Peters wants monetary damages for privacy breach

Winston Peters wants damages from politicians, public servants and journalists in his High Court legal action taken for alleged breaches in privacy.

Tim Murphy (one of the journalists): Peters seeks money from two journalists

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has told the High Court he wants to be paid monetary damages by two journalists who reported his seven-year overpayment of national superannuation.

Peters, aged 72, is also alleging in an unorthodox draft Statement of Claim filed with the High Court at Auckland that prominent Newshub political reporter Lloyd Burr is a “National Party political activist”.

I doubt that stupid claims like that will help Winston’s case. And it’s highly hypocritical given the number of journalists Peters has used over the decades to publicise his claims, allegations and conspiracy theories.

Peters not only wants the court to require Burr and myself to hand over phone records, notes and documents relating to his superannuation windfall story but to pay him “general damages” as compensation for allegedly breaching his privacy. The amounts are not specified, but Peters did pay back thousands of dollars for taking the extra super for so long. As deputy Prime Minister he earns $330,000 a year, plus he takes his (now-standardised) national superannuation payments.

He also wants money from one of the country’s top civil servants, the head of the Ministry of Social Development, Brendan Boyle.

The draft document was required by Justice Anne Hinton after Peters’ initial fishing expedition for documents — known as a pre-proceeding discovery application — was filed without the usual arguments for what he was claiming he suspected the two journalists and seven others from the previous National government had done and what his action wanted to achieve.

That action against National leader Bill English and three ministers, signed by his two lawyers and filed with the court on the day before the September 23 general election and subsequent “good faith” coalition negotiations, indicated Peters wanted to sue someone for making public his super overpayment but did not know who, or exactly for what.

He calls “unlawful” the actions of Boyle, in telling two ministers about Peters’ super overpayment. He claims Boyle “knew or was reckless if he did not know” that the two ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett “would utilise the intended plaintiff’s private MSD information for political purposes including discrediting the intended plaintiff in the forthcoming general election”.

“If”, Peters’ draft claim goes on, “the no surprises policy is lawful” then Boyle breached it in any case.

He also alleges it was reckless by Boyle to even disclose the Peters’ windfall to the State Services Commission.

It sounds like Peters is challenging public service and Parliamentary procedures through the Court. This seems very odd from a current Cabinet Minister.

Peters calls the group of National ministers and staffers, which also included Steven Joyce, English’s chief of staff Wayne Eagleson and party communications officer Clark Hennessy, by a made-up title, the National Party Re-election Committee and gives it the acronym NPRC throughout his document.

Again, in a legal document, that sounds bizarre.

He says the “leak” of the information caused him damage and he attempted to mitigate it by making a public statement “about his private MSD information being leaked”. His draft statement of claim does not say that it was Peters himself, through that statement, who made his seven-year overpayment public. No media story had appeared when he took it upon himself to go public.

On the media’s reporting of the story, Peters alleges the “NPRC” arranged to leak the fact of his overpayment “to the media by use of journalists who were part-of and/or sympathetic to the National Party campaign to be re-elected — or alternatively would be reckless as to their obligations” when they knew of the payments.

He claims in one paragraph that the “public concern of the intended plaintiff’s private MSD information does not outweigh the intended plaintiff’s right to privacy of his private MSD information.” It could be, here, that he is questioning the public’s right to know.

Peters argues the media “owed him an obligation to protect his privacy unless they had information that entitled them to assert that [his] conduct as disclosed in the private MSD information “was of public concern and could be published.”

He seeks unspecified damages, and costs, from all the “intended defendants”.

The High Court has also directed Peters to file an affidavit, which he had not done when first filing. A hearing is set for March, if the judge decides there is any basis for Peters’ seeking pre-discovery from the media or politicians.

Peters may well be justified at feeling aggrieved at his private information being leaked, but he seems to be taking some unusual and debatable measures to deal with it.

Not surprisingly most media concern is of journalists being included in the legal action.

There is a real risk of a ‘chilling effect’ on media coverage of politics.

Certainly it’s fair to hold media to account, but Peters has used media to his advantage more than just about any politician so this is highly hypocritical action from Peters.

Journalists are happy for Peters to attack his political opponents, they like headline fodder, but on RNZ Brent Edwards has just called the inclusion of journalists in the action as reprehensible, and slammed Peters for his calling Lloyd Burr a “National Party political activist”.

“To have a senior minister, who is also deputy prime minister, taking legal action against journalists is very worrying.”

“We see those sorts of attacks on journalists in the Philippines and places like that … it’s just reprehensible and there’s no place for it in New Zealand.”

Peters may struggle to get sympathetic coverage on this.