Key’s complaint and the subsequent investigation, which occupied three officers part-time, was “a complete waste of time”.
“Four months later, Mr Ambrose comes out with exactly the same statement as he did four months ago and it’s enough to drop the case.”
Though the letter was written eight days ago, “police decide not to pursue the charges three days after John Key goes overseas”, Mr Shearer said. “It’s all too convenient, it seems to me.”
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the timing of the police announcement suggested an improper degree of co-operation.
“It invites the question as to whether or not there is a parallel discussion wrongfully going on between the government of the day and law enforcement officers.”
Mr Peters said the cafe meeting “was a political stunt against the democratic interest of the country”.
“It came horribly unstuck; he should have the guts to say so.”