Police Investigate Media After New Zealand Premier Complaint

Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- New Zealand police are planning to search media organizations in response to Prime Minister John Key’s complaint that a private conversation was secretly taped ahead of national elections later this month.

Authorities have asked state-owned Radio New Zealand to hand over material relating to a cameraman who Key said taped the conversation unlawfully, Jon Neilson, a police spokesman, said in an interview. Police are in the process of serving search warrants on the broadcaster and three other organizations that it wouldn’t name, he said.

“What we’ve got is in the middle of an election campaign, in an open democracy, where the country’s only pure public service broadcaster is about to be raided by the police after a complaint by the prime minister,” Don Rood, head of news at Radio New Zealand, said in an interview. “That’s not good.”

The alleged crime is diverting attention from economic policies in the run-up to the Nov. 26 vote, which opinion polls suggest Key’s government will easily win. His National Party is seeking a second term and had 53 percent support in a poll of 1,000 people published today, compared with the main opposition Labour Party’s 26 percent.

Radio New Zealand has refused to provide police with any material and will seek legal advice if necessary, Rood said. The conversation was taped by a freelance cameraman who said it was recorded by accident, according to the New Zealand Herald. He gave it to the Auckland-based Herald on Sunday paper, which hasn’t disclosed details of the conversation.

Strong Support

Public support for Key, a former head of foreign-exchange trading and European bonds at Merrill Lynch & Co., has hardly waned since he was elected in 2008, even as the country recovers from earthquakes, recession and its first credit rating downgrade in 13 years. He was preferred as Prime Minister by 53 percent of voters in today’s One News Colmar Brunton poll conducted Nov. 12-16, with Labour leader Phil Goff, 58, backed by 13 percent.

“It’s a horrendous own goal,” Jon Johansson, a Wellington-based political scientist, said in a telephone interview. “A big part of the explanation for his tail wind ever since he’s been leader is the really quite generous media coverage that has accompanied him. You start breaking those relationships up and you watch how it all changes.”

Political Ally

Key complained to authorities this week that the private conversation with ACT Party candidate John Banks was unlawfully taped by a media worker, according to a police statement. The Nov. 11 incident took place during a symbolic “cup of tea” event in an Auckland coffee shop to highlight Key’s endorsement of a party that could be an ally in parliament.

Rival politicians have demanded that the contents of the tape be published. The discussion contains adverse comments about ACT leader Don Brash and the elderly supporters of the New Zealand First Party, according to the website of TV3 News. The station cited a speech by Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First which has supported governments led by both National and Labour in the past.

While media workers were invited to film the event, they were stopped from listening to Key’s discussion. Unlawfully recording a private conversation carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment in New Zealand, the police statement said. That also applies to any media worker or organization that chooses to publish the contents, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Bourke in Wellington at cbourke4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Johnson ejohnson28@bloomberg.net