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Teapot pours out

By Steven | January 26, 2012

Someone’s put the teapot tape online. That’s the conversation between the PM and ACT candidate John Banks that cameraman Bradley Ambrose said he inadvertently recorded, during the most covered cuppa in NZ history.

The media, and even many bloggers, seem hesitant about linking to it. I’m not.

Here’s why. Put aside the question of whether it was in fact an offence for Ambrose to have recorded the investigation. The police are investigating that, and the High Court has refused to rule on it. The question is whether the media (and new media) can publish the contents. Now, it is an offence to intentionally disclose an illegally intercepted private communication – but only if you know that it has been illegally intercepted. If anyone wants to prosecute me, they’ll have to prove those two things beyond reasonable doubt.

And here’s the thing: I don’t know that it was an illegally intercepted private conversation.

What I know is that several experts (like Dean Knight and Andrew Geddis) have argued that it can’t possibly have been. The police would have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Ambrose intentionally recorded the conversation. The police would also have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the conversation was private – that is, that Banks and Key ought not to have reasonably expected it to be overheard.

It seems to me that there’s plenty of doubt about whether an offence has occurred. Ambrose says that he recorded it inadvertently. And there were 25 journalists around with powerful microphones very close by. I think that at best the case against Ambrose is arguable and on my best assessment of the law, I think it will fail.

I also think that a Bill of Rights-consistent reading of the law would allow publication by media in these circumstances, and the police’s prosecution guidelines would suggest that it’s futile to take action against anyone. I don’t think the legal risk is high for anyone in publishing or linking to the contents of the tape.

[I also note that if it’s an offence to publish or link to the contents now, it was also an offence for Winston Peters to disclose – and the media to report – the contents (and in fact, even the existence) of the recording last year. There’s been no suggestion that I’ve heard of any criminal investigation into that. What’s more, as far as the law’s concerned, there’s no difference between linking to the material and describing any of its contents. Some media seem to be pussy-footing around, telling us a bit about what the tapes say but declaring that it’s illegal to publish them directly. But they can’t have it both ways. Both are disclosing the contents – if one’s an offence, both are.]

Given that the tape is not particularly damning for the PM or Banks, and has now been widely listened to online, I wonder whether they shouldn’t just bite the bullet and consent now…

Topics: Journalism and criminal law, NZ Bill of Rights Act | 25 Comments »

25 Responses to “Teapot pours out”

  1. ursula cheer Says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Ok, I just sat down and, after listening to the tape, began to write you a breakdown of how the offence might be made out. Then I stopped. Would that be contempt?When is the trial?
    I don’t think there is plenty of doubt about the elements of the offence. But I can’t say it could be proved beyond reasonable doubt. So overall you may be right.
    The wording of the secondary offence is interesting. It requires a sort of double mens rea. The prosecution must show beyond reasonable doubt that you ‘know’ an offence was committed. Does this cover actual and imputed knowledge? But in any event, surely there can never be knowledge until after the case is prosecuted to an outcome?. Can the knowledge requirement ever be fulfilled until such time?

    Breach of confidence?


  2. Steven Says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Breach of confidence, I suppose, will depend on who posted it and how they got it. I’m not at all sure that anyone else can be liable for it.

    As for contempt, there’s no trial yet because there are no charges. There is an ongoing investigation. Charges do not seem imminent, so I don’t see how the sub judice rules apply.

    I note that in nearly 3 months of investigation the police themselves haven’t got themselves into a position where they think an offence has occurred (or else surely they’d file charges) – despite the fact that they know an awful lot about exactly what occurred. Again, it’s hard to say that bloggers like me can be said to “know” that it was illegally obtained if the police don’t seem to.

  3. Teapot Tape Leak Continued « soapbox nz Says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    […] You can read his full reasoning on this here. […]

  4. Teapot Tapes Released Says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    […] Here’s Steven Price on why it’s okay to link to. […]

  5. Rotovia Says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Prosecutors need only prove a reasonable person would have known this publication was illegal, and having read widely enough on the subject, I think they have a reasonable case you do.

  6. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 12:26 am

    It also appears the police are of the opinion that the tape wasn’t illegally recorded. Because otherwise, this police media statement is as criminal as the everyone they’re investigating.

  7. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Obvious clarification … as the media release is part of the investigation, the police are exempted. Media which run with the police release, perhaps not.

  8. Steven Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 7:26 am

    Cogent reasonging, Rotovia. What’s your authority for the interpretation you’re suggesting? You sound a little bit like you’re mixing up tort standards with criminal ones. And instead of citing your wide reading, perhaps you would care to explain why it will be so easy to prove beyond reasonable doubt that (a) Ambrose intentionally intercepted the conversation, (b) Key and Banks could not reasonably expect their conversation to be overheard, and (c) that I knew (or, on your interpretation, would reasonably have known) both (a) and (b)?

  9. State Of It on Teapot Tapes – With Selwyn Manning & Glenn Williams « LiveNews Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 9:29 am

    […] Also, see media law expert Steven Price on the legal considerations on the tea pot tapes. […]

  10. FelixGeiringer Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Ursula, I think that this sort of mens rea has been reasonably well traversed by the UK courts in relation to their charge of handling (s22 of the Theft Act 1968 (UK)) and to a lesser extent by the NZ Courts in relation to the similar NZ charge of receiving (s246 of the Crimes Act 1961). The UK charge requires knowledge or belief that the goods handled were stolen. The NZ charge requires knowledge or recklessness.

    Neither charge requires that there has been a successful prosecution for theft. In fact, the charges are frequently laid against people who the police probably believe to be the thief, but are unable to prove it. Picture somebody found with a recently stolen stereo in their garage and no explanation as to how it got there.

    That said, it would be extremely odd if there were a prosecution against a publisher in this case and not against Ambrose. I say that because here we all know the circumstances of the potential offence in unusual detail and if there has been an offence then there can be no doubt as to the perpetrator.

    Knowledge in criminal law, with very limited exception, means actual subjective knowledge and certainly cannot be read to include constructive knowledge. Rotovia, I am afraid I strongly disagree that knowledge means what a reasonable person would have known. However, the Courts have extended knowledge to include wilful blindness. That is, someone deliberately refrains from conducting any investigation because if they did investigate then they would find out something that they don’t want to know. “My friend Mike who I met in prison came at 1 am this morning wearing a balaclava and asked if he could put that brand new top of the line stereo in my garage. I didn’t ask him were it came from because, well, you don’t want to offend a mate.”

    In my view, a consideration of the extent to which the Courts have been willing to push the concept of knowledge in relation to wilful blindness is very informative for our case and shows that Steven is right.

    Steven says he does not know that this recording was made as a direct or indirect result of a contravention of section 216B. I’m willing to believe him on this even if he does look a little shifty sometimes. Could Steven nevertheless be said to lack knowledge only through wilful blindness?

    Far from deliberately refraining from conducting any investigation, Steven has, it is apparent from his blog, been following this case with some interest and in great detail. In fact, is there any sort of an investigation that Steven could conduct that would give him the knowledge? Perhaps he could go before NZ’s Chief High Court Judge, he could show Her Honour a number of lengthy video tapes showing the scene as the recording was made and he could apply to Her Honour for a ruling on whether there had been a breach of s216B. Or maybe not.

    The NZ Police have been investigating this matter for over two months. They have access to considerably more resources than the average person might be expected to have and powers to compel the handing over of evidence, which they have exercised. Despite this, the Police appear not to have been able to determine that a crime under s216B was committed. If Steven is being wilfully blind then the Police must be being wilfully something else.

    Obviously, this sort of reasoning can only take one so far. Perhaps the next scandal will involve a interceptor who claims to have inadvertently broken into a politician’s house and accidentally slipped and dropped a bugging device disguised as a tulip in a vase on the kitchen table. Anyone who published because they claim that they believed the interceptor and therefore didn’t know that the recording was made as a result of a breach of 216B will be in trouble. Why? Because the judge who hears the case simply will not believe that the publisher believed the story of the interceptor. We are obviously far away from that scenario in this case.

  11. Chris LaHatte Says:
    January 30th, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    The most interesting thing that can be said about this recording is the banality of the discussion. This is a shallow exchange between people who are carefully avoiding any exchange of real opinion and thought, but I was always taught it was rude to listen to other peoples conversations and letters, thus demonstrating my own hypocrisy on the topic. I only managed to listen to half before boredom set in, perhaps also showing my own superficiality.

  12. Tony Wallace Says:
    February 15th, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Hi everyone. I am working on a wikipedia article with respect to tea tapes. This can be viewed at: There has been some debate at to whether this website can be taken as an “authoritative source” with links to it removed by some editors. At the moment this web page is linked in.

    One issue is the informal way the opinions of Dean Knight and Andrew Geddis have been cited. Were these opinions published in any way that could be formally cited?

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